I caught myself looking into the eyes of my dog Dakota the other day. He’s an aging monster mutt with a gentle disposition that joined our family about a decade ago. I was still living in Los Angeles while my wife and step-children moved to a house west of Berlin, off the Old State Road. Because it was a bit isolated, I wanted them to have a dog, preferably a big one, to make strangers pause when he met them at the front door. He was no guard dog, but his size and big dog bark give him great presence. Dakota had been raised at a country home, and he turned out to be a great fit for my family.
Now, years later, I look into his face and I see so many things in his dimming eyes. Time is chasing him down like it does most larger breeds, even though his bloodline appears to be quite the genetic stew. He wasn’t the type of dog that played fetch, or learned silly tricks. Dakota was a roaming, happy-go-lucky mongrel, free to run the country while everyone was gone during the day. He’d return in the afternoon to watch as the kids came home from school and my wife finished her work day. He’d have his dinner and get some attention, and he enjoyed a soft, fur-lined bed.
He used to chase geese and deer like they’d stolen french fries from him. He’d often come home muddy from the creek and smelling of dead things. Oh, the fun he and his best friend, a young pitbull from down the road named Solo, must have had.
Dakota has aged pretty gracefully, but despite the telltale signs of age, now and then there are glimpses of his younger days. We joke when we see him prance and romp for a few strides during a bathroom break. On occasion, he almost takes interest in the tennis ball we throw for our other dog to chase. And there are still the annoying choices of when he decides to give a warning bark, always choosing to woof at a pick-up truck passing on a distant driveway while not bothering to check on a visitor when the front doorbell rings. There’s no doubt he’s enjoying his retirement, quietly passing the mantle of being the big scary dog of the house to me.
But what I really see when I look at Dakota is a dog mirroring a senior family member. He’s on a special diet for his itchy and stinky skin and fur. I don’t think he enjoys his regular trips to the groomer. Probably too noisy for his taste. He sometimes has trouble moving around during cold or damp weather, or if he plays too hard with our other dog. He’s frightened by hard rain, staying within inches of me or the wife during thunderstorms. He has a spot under the dining room picture window, but in recent months chooses to lie in the middle of doorways and hallways, almost as if he doesn’t want to be ignored at this stage of his life. We complain about his passing gas and his pungent smell and his grumpy disposition. There are times when he chooses to ignore our instructions and simply does what he wants. Sometimes he seems to forget what a bathroom break is for.
A while back, we thought we’d found him a great retirement spot, out in the country with a family member where he could be outdoors and enjoy more freedom, but after acquiring the unexpected habit of killing chickens, he returned to us for what looks like the remainder of his years.
Someday, I may be like him – feeling alone amongst my family, but content with a comfortable place to lay my head. Two good meals every day, with fresh water and the occasional treat. Flea medicine like clockwork. Gets some petting too.
Perhaps he’s the last of his litter and all he knows are the people who take care of him. The people who sometime raise their voices when he accidentally make a mess, or poops in six different spots during a single bathroom break, or manages to get under foot, but generally treat him well.
I mean, we treat the senior members of our families way better than we treat our aging dogs, right?
I look at Dakota and wonder if, in my declining, final years, I’ll be as lucky as he is.