How I’m Handling the Old Age of My Sweet, Loving Dog


Dogs have always filled my heart with comfort, contentment, admiration, and gratitude. But confronting the pain of impending loss can cast a pretty stark shadow over all of those sweet, shining moments and memories. I’ll admit that sometimes, I find myself wondering if the time we’ve spent forging such a loyal relationship was worth it — especially in dog years.

These looming eventualities are especially tough to consider when I think back to the day I first met my Shih-Tzu mix, Grant. I’d been searching adoption sites under “Cockapoo,” wanting a younger canine companion for my elderly Bichon, Sparky. I’m still convinced it was a fluke that Grant’s profile showed up at all. I can still picture his adorably ornery mutt mugshot: tufty salt-and-pepper fur, floppy ragged ears, that defiant stare straight into the camera.

At the time, what mainly defined Grant was his background in a highly abusive environment. Someone had typed the caption “possibly Poodle” underneath his profile photo, which is probably why the search engines picked it up. To this day, when I look at Grant’s sweetly rumpled face and permanent bed-head, I’ll concede that he’s many interesting things — but Poodle probably isn’t one of them.

My sweet Grant. (Photo by Marybeth Bittel)

I remember bookmarking his profile page. Then, weeks later and completely on a whim, I stopped by an adoption event at my local big-box pet supply store. As I stood near the entrance, my eyes still adjusting to the indoor fluorescent lights, a scruffy black-and-white blur came bounding across the room like a big fuzzy bullet, barreling straight into my arms. I held him up, and we regarded one another for a moment. The adoption volunteer said, “Somebody sure likes you,” and I replied, “Oh my gosh, I know this dog.”

I’ve been living with this spirited bundle of fluff for more than a decade now, and I’ve begun to see those telltale signs of advancing, unavoidable age. Grant’s feisty chocolate-brown eyes now carry the faint, cloudy film of lenticular sclerosis. This makes him sensitive to light, so he’s started to nap with his head burrowed behind a blanket or throw pillow.

Stairs have become a hit-or-miss undertaking. Many days, Grant still bounces up two at a time without a second thought. But every once and awhile, I look behind me and he’s taking them slow and steady, favoring those endearingly crooked, short and stubby legs. Sometimes, I wake up at night to find Grant staring intently into the corner of a room, head angled expectantly.  He’s also having more accidents in the house; and he sleeps a lot more, waking with gradual reluctance like a gruff little old man. As he dreams, though, he always yips and yowls and prances like he did when he was a pup.

Hiding from the light. (Photo by Marybeth Bittel)

To me, family dogs have always ranked in the same league as other family members. I mean, sure, they eat whatever’s on the floor. And I realize they tend to chew upholstery; and stalk unsuspecting chipmunks through the patio screen; and greet visitors in semi-embarrassing ways. But they also demonstrate a constant and absolutely captivating knack for living in the moment. I feel from Grant a sustained level of unquestioning, unconditional love and trust that many humans couldn’t even begin to approach.

My canines are my furkids. And yet, from the moment of our very first meeting, I understand that we’ll be saying goodbye in a comparative handful of years. Some days, I wonder how I manage to do it. Occasionally, I even wonder why. But when I look into Grant’s upturned face, his allegiance feels more pure and true than nearly anything I’ve encountered on this earth. He still scurries to the front door with his favorite bone in his mouth. He still wrestles my giant $40 throw pillows when he gets overexcited. He still rests his head on my knee when I’m reading. Time has managed to add and subtract; but Grant’s essence is indivisible.

Grant and I take a walk. (Photo by Marybeth Bittel)

So how do I help myself cope with the impending loss of such a bond? It’s not an easy answer. I believe in soulmates — and I don’t believe they necessarily need to be human. But here are some things I keep telling myself, as the daylight shadows gradually lengthen toward dusk:

  • He trusts you absolutely. Try to practice that same degree of trust with whatever comes next.
  • He doesn’t think about tomorrow. So appreciate where you are this minute, and make a point of remembering always.
  • He romps through fields and rolls in the grass on warm, sunny days. Sit down, call him over, watch him run to you with unrestrained joy, and tell him what a good boy he is.
  • Understand that part of your soul has been awakened by nurturing this dog. Explore ways you can use this to help make the world a better place.
  • Give him that extra treat once in awhile.
  • If the final decision should fall to you, hold him with courage and care and absolute gratitude.
  • Remember all the faces — both human and canine — who need this kind of love.

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