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  • Jan Flynn

Molly on Mortality

Dogs understand things we don’t

Molly with a borrowed bone; photo by author

If Molly were human, she would be 90

Roughly speaking, that is. There’s the old formula in which one year in a dog’s life equals seven in a human’s, but that’s been replaced by more nuanced metrics. Now you can find charts that list the ages of dogs relative to humans that depend on breed, size, and so on.

Molly is slightly over 50 pounds and is from sturdy hunting stock. She’s a Pudelpointer, which means she is not a poodle-pointer cross but carries a pedigree from an established breed known for their talent as bird dogs.

Not that Molly has anything against crossbreeds. But at two months shy of her 15th birthday, she will have it known that she is nobody’s doodle. True, she looks like a Wookie, but that doesn’t mean she is without dignity.

She is, inarguably, an old dog

The American Kennel Club website lists the top age for Pudelpointers as 14, which means Molly has already outsmarted the AKC. Her breeder, with whom we stay in touch, says that he knew one Pudelpointer who made it to age 16, but he was an outlier, a doggie Methuselah.

The reality is that Molly is not, in actuarial terms, long for this world. This fact bothers Molly not at all. My husband and I are the ones who have trouble with it.

Two years ago, our veterinarian at the time gave Molly her regular health check. An old-school vet who had a farmer’s sense of practicality, he remarked, “You’ll get another year, maybe year and a half, out of her.”

We really didn’t want to hear that

Molly came into our lives not as a puppy, but as a five-year-old adult who had fallen into a bad situation — through no fault of her own — and had been rescued from it by her breeder. We became her lucky adopters, and she’s been our constant companion for nearly ten years since. For us, it’s not long enough.

She’s moved house with us twice, traveled with us, hiked with us, entertained visitors with us, and watched the seasons change with us. Whenever we have returned home, whether we’ve been on a trip overseas or to Home Depot, she’s been there to welcome us with a deep-chested grumble of joy and a carefully chosen greeting object in her mouth — her stuffed bunny, or her bear, or a thoroughly chewed bone.

She watches TV with us at night. She goes to bed when we do, wrapped in her blankie and nestled on her Therafoam pad in a snug corner of our bedroom. She wakes with my husband and is always on hand to assist him in his morning calisthenics.

The two of them have probably clocked thousands of miles in their twice-daily walks.

Molly is a natural diplomat

Our nest has long been empty of kids, but having a friendly dog means having a built-in social connection. With a neighborhood full of other pooches and a meadow that serves as a de facto dog park at the end of our block, Molly’s constitutionals provide organic opportunities for casual and genial interactions with other people and their dogs.

She’s gentle and polite with other pooches, indulgent with children, and adoring of adults — really, our only complaint about Molly is that she’d happily go home with anybody — which means that a lot of the locals know her name long before they learn ours, if indeed they ever do.

Everybody’s surprised at her age

“I’d have thought she was much younger,” is a typical response when one of Molly’s admirers wants to know how old she is. “She’s in great shape!” they almost always say.

This is the kind of thing we do like to hear. It supports our happy delusion that Molly will continue to be one of the underpinnings of our shared existence — one we love, but also one we take for granted. Molly, rain or shine, summer or winter, is always there.

This week, we had to face reality

In the summer heat, we’ve cut Molly’s walks to a brief, shady circuit of the ‘hood in the morning and just a trip to the corner in the evening. She’s long past chasing squirrels or flushing quail like she once did, and is content to watch the younger pups frolic without joining in. We try to let her set the pace.

She seemed to be doing just fine with her abbreviated summer program, until one evening this week. We walked her down to the dog park at the corner and let her off her leash. She trotted off and took care of business as per usual. I got into a friendly conversation with a couple of young women about their frisky Blue Heeler. My husband called to Molly, and it wasn’t until I registered his tone of distress that I understood something was amiss.

It was very strange. Molly stood, head down, staring into space, responding to nothing; not our voices, not our touch, nor to anything happening around her. Her breath came in loud, labored huffs.

We sat with her in the shade for a long time until we were finally able to coax her into walking, ever so slowly, the short block to our house — we worried that carrying her would cause her pain. She needed help up the two steps to our front porch.

Once inside, she heaved onto her side on the wood floor, her breathing still noisy, while we commenced an anxious vigil. It was Friday night, too late to contact her vet.

There was an emergency vet 25 miles away. We hesitated to put her through a grueling car ride and a scary series of examinations in a strange place.

Besides, we were pretty sure it would be a one-way trip for her. She didn’t show signs of pain, although it’s hard to tell with animals unless they’re visibly injured. Instinct has instilled in them a prime directive to mask anything that might make them more vulnerable to a predator. But she wasn’t whimpering or wincing or squinting her eyes.

We called her breeder, who referred us to another vet, who was also unavailable. Molly had begun to lay her head on my husband’s knee as he petted her. That’s when my stoicism abandoned me and I became a puddling mess. Still, she was more responsive, so we decided to watch and wait.

We were sure we were losing her

We thought she’d prefer to spend her last moments at home with us at her side if that were true. So we sat with her, speaking softly to her and taking turns losing our composure.

Very gradually, however, her breathing calmed somewhat. She thumped her tail. Then she got to her feet and went to her bed. We followed her example, thinking we might wake up to find she’d peacefully ascended in the night.

The next morning, she was back to normal

Almost normal, at any rate. Her breathing was still audible and more effortful. But she was much improved. She ate her breakfast with her usual zeal and seemed entirely unperturbed by the events of the previous evening.

Her breeder, on hearing of her apparent self-resuscitation, thought she may have suffered heatstroke. We’ve kept her in the air conditioning since except for brief bio-need forays into the backyard, and at this point, she seems fine.

We, on the other hand, are somewhat wrecked. This is the problem with being human. Cursed with imaginations, we have just enough sense of the future to fret over it despite the fact that we have no means of controlling it.

And as for mortality, compared to dogs, we are very messed up. We indulge in dread. We devote endless worry and conjecture about what happens when our inevitable demise presents itself. We think about our stuff and who will get it when we’re gone.

We try to insulate ourselves from grief by pre-imagining life without our beloved dog.

Some of us are even willing to spend money and energy trying to deny death altogether, like the cryonicists who plan to freeze themselves at the very moment of legal death in hopes that medicine and technology will advance enough so they can be thawed out and restored to health (assuming that’s on anybody’s agenda in the future).

Dogs don’t waste time on such nonsense

Molly isn’t anxious about her episode of the other night. She isn’t worried about a repeat. She’s got us, she’s got her kibble and her bed, she’s got her toys and the cat. As long as we’re not freaking out, she is confident that everything’s fine.

On the other hand, she’s not interested in denying her age. Molly could care less whether or not people think she looks good for a 15-year-old dog. She just wants people to pet her.

With grace and acceptance, she has let go of the things of her youth: leaping into ponds in pursuit of ducks; running up and down steep foothills while her humans pant and toil up a hiking trail; pointlessly retrieving balls or frisbees when they will only be tossed across the yard again.

Molly knows she’s old. On some level, I believe she understands her life is finite. Someday she won’t be here to encourage my husband while he does his push-ups or wait to see if any popcorn fragments are left on the floor after I’ve finished my snack. That time, we have all been forcibly assured, is coming.

But that is not her concern. Dogs have a much clearer concept of time than humans, in that they fully recognize that the only time that is not imaginary is right now.

The past is useful only insofar as it has taught you things, like how to ask to go out and the awesome power of can openers. As for the future, that only applies when something signals what’s about to happen — your person putting on the shoes that mean it’s time for walkies, or the sound of that magical can opener rattling in the kitchen drawer.

When the walkies have become too painful or too tiring, when the nose fails to bring you beguiling scents, when the call of the can opener has lost its appeal, there is no point in hanging on. Then it will be time to let go. Hopefully, the humans in your life will be there to make your passage easy and peaceful.

Until then, there’s a sunny spot on the carpet just waiting to be curled up on for a nice nap.

As the humans say, it’s all good.

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