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“Old Dogs” is one for the ages

I’ve only seen an excerpt, printed in the Washington Post last weekend — and about to be liberally excerpted here — but Gene Weingarten’s new book, Old Dogs Are the Best Dogs, looks like one I want to carry with me into old age.

Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and humor columnist for the Post, teamed up with photographer Michael Williamson to profile 63 old dogs, all between the ages of 10 and 17 when they were photographed.

One of those profiled is Weingarten’s dog, Harry.

“He was nearly 13, old for a big dog. Walks were no longer the slap-happy Iditarods of his youth, frenzies of purposeless pulling in which we would cast madly off in all directions, fighting for command. Nor were they the exuberant archaeological expeditions of his middle years, when every other tree or hydrant or blade of grass held tantalizing secrets about his neighbors. In his old age, Harry had transformed his walk into a simple process of elimination — a dutiful, utilitarian, head-down trudge.

Weingarten begins the piece with a description of old Harry wistfully watching a younger dog play Frisbee in the park and goes on to share some valuable insights — both about aging mutts and their humans.

“Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, odd of habit, hard of hearing, pimply, wheezy, lazy and lumpy. But to anyone who has ever known an old dog, these flaws are of little consequence. Old dogs are vulnerable. They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. They are without artifice. They are funny in new and unexpected ways. But, above all, they seem at peace…”

Weingarten writes that his dog became “old” at the age of 9.

“I believe I know exactly when Harry became an old dog. He was about 9 years old. It happened at 10:15 on the evening of June 21, 2001, the day my family moved from the suburbs to the city. The move took longer than we’d anticipated. Inexcusably, Harry had been left alone in the vacated house — eerie, echoing, empty of furniture and of all belongings except Harry and his bed– for eight hours. When I arrived to pick him up, he was beyond frantic.

“He met me at the door and embraced me around the waist … He wasn’t barking at me in reprimand, as he once might have done. He hadn’t fouled the house in spite. That night, Harry was simply scared and vulnerable, impossibly sweet and needy and grateful. He had lost something of himself, but he had gained something more touching and more valuable. He had entered old age.

Quoting Kafka — “the meaning of life is that it ends” — Weingarten goes on to talk about mortality, and what dogs might teach us about it.

” …Our lives are shaped and shaded by the existential terror of knowing that all is finite. This anxiety informs poetry, literature, the monuments we build, the wars we wage, the ways we love and hate and procreate — all of it. Kafka was talking, of course, about people. Among animals, only humans are said to be self-aware enough to comprehend the passage of time and the grim truth of mortality. How then, to explain old Harry at the edge of that park, gray and lame, just days from the end, experiencing what can only be called wistfulness and nostalgia? I have lived with eight dogs, watched six of them grow old and infirm with grace and dignity, and die with what seemed to be acceptance. I have seen old dogs grieve at the loss of their friends. I have come to believe that as they age, dogs comprehend the passage of time, and, if not the inevitability of death, certainly the relentlessness of the onset of their frailties. They understand that what’s gone is gone.”

At the risk of getting sued for over-excerpting, here’s the conclusion he reaches:

“Some people who seem unmoved by the deaths of tens of thousands through war or natural disaster will nonetheless summon outrage over the mistreatment of animals, and they will grieve inconsolably over the loss of the family dog. People who find this behavior distasteful are often the ones without pets. It is hard to understand, in the abstract, the degree to which a companion animal, particularly after a long life, becomes a part of you. I believe I’ve figured out what this is all about. It is not as noble as I’d like it to be, but it is not anything of which to be ashamed, either.

“In our dogs, we see ourselves. Dogs exhibit almost all of our emotions; if you think a dog cannot register envy or pity or pride or melancholia, you have never lived with one for any length of time. What dogs lack is our ability to dissimulate. They wear their emotions nakedly, and so, in watching them, we see ourselves as we would be if we were stripped of posture and pretense. Their innocence is enormously appealing. When we watch a dog progress from puppyhood to old age, we are watching our own lives in microcosm. Our dogs become old, frail, crotchety and vulnerable, just as Grandma did, just as we surely will, come the day. When we grieve for them, we grieve for ourselves.”

Weingarten said in his Post blog last week that, in the introduction to the book — it’s just released, by Simon & Schuster, and should showing up in bookstores about now — he anticipated lots of questions from readers wanting to know how many of the featured dogs are still alive.

“Our answer will be: ‘All of them.'”

(Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster)


Comment from bluhawkk
Time October 12, 2008 at 11:34 am

At the “Old Dogs Are the Best Dogs” link, click ‘Snapshots’ to read the stories lovingly compose by owners.
If these don’t have you laughing and crying, then you are made of stone.

Comment from Anne-n-Spencer
Time October 12, 2008 at 6:05 pm

I have to put in a word to people who are reading this and considering adopting a dog: Please give some thought to giving a home to an older dog in need of adoption! We all love puppies, and I have to say that I do, too. They’re so cute, and they have that puppy smell, and who doesn’t love puppy kisses? And we want to have our new friends with us for a long, long time, right?

Older dogs have their own satisfactions which they share willingly. If they don’t care to toss the Frisbee around, they still like to go for long, long walks. If they’re not demonstratively affectionate, the affection is still there–quiet, warm, and enduring. They will cherish your friendship and reward it with a loyalty that’s been tested.

We adopted Spencer-the-Beagle when he was about seven–nobody knows for sure–and he’s about ten now. His muzzle has begun to turn snow white, and we know he won’t be with us forever, even though Beagles are a long-lived breed. I have to say it’s forced us into a dog’s way of thinking. We live with him in the here and now–his here and now–and we’re all happy together. Though reserved around strangers, he’s as playful as a small puppy when it’s just the three of us. Life has somehow taught him to be gentle with frail elderly people like my mom and with small youngsters who aren’t quite sure about dogs like the little boy from two doors down. He’s obviously decided to age gracefully, and he enjoys the perks that come to mature dogs–like being respected by the younger dogs in the neighborhood, no matter what their size. We’re going to enjoy life with him for as long as he’s here.

Dogs like Spencer are often considered un-adoptable, passed over in favor of the younger dogs. But they have a lot to give. If you’re thinking it’s time to adopt, think about the many pleasures and rewards of an older dog.

Comment from Mary Schmidt
Time October 14, 2008 at 8:22 pm

Anne (and Spencer), You are so right to advocate for the adoption of older dogs. Sounds like Spencer has a sweet life.

Since most people work away from the home nine or ten hours a day, it’s nearly impossible to care for a puppy properly. An older dog doesn’t need to be fed as frequently and will often sleep while an owner is gone instead of chewing and pooping.

(Amie is lucky enough to spend her days with her human grandparents so she can accompany my dad on his morning walk and take naps with my mom. She could and did stay home alone safely when I got her, but I think she prefers the current arrangement.)

Amie is my second “second-hand” dog, and I still don’t know how to house-train a dog since both of my dogs came knowing not to soil the inside of my house. There are NO house-trained puppies.

I have an 80-year-old uncle who lives on his own in another city and has always loved dogs, so much so that he thinks he shouldn’t get a dog in case something happens to him. I wish I could talk him into adopting an older shelter dog who’d take short walks with him and snore along with him through bad cable programming.