A Decade with My Dog

When you’re young ten years seems like a long time, but as you get older you come to realize it can go by in a flash. A decade ago today, I walked out of the Humane Society in Newark, New Jersey with a black, labrador-mix mutt on a leash. I took him home to my ridiculously tiny studio apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, and named him Mister President.

He was less than a year old then, and already fairly large. He had, at the end of each of his long, lanky legs, an almost comically oversized paw, suggesting that though he was no longer really a puppy, neither was he quite a grown dog yet. The folks at the shelter told me that he was seven months old, but I never really knew whether to believe that or not. Like a lot of dog pounds, they were doing their best with too many dogs and too few staff, and had little to offer in the way of prior history or other vital information, so I’ve never known his actual birthday.

That first week, he was frightened and cagey, and I was too, truth be told. I was single and I valued my then relatively carefree lifestyle, so the idea of raising a dog — being responsible for another living being — was more like a suit of clothes I was trying on with idle curiosity than a mantle I was accepting with a full awareness of all its implications.

In the back of my mind, I almost expected to chicken out and take him back to the shelter within a week or so. But I hung in there and so did Mister President, and at some point there was no going back. He had become Man’s Best Friend.


 

Now it’s ten years later. Ten great years have passed with this very singular character by my side. He doesn’t talk and he doesn’t write and his listening and comprehension skills are debatable, but he’s incredibly expressive and incredibly empathetic nevertheless. I know him so well that it feels as if we are in a kind of perpetual silent dialogue; his moods and his needs and his troubles are transparent to me, and probably vice versa.

Whether you believe in treating animals as little people or as dumb creatures, it’s hard to deny that owning a pet is a kind of relationship, a pairing of personalities. You train one another, you adjust to one another, you learn to trust one another. You care for one another, too, in an admittedly lopsided but nevertheless reciprocal way.

 

That duty of care-taking has become progressively more urgent and more medical, as over time Mister President has succumbed to the atrophy of old age. A human decade makes for a canine septuagenarian, and arthritis has found its way into his hind legs. For at least six or seven years, I’ve been supplementing his diet with glucosamine and chondroitin, to help stave off the disease. As it inevitably worsened, his veterinarian added an advanced anti-inflammatory available by prescription only. We also kept his weight down and moderated his physical exertion.

Earlier this fall though, he started showing markedly worse stiffness in his legs, and I would hear him yelp in pain when over-extending himself. Then, a few days ago, it got so bad that he can now barely support himself on his back legs; he walks mostly on his front two, dragging the rear two behind him lamely. I’m working with two veterinarians to try and relieve this situation, but for me it feels exceedingly grim. Earlier this evening I managed to get Mister President to walk down the street a bit, and he did so with such wobbliness, such obvious, excruciating discomfort, that I broke down and cried in the middle of the block.

 

I read somewhere once that adopting a pet is virtually the same as signing up for some future heartbreak, because pets so infrequently outlive their masters. If we truly love the pet, we do whatever is in our power to postpone that heartbreak. For Mister President, that day is not necessarily here yet — I’m not giving up on him by any means — but it has come into focus in a very real, very frightening way. When I look at his once fully jet black coat, now turning in many places to a distinguished but shocking white, I know that full heartbreak is closer than ever.

It’s not time to get funereal yet, though. Actually, what I meant to do was to celebrate this anniversary, because it’s a significant one. This dog has made my life immeasurably richer than it would have been had I never brought him home. He taught me loads about all manner of things, but mostly about what it means to care for another living being, and how rewarding it can be. I’m grateful to him for every minute of that decade. Best ten years of my life, really.

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22 Comments

  1. I just realized while I read this post that I’ve been reading your words now for over ten years. That is truly mind-boggling.

    It’s a tired clichж, but the kind of love we get and give with pets really is an unconditional love. It, and the love we have for our children, really are the two of the purest examples of love we get an opportunity to experience in our lives.

    Every time I lose a pet I swear to myself that I’ll never do it again, never set myself up for that kind of heartache. After a time, though, I’m back wandering through the humane society, looking for another chance to fall in love.

    Mister President is one hell of a dog. Sending you all warm, healthy thoughts.

  2. Beautiful.

    They really are Man’s Best Friend, aren’t they? Don’t know what I’d do without my two dogs.

  3. Having experienced something similar, that was an emotional read. It’s life’s sad compromise that to feel such joy and love we must also suffer the opposite. But what a colourless life it’d be without it.

  4. I know this kind of heartache all too well. But the good times generally outweigh this heartache, for both pet and master. My best to both you and Mister President.

  5. My sister is a vet and has been doing a lot with acupuncture. You might try that for Mr. President. It’s supposedly great for things like arthritis. Good luck. I’ve been there.

  6. My boxer Sophie is celebrating her 9th birthday today, and while she’s not quite in the same shape, she’s had an ACL replaced, and has arthritis in the knee now. I am saddened to see my future written here, but that sadness is buoyed by all of the wonderful memories of the last 8+ years. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Beautiful sentiment, lovingly expressed. I went through a similar experience with my dog a few years ago, and truly feel your pain, as well as your gratitude. Wishing you peace and strength in the days ahead.

  8. What you wrote was very touching. I cried feeling your pain and Mister President’s pain too. It’s also been 10 years since I had to say goodbye to my 4 legged best friend and to this day it continues to hurt as if it were the first. :( I truly miss him.

  9. Beautiful tribute. What awful heartbreak.

    Some say language is what makes us human, but dogs seem to have all the best aspects of humanity—loyalty, compassion, intelligence, humor, affection, and an unselfconsciousness we can only dream about, all without the benefit of speech.

    It’s hard to believe my little guy has already been with us over 3 years. Furry years fly.

  10. I will have to experience this in the future and I already cringe. It seems like it is the only flaw of our canine friends… that their lives are so short. Yet, they affect us so positively. My dog is only 2.5, we rescued her… now I can’t imagine my life without her. They truly are amazing animals.

  11. …I’m sobbing along with you and sending prayers. I’ve had my furry friend for 5 years now and we are inseparable so I feel for you.

  12. When a loved pet dies, it takes a part of you with them. So, you are less than you were …

    But while you owned and cared for and loved your pet, they gave you so much that even after their death, you are so much more than you started with.

    Mister President is a lucky guy, and so are you, Khoi. Very best to you both during this horridly difficult time.

  13. Wow, it’s definitely hard to believe that a decade has gone by so quickly. You’ve written a beautiful tribute to your friend, and I’m sure if he could read, he’d agree. But of course, dogs are able to understand us without words. Sending you good vibes during this heartbreaking time.

  14. I’ve been there and it is the hardest thing… the line, “adopting a pet is virtually the same as signing up for some future heartbreak” is so true and yet we go on thinking that it should not arrive…

  15. Sad to hear this, Khoi. My dog is close to Mister President’s age, and he’s definitely showing signs of getting older, so I empathize with you. The important thing to remember throughout this is that you’ve given him a good life and have been a good friend, and for a dog, it doesn’t get any better than that.

  16. Oh my. I was reading this in a meeting on my iPad and started tearing up, much to the dismay of my colleagues. I have been thinking about adopting a dog but I’m not sure I could handle the loss this post foreshadows. For what it’s worth, your dog sounds like an amazing companion.

  17. I just got done reading this and could help it but my eyes got watery. I’ve had my pooch for 12 years and can relate totally to you. They are fortunate to have people like you and I and many others care for them. In the end the memories are everlasting and the moments cherished.

  18. I swore off dogs forever when I had to put my last one down. Three months later, I had 2. One of them has just started to exhibit the same things you’re going through.

    (look into acupuncture)

    @jp – do it. the highs far outweigh the lows.