In most scenarios it’s better to be the one with more information, but in the case of being the human to an aging pet I don’t think that holds true. My boy Jackson Brown, a Rhodesian Ridgeback and Labrador mutt, is 11 by best guess. The shelter I adopted him from thought he was around 2 years old back in November of 2006, full grown but just exiting that puppy stage. He grew into a handsome older fellow with a shadow of a grey beard. Jack is the kind of dog people on the street stop to pet and compliment, or at the very least give him a big smile as they walk by. He has a spring in his step and a sparkle in his eye. He’s a happy boy.
This wasn’t always the case. He was a stray picked up on the mean streets of Pasadena, CA, as they say. Actually no one says that. Pasadena is an upscale community, but in my mind’s eye Jack was the bad boy of the streets as long as he roamed them, which was probably about 15 minutes. As a result of his origins, I have no idea his history. I don’t know if he ran away or was abandoned. What I do know is that when I adopted him he refused to make eye contact and to this day is afraid of everything behind him, but he was potty trained, he could sit and lie down on command and he never chewed or destroyed a single item I owned. Jack immediately took to my couch, which remains his bed of choice. This leads me to believe that he had been a member of another family, which seems surreal to me. Who cared for him before I even knew he existed? After he reached the shelter he was adopted once but returned. This is another fact I find unfathomable. I’ve concocted a story in my head that he had been adopted by a family that wanted a dog who would be happy roaming a fenced in yard with no walks or play time, and that the first time he bounded toward the food-covered face of a child to lick he was promptly returned to the shelter. Regardless, he ended up with me and whatever road led him to that destination is just fine in my book.
Jackson has always been an old soul. He rarely barks, preferring to observe, and views most of the world with skepticism. Although he had many dog friends during his early days in California, he was always guarded when a new canine came sniffing around. He has become even more of a curmudgeon as he aged, but has adapted to the pace and aloofness of New York City very well. He avoids other dogs at all costs, and has been trained to get a treat to comfort him when he passes these canines who dare walk on the same path. He’s an introvert, as was assessed by his trainers in dog boot camp, and more than anything he just wants to be left alone. There have been many comparisons of his personality to Woody Allen over the years. Maybe when I’m approaching 80 in human years I’ll feel the same way.
There are so many stories I could tell about his younger days, but this is a story about aging. Jack has been remarkably healthy throughout his life. Routine vaccines and check-ups have gone off without a hitch. When he hit 10 I would brag about how good he looked and how much energy remained. But then something changed about 6 months ago. Suddenly his eyes were drooping all the time instead of only when he was tired. He wasn’t devouring his food the way he had in the past. His grey beard had spread farther across his face and mysterious lumps were appearing. Then he stopped eating most of his food, and when he did eat he was often choking. I took him to the vet and all of his tests came back normal. The vet suspects that it’s a neurological problem. The next step requires an MRI that costs in the neighborhood of a monthly rent payment, and if something is found then I imagine the surgery may be the price of a motorcycle.
As a human I know that 11 years is a pretty advanced age for an 80 pound dog. The problem is that Jack doesn’t know that. We still walk 3 to 4 miles every morning in Central Park, with great eagerness at first, but I see how the last mile or so gets slower and slower as the days go on. I feel his ribs when I pet him. He’s not enthusiastic about his meals. I watch his fatigue set in once dinner time is over, and his willingness to stay in bed as long as possible in the mornings. His lower energy level makes him an exceptionally easy dog to care for, but it also reminds me of the inevitable decline to come. The only thing I can do is smother him with affection and give him the treats that make him happy.
Jack has brought a tremendous amount of joy into my life since the day he came home with me in November 2006. I hope and believe he realizes that. Now I want him to enjoy the days that remain. Sometimes I wish I could explain to him why he’s not feeling like his younger self, but I happily keep him in the dark. The dark with a soft bed, a pillow under his chin, endless treats, and the hopes of one day catching that elusive squirrel in Central Park.
Also published on Medium: