Dawson and I are in a race of sorts. We’re both chugging along at a respectable pace, but now we see the end in sight. I’m heading for my sixty-seventh lap around the sun, while Dawson, my Sheltie (aka, Shetland Sheepdog), is face-to-face with his thirteenth year. Allowing for modern sensibilities, like sixty plus is the new whatever, we may not be considered classically ‘old.’ But given the distance each of us has covered up till now, I think we’ve earned the right to say we are standing at the threshold of our golden years.
There’s hardly a walk around the neighborhood where the “D-dog” doesn’t garner at least one compliment, usually preceded by a “Hey, Lassie” greeting. (I’ve long given up correcting people that Lassie was a rough coat collie, while Dawson is at best a genetically related kissing cousin to that breed). Most everyone is surprised when I answer he’s just shy of a baker’s dozen. Sure, his muzzle, and the area around his eyes, has gone to white. But if you catch him right after a trip from the groomer, you’d swear he’s no more than a year or two.
Time has taken its toll on my little guy, and the attrition of his general wellness slips away with regularity. As of now, his hearing is shot, not totally deaf, but a pair of hearing aids wouldn’t hurt. When I reenter a room through a different door than I’ve exited, it’s pretty easy to walk up behind him. When he finally realizes I’m there he looks slightly befuddled but makes no big deal of it, so I don’t either. The good news is, when I call out “dinner’s ready,” he’s all ears.
His vision is questionable, too. Both his eyes now pool with a milky blue cloud I’ve only noticed recently. I can tell by the way he cants his head that he’s using his peripheral vision to climbs stairs or get his bearings before jumping up on the porch swing. Sporadically, there are days when he balks at entering the kitchen and when he does, he huddles on the rug nearest the sink as if it were a refuge. I’ve come to understand that even in familiar surroundings, he can’t decipher hard-edged shadows, mistaking them for drop offs, or at the very least, unsure footing. But the episodes come and go without rhyme or reason. Turning off the room lights — reducing the contrasts of light and dark — helps some, but for now we’ve simply moved his food and water dish to another room to lessen his angst.
He also has a limp he can’t seem to shake. It stemmed from a hard turn he made while playing in the grass many years back. We’ve had him checked out — there is no clinical damage, but he does move with more effort late in the evening. Pretty much like an old dog, which he is. When it’s at its worst, we try to limit his jumping down from the couch or porch swing, but you can only police his antics for so long before he sneaks one in.
In spite of his age, he is still quite the looker. The story goes that he was sent down from Seattle to a professional dog handler as payment in kind for services rendered. Fortunately for us, our ‘little’ fellow was projected to top out above the maximum shoulder height for show dogs and was of little use to the handler looking to train his next champion. In short, too tall for a blue ribbon, but still a winner in our eyes.
For most of my childhood, there was always a dog in my life. Growing up we amassed a continuous line of dogs: Clancy, Hexie, Jocko, Blitz, and Fritz. Two were mutts, and as evident by their ‘Germanic’ names, three were Dachshunds. Only years later have I come to the sobering realization what a pain in the ass little weiner dogs are to be around. My advice on the breed? Love’em if you have them, but there are better choices out there.
Through my twenties, I put the whole dog thing on hold until my first wife and I decided to approach dog ownership logically. Logically, that is, until she got to the letter ‘C’ for ‘Collie.’ Despite a full embrace of our decision being dictated by the heart, not the mind, everything turned out for the best. Unfortunately in those years, our separation and divorce figured prominently, but Chelsea, our collie, was the perfect choice for two growing boys. Although Chelsea’s time with us was short (she died at age seven) I can’t help but believe she made those difficult years more bearable for all of us.
After that, I was pretty adamant about never having another dog. It was an easy and prudent decision at the time. I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment for over eleven years with a no dog policy, and helping to raise my sons without the drag of additional responsibilities was essential. Eventually, my life took a turn for the better (extraordinarily better) and I fell in love with an amazing woman and we married some years later. From there, it took my wife, Jan, the better part of three years to convince me that we should get a dog.
The question of accepting another pet into my life was a commitment that I was not keen to shoulder again. But Jan kept working on me, until eventually we began our due diligence in what ‘kind’ of dog we wanted and began the search. Owning Chelsea convinced me of the attributes of her breed and made the decision a no brainer. But we lived in a small house, with an even smaller backyard — an environment that wouldn’t work with a large dog. We began reading up on Shelties, and the more we learned about the breed the more attractive they became. We determined that a large male would be perfect for us; they didn’t tend to be as manic as the smaller Shelties, and males bond better with a family than female Shelties, who can be standoffish. Surprisingly, finding a likely candidate took far longer than either of us anticipated. But eventually, after a couple of months of visiting a number of breeders, “Dawson” came home with us.
It’s been an interesting process writing this piece. I’ve had to revisit details and quantify emotions that I haven’t thought about in years. The most surprising discovery I found is that the relationship I’ve had with Dawson has changed drastically over the years. I would describe the first six years of his living with us as your typical family dog affair. And that’s the level we might have stayed at if not for outside forces coming in and rocking our little world.
Let me just say that my plan to quit my job in 2011, relocate to Washington State, and once there, reestablish full employment, never materialized. Hell, there wasn’t even a glimmer of a possibility. As a result, I was spending much of my time home, and a great deal more with Dawson. Unfortunately for my wife, he has really glommed onto me and barely gives her the time of day anymore. Ironic, given who initially wanted a dog.
There are a few behavior traits I’ve gleaned by my close observation of Dawson throughout the years. First of all, he is fanatical about routine. Yes, most of it revolves around food. I won’t go through the entire litany of gastronomic events he expects every day—it’s downright embarrassing. He is nearly pathologically aware of time, and accurate almost to the minute. He’ll be fast asleep in the late morning, then suddenly jump up, shake himself off, and head to the kitchen. Nine times out of ten the hands of the clock are pointing straight up to noon. That should mark my lunchtime, but there’s always the off chance he might score a taste or two. His dinner is at 4:30, and definitely not 4:31. The first days of transitioning from daylight savings are a killer, with his breakfast belly registering a full hour earlier than the clock.
Make the mistake of repeating some action two days in a row and it is forever carved in stone in Dawson’s mind. My wife thinks I’m nuts in the way I capitulate to his ‘demands,’ and she’s probably right. But if it’s little bother to me, where’s the harm? But best not ask the same question when I’m freezing my ass off on the front porch swing on a winter morning. Next to me you’ll find Dawson manning his post, keeping an eye on the coming and goings in our little neighborhood. You know, it’s part of his hallowed routine.
Here’s yet another little factoid — the nose knows. With a reduction of hearing and sight, his reliance on capturing scent has only grown. I’ve long given up saying we’re going for a walk. We actually go on a smell. We toddle along, spot-to-spot, inching our way though the neighborhood. I feel this is his time and he can do with it as he wishes — it certainly isn’t an exercise in . . . well, exercise. There are times he’ll fixate on a spot of grass for minutes on end before moving on, which leaves you wondering what current events you’re really missing. Eventually, we make our way to the front lawn of the local museum where he’ll plop down in the shade just to watch the traffic. I’m certain that everyone who drives by wonders who’s the jerk fixated on his phone while his poor dog patiently waits for him to finish.
I’ve also learned he uses that nose to point where he wants to go. It’s barely perceptible — almost a physical inflection—but it’s there. God help me, but there have been times when I’m arguing with this dog as he stubbornly head nods in one direction and I’m saying out loud that’s not going to work for me. Other than one day at a time, how did I ever end up like this?
In sharing a life with him I’ve learned his needs are simple — food, water, and attentive love. He is a divine creature, pure in spirit, devoid of malice toward anyone, or anything. There are trade-offs, of course, but Dawson has granted blessings to me that I never imagined possible. He has taught me that simply living in the moment can be a welcomed respite from a modern mind. It’s almost impossible to do, even for a little while, silencing all the voices that clamor within you throughout the day. But it comes naturally to him, and to a degree greater than any human I know can master, and he doesn’t have to sit in a hot yoga room to tap into it.
I’ve tried to come up with a descriptor of what our relationship really is. That we are more than friends, I am confident. Maybe we are brothers in a universal sense — somehow that’s fitting. I will miss him dearly at his passing. And if I happen to stumble through that ultimate door before him, I wish him well and Godspeed.