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Old dogs - more dear with the years

Updated on October 30, 2014

Hard to see them age - easy to keep loving them

My dog, Roc, celebrated his 12th birthday in December. By any measure, he's now considered a "senior" dog - even if the white muzzle, spats and chin didn't betray his status. I used to say we were both prematurely gray - now, perhaps, we've reached a point that we both deserve our "arctic blonde" hair.

Roc's had his share of health issues; he suffers from acid reflux and has a minor heart condition. But also in December something happened to his back that has changed him from an active, rather feisty senior, into a bit of a crippled old man.

It's been a difficult transition - but we're both learning to cope with the differences it's brought to our life together.

Roc "hanging out" in his Pooch Pack
Roc "hanging out" in his Pooch Pack

Figuring out the new reality

Roc and I are still trying to figure out our new "normal."

I got Roc when he was four months old. He was my first competition obedience dog, my first rally competition dog. We were a team and a partnership. And I never had to look for Roc, or call him. He was always in the same room, if not on the same piece of furniture.

He was never a particularly "cuddly" dog - he would get too restless and too hot. And, contrary to what some people may believe, even though he's a "Toy" breed (Brussels Griffon), he was never a lap dog.

Now Roc's back legs don't work very well. A couple of discs in his spine, for unknown reasons, have made his life an ongoing balance of pain management vs. mobility, independent motion vs. time.

His gait is not that of a normal dog - his two right legs move together, as do his two left legs. One veterinarian called this "reflex" walking - he's just so accustomed to getting where he wants to go that he just keeps trucking along.

He loses his balance when he turns quickly, his right leg often seems as if it's "fallen asleep" and he doesn't have complete control. Steps are beyond his ability - even the three little ones that let him get up on the couch. I have to be aware of him at all times now - if I want to leave the room I have to make sure Roc is on the floor, rather than the couch or chair, so he can toddle along after me, if he chooses.

Walks are a matter of time and patience. While he needs to stay in practice, Roc can't keep up with my other dog, Teddy, so he comes along in a carrier. The one he likes best is his Pooch Pack - it lets him see where we're going.

Roc the way he used to be

Just a few months ago, Roc was able to run for his beloved tiny tennis ball.

He wasn't a whiz at the interactive toys - but now he can't even balance to use his front paws like this.

He still loves his little toys - even with limited mobility.

Roc getting an acupuncture treatment
Roc getting an acupuncture treatment

Holding on to what we've got

Roc takes a variety of medications a couple of times a day and I do physical therapy exercises with him to keep him as mobile as possible. Physical therapy for Roc is getting him to use his back legs - walking around cones, backing up, shifting his weight, lifting his front paws to get him to support his weight on the back ones.

We tried acupuncture treatment - other pets I've had have responded well. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to help Roc and he got extremely stressed going for treatment at a clinic a bit far from the house. He is responding to cold laser therapy, so I take him every few weeks, when his hunched posture tells me he's feeling more pain.

Roc playing with his Aquarium Zippy Burrow
Roc playing with his Aquarium Zippy Burrow

As long as he's still loving life

Two different veterinarians have told me that, whatever's going on with Roc's back, it's not going to "heal." He's never going to walk normally again. He's never again going to run to greet me when I come in the door.

That's okay. He still greets me at his own pace. He still loves to play gentle games of "find it!" with his aquarium toy, he still "hollers" at us when we're too slow fixing his dinner.

I know that we've spent more time together than we have left. While I'm not really "okay" with that - I've accepted that it's time to cherish the time we have.

People ask me how I'll know when it's time to say goodbye. In all the years I've had pets, there's never been a question. When it's time, you know. If there's a judgement call to make, I go by this rule: Think of your pet's three favorite things. When two of them are gone, it's time.

Roc napping
Roc napping

We're doing okay - for now

Roc is happy. Most days he's pretty comfortable. He still naps right next to me on the couch every evening and the good days far outnumber the bad.

So, how do I cope with an aging dog? I do what I must to keep my dear friend happy and comfortable. He's not easy and he's not convenient. But I made a promise to him the very first time I saw his puppy self. I will care for you all of your life.

And I will.

Update: Our time together is done

In September, 2014 Roc deteriorated to the point where he was uncomfortable most of the time. I knew that it was time and made the decision to have him euthanized. He left this world peacefully, in my arms.

It's never easy to lose a beloved companion and I appreciate the warmth that's been extended to me by all.

"Euthanasia is the last, best gift we give our pets. We take their pain and make it our own."

What's your experience with aging pets?

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