The Final Chapter

Man walking his dogs in nature
The Final Chapter
The fourth stage of dog ownership: how to love your senior dog through the inevitable heartbreak of losing them

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If you’ve managed to dodge all the pitfalls of young canine health conditions and are lucky enough to experience the golden years with your dog, you understand the complexity of them.

You’ve gotten past the chaos of puppyhood and suffered the absolute turmoil of the teenage pushback phase. You’ve soaked up the companionship that middle-age offered. And now you’re in the last quarter of your dog’s life—more in love than you’ve ever been and trying so hard not to focus on the fact that this last phase of life is… well, the last phase.

 

The Four Chapters
of a Dog’s Life:

Chapter 1 – Puppyhood chaos

Chapter 2 – Rebellious, teenaged pushback

Chapter 3 – Sweet middle-aged companionship

Chapter 4 – Quiet, understated senior joy

 

You’ve transitioned from extensive hikes and epic adventures to quick visits to their favourite spots on sunny afternoons following massage therapy and vet appointments. The once so easy feeding schedule of dropping food in front of them twice a day has turned into a well-timed science experiment filled with pills and potions, powders and drops. Highly structured walks all over the city have been replaced by long, leisurely turns around the block, mostly spent sniffing and enjoying watching the much younger, much faster dogs over-take you.

As young dog owners pass you with bouncy puppies, armed with training treats and going to monumental lengths to convince them into sit-stays at crosswalks, the duality of the situation can easily overwhelm you.

Sonia with her dogs, Ice and Montana
Sonia, Ice and Montana

Looking into the greyed face of your best friend as they struggle to sit on arthritic hips, you’d never trade the years, not for anything, but it’s hard to not wish them back—or at least want another 12 to 15 years more.

But something happens with the acceptance of this, the fourth stage of dog ownership. When you finally understand that it’s not a system that can be cheated, you realize that you wouldn’t, even if you could. When you accept their lives’ trajectory, the moments stop seeming so short in supply and stretch into something beautiful and unexpected.

You start to embrace the final phase, finding ways to prolong their joy. You get ramps to help them in and out of the car to make trips to their favourite spots. Or even strollers or wagons to run them around at dizzying speed so they can feel the wind in their face. You put cushy dog beds on every floor of your house and take them to anyone—chiropractor, acupuncturist, swim therapy facility—that promises even a little bit more mobility, more time.

"Inevitably, we need the series of lessons their lives offer more than once—or maybe told by a different dog in a different way through the continued and age-old story of love lost and love found."

And as much as you try to modify things to keep their dog magic alive, they use every ounce of their being to play along when they can, showing us a different kind of contentedness when their soul outlasts their weary bodies for the day.

Clouded eyes still light up when you pick up the ball, even if it’s only thrown once or twice in a gentle lob instead of pitched to kingdom come. Tails wag when they see you mouth the “t-word,” having long lost the ability to hear it. And weary groans of satisfaction from simple pleasures like leg massages and ear rubs let you know that despite the many challenges you’re facing together, everything will be ok.

And there are lessons there, more subtle than the in-your-face ones of the puppyhood era but arguably more important. Because just like they did at every other stage of their lives, your dog is still trying to teach you about life, about yourself.

Whereas the earlier stages are filled with a sense of wonder, connecting you back to a childhood joy long since forgotten, the fourth stage of a dog’s life is more about a quiet, understated type of joy. Of sitting in a puddle of sunshine that pours through an open window, of slowing down and embracing the simplicity of long naps and slow walks. The polarity of the experiences—puppy versus senior—is a masterfully crafted lesson that sometimes life is meant to move fast, that we’re meant to run and explore, work hard and create, and sometimes we’re meant to slow down and find joy in the stillness. That there’s room for both and that the seasons of our lives are meant to compliment each other, not detract.

Dustin with his two dogs, Ice and Montana
Dustin, Ice and Montana

It’s the reason their lives are eclipsed by ours, why four, five or even six of their lifespans fit into ours. Because inevitably we need the series of lessons their lives offer more than once—or maybe told by a different dog in a different way through the continued and age-old story of love lost and love found.

It’s the ultimate sacrifice, one we should honour with the spirit with which it is offered up, the only spirit dogs know how to emit: that of finding joy in every single millisecond of life—slow or fast. And by embodying the constant and unchanging example they set for us: that inevitably the world whips and wails around us, seasons change, but still we love.

So don’t give in to the sorrow, not yet. Slow down, match their pace and embrace this final stage. Don’t rush it. Take its lessons, its joy, and wrap yourself in them; there’s still so much to learn. Because when you do get to the final lesson, where they teach you against all odds to persevere, you’ll be glad you did.

 

This article originally appeared in the award-winning Modern Dog magazine. Subscribe today!

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