Years ago Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The Washington Post, wrote a wonderful essay about his dog Harry, a yellow Lab he described as having “the shape of a baked potato, with the color and luster of an interoffice envelope.”
It was much more than an ode to Harry, then nearly 13 years old. It was a tribute to all old dogs, the most moving words I’ve ever read about man’s best friend.
Puppies are incomparably cute and incomparably entertaining, and, best of all, they smell exactly like puppies. At middle age, a dog has settled into the knuckleheaded matrix of behavior we find so appealing — his unquestioning loyalty, his irrepressible willingness to please, his infectious happiness. His unequivocal love. But it is not until a dog gets old that his most important virtues ripen and coalesce. Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, odd of habit, hard of hearing, pimply, wheezy, lazy and lumpy. But to anyone who has ever known an old dog, these flaws are of little consequence. Old dogs are vulnerable. They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. They are without artifice. They are funny in new and unexpected ways. But, above all, they seem at peace.
Weingarten’s 2008 essay (link below) has been on my mind lately as I consider our own canine senior citizen: Otto.
Our Jack Russell Terrier is 11 years old, with a gray muzzle and hearing that’s not so sharp anymore. His neighborhood walks are shorter. His reactions are slower and his footing sometimes unsteady. Though he normally rises early with Lori, some days he’ll sleep in, even after I, the new retiree, get out of bed an hour or two later.
Typical of his breed, he’s got an enlarged heart and recently was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He takes several medications each day, painstakingly managed by Lori, and the vet tells us we can expect to have him another 12 to 18 months.
It’s sobering to consider life without Otto.
It’s not my intention, though, to wallow in what may come. Rather, it’s to honor the four-legged friend who occupies a special place in our household and in our hearts.
During our 40-year marriage, and even before that, we’ve always had pets — not just dogs and cats, but hamsters, rats and a couple of rabbits, too. I can honestly say there’s been no one like Otto, the one we’ve come to call The Fourth Child.
I had been away from home on a business trip when the cab let met off at the curb. I was coming up the path to our front door, lugging a suitcase, when I saw something behind the screen door that seemed to be a white object springing up and down like a pogo stick. As I drew closer, I realized it was a dog.
What? When did we get another dog?
Yes, Lori got him from the pound (actually, the Humane Society) while I was away. Then nearly a year old, the little guy had the energy of a puppy. And Otto bonded with her like nothing I’ve ever seen. He would follow from room to room throughout the house, upstairs or downstairs, inside or outside, as attached as if she were the one who’d birthed him. He still trails her like this, his stump of a tail twitching like a broken windshield wiper.
We already had another dog when Otto joined our household. Back then, he was the junior dog to Max, our big, lovable Black Lab/Great Dane mix. Now he’s the senior dog, tolerating our feisty rescue mutt, a Terrier/Pug/Chihuahua mix named Charlotte.
A few weeks ago, we made a trip to the emergency room on a Sunday night when Otto had difficulty breathing. The vet prescribed another drug to add to the mix and it’s worked beautifully, though it causes Otto to drink lots of water and makes for frequent bathroom breaks — sometimes in the middle of the night.
Descending the staircase in darkness and taking him out to the street, I am fully aware that any inconvenience I might feel is more than countered by what Otto has brought to our family. He is a dog who has always shown affection, with expressive eyes and an eagerness to lick ears, arms, legs — whatever skin is exposed. He is well-mannered around adults and children, accommodating to other dogs, and content to simply be in our presence. whether on a nearby pillow or on our lap.
Charlotte has won my heart, I won’t deny that. But I can also say my appreciation and love for Otto is genuine as well. I hope the vet’s 12-to-18 month projection underestimates the time we have left with him. He is and has been a gem.
Read Weingarten’s piece right here: “Something About Harry”
Read a Q&A with Otto: “The fourth child”