An aging dog


otto orcas

“I’m not old. I’m experienced.” — Otto Rede, 11.

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.

OTTO pill box

Just like a human with a heart condition, Otto takes pills three times a day, seven days a week.

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”




10 thoughts on “An aging dog

  1. Thanks so much for this piece. I have had many senior dogs, all began as puppies. I am emotional reading this because it brings all of them to mind. They were all special but I am facing the same thing with my current senior, Cosby. I feel the way you two do about Otto. They are both special boys. The tolerable thing about this time in their lives is that they keep us in the moment as owning dogs always does. Caring for and loving them limits focusing on their inevitable passing. We are lucky to have these two! And their siblings of course!

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m sure each one of your senior dogs has received a ton of TLC from you. It will be a sad, sad day when Otto goes — and the same for you when it’s Cosby’s time. As you say, we’re lucky to have these two.

  2. Oh George … this post broke my heart. We, too, lost a dog to congestive heart failure and it’s not pretty. We had the emergency vet trips, the meds … we even were taking her to a vet cardiologist in Clackamas (and that is how we found out Jim’s health was on the decline, but that’s another story). This will be very hard for you and Lori and I am so sorry to hear about it.

    These darn dogs are such heart breakers! Miss Lily is now 13.5 years old and showing signs of aging. It is too hard. I believe I’ll just have cats after this. When I lose a cat, I’m sad for a day or so and the other cats help, but losing a dog just hurts too much.

    I hope Otto hangs around for a while longer and does not suffer too much. Hugs to you and Lori, and to Otto.

    • The hardest part about owning a pet is saying a final goodbye. Whether death comes suddenly and unexpectedly or, hopefully, later in life with some time to prepare, it’s still hard.

      It’s funny to say our dog has a cardiologist, but you understand what that’s all about. You’ll have to tell me the story of how your Clackamas vet visit shed light on Jim’s condition.

      Glad to hear Miss Lily is approaching 14. With any luck, maybe Otto can match her longevity. Thanks for your kind wishes.

      • One day I asked Jim to take Maggie, the dog with congestive heart failure, to the cardiologist. He had been before and I had reminded him of the way. A few hours later he called and said, “your directions suck.” I learned he was in Salem … he never thought he might have gone too far. He missed the appointment and found his way home. I mentioned this to his gastroenterologist the next appointment and he thought Jim might have hepatic encephalopathy (HE). He was tested and the results were positive. This is one of the three indicators of decompensated liver disease, meaning his liver would eventually fail and he would need a transplant. He filed for SS disability in April 2005 and closed his business, which he had already been struggling to maintain. That June, Maggie died and 5 days later I was in the shelter getting Lily for Jim, who was despondent after Maggie died. The declines continued. In the winter of 2009, Jim declared, “I do not want a liver transplant” so I started home hospice in March after another hospitalization from another serious flare up of the HE. The rest you already know.

      • As silly as it might sound it’s after I’ve read your post I updated my ‘about’ page.Where I simply admit my writing is a form of therapy because I find it hard to cope with Ardbeg’s illness. And I have thought about you and the post a lot.Thank you. More than I dare to express.

    • I just read about Lily and Ardbeg – Not many people know how much our animals teach us and you certainly have shared what these two have taught you. I had a feral rescue cat who taught me so much – from her I learned patience, respecting our differences and so much more. Animals are what makes us decent as humans. Thanks for rescuing these two and being open to their rescuing of you.

      My Lily, too, clearly came from an abusive home. The shelter said she was 2-3 when she was brought in. When I found her a week later and brought her home, I saw a delightful creature full of love and joy who was so afraid that her submissive urination made it very difficult to train her. I hired a pet behaviorist to help show me how to teach a dog to be confident and okay. Like your dog, she is terrified of any loud sounds – fireworks, thunder, the smoke alarm when it goes off – all of them send her into a quivering mess. She remains anxious if I am not in her line of sight, but she no longer wets herself. Simply giving love and stable support has given her the confidence to trust herself and me.

  3. Lilyandardbeg,
    Happy to have played a small role in nudging you to update your About tab.
    You’re welcome back anytime to engage with me, my friend Lynn and others you’ll find here.

    As always, thanks for your investment of time, thought and concern. You are a gifted writer with a heart of solid gold.


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