HOW TO WALK AN OLD DOG
Give up on your agenda – this
is exploration, not exercise.
She can’t hear you calling her on,
but then, you can’t smell whatever
is so intriguing about that clump of grass,
so maybe just relax. Stop counting steps.
Don’t even count birds, or minutes
or the things you have left to do
on your pressing and eternal list.
Move gently into the immeasurable.
Stop to greet children. Consider
that the most fascinating thing in the world
could be your neighbor’s garbage can.
Observe without judgement
what is near to hand – even if what you see
is the halt in her step, the way
her spine has begun to show. Walk
just long enough to remember
that love is not an antidote to death,
but loss is not the opposite of life.
– Lynn Ungar, May 2, 2023 –
Over the past year at least, I’ve been saying that walking Annie is no longer exercise. It’s fresh air, the gift of being outside noticing life around us. That I may walk 10,000 steps, but certainly not aerobically. And I’ve long known for a dog, walking is “scent shopping,” so I best be prepared for meandering. But in the last two weeks, the gift of this oh-so-perfectly-timed poem, could not be more true.
Some of you might know that two weeks ago yesterday – after our morning walk, treats in the kitchen, sleeping…errrr…supervising our work in the office, and then going outside to her kennel when the house cleaners arrived – Annie suddenly was not ok. Disoriented, barely able to walk let alone stand upright, shallow breathing, drooling, incontinent – the ER vet clinic gave us a diagnosis of THC poisoning, an increasingly common incident given our carelessness with roaches and edibles. We were given a prognosis, took her in to see our vet the following morning, who confirmed the diagnosis, but by Sunday her condition was not improving. No appetite nor eating, so we bought electrolytes for her water (on the suggestion from a Facebook friend who saw my posting). Her walk had not improved, in fact we were seeing more weakening. But of most concern was seeing her paw at her right eye, and when I did the reflex test I’d seen the vets do, she didn’t blink, leading us to believe she’d suffered vision loss. A return visit to the vet on Monday morning confirmed my first, and our worst suspicions: she’d most likely had a stroke. “She’ll not live to 17,” the vet said, referring to Annie’s predecessor, Peggy, who died late into her 17th year. And with further examination, and seeing Annie’s lethargy, I wondered if she’d last the week.
After deliberation, we decided to pass on the neuro consult, not wanting to add further distress to Annie with the battery of tests required pre exam. We know she is happiest with us, and so we’d keep her home, tend to her best we could, hope for the best, and pray for a miracle.
This is my “Lazarus” story, because with every passing day, Annie has returned to herself, engaging in all the patterns and endearing ways she is who she is, with us. Looking eagerly for me to get her leash to walk, barking at the neighbors (fulfilling her job as guard dog), finally eating regularly with creative concoctions of smelly canned fish to pique her interest, remembering to remind us to fetch her favourite dessert of dentistix, and following me down into the office where she takes her place on her supervisor’s cushion. The big right front paw she would persistently, heavily place on my keyboard at noon to signal lunch and a walk…the one I would curse for interrupting my work…that has been slow to return being the side that became weakened. But tonight, she placed it on me as I napped, reminding me of dinner time. It comes. I pray it comes in the office, on my keyboard, and I will kiss and welcome it back.
Annie is a bird dog with smelling her particular stock in trade. We think her loss of vision and diminished sense of smell have been the most disorienting for her, with her hearing less for the past couple of years. Sleeping more than usual with the trauma of it all, and the neurological stress has been exhausting. At yesterday’s chiropractic session, we learned that dogs have the ability to reroute blood to injured areas of the brain. We’re hopeful that as we see her eating, and sniffing with more precision and focus outside and during our walks, coming into the kitchen while we cook and eat dinner, her scenting is returning. We pray, too, that her eyesight might improve as pressure comes off the optic nerve, because the eye itself is in good health.
In the last week, I’ve read of several friends having to say goodbye to their beloved fur companions. Each time I feel my heart squeeze. With Annie being our sixth dog, this is a heartbreak I know too well, yet wouldn’t trade for the joy each brings, the love I feel, that grows with each one, in return. Lynn Ungar writes it one way. Mary Oliver in her volume Dog Songs, writes it another: “We would do anything to keep them with us and to keep them young”.
At thirteen years, walking slower, needing my help to be lifted onto the bed, and now ensuring she makes it up and down the stairs safely, with this health crisis, I know Annie isn’t young, and that I can’t keep her forever. I am simply so thankful to have her with us now, for as long as now is.
Much love and kindest regards, dear friends. And deep gratitude to you who replied to my posting on Facebook. Your love, thoughts and prayers have helped immeasurably.
 “Dog Talk” in Dog Songs, 2013, 115.