I married my wife Roberta because I passed muster with her German Shepherd/Doberman mix, Vinnie. I didn’t realize I was being tested at the time. I was just picking up a date, playing with her sweet, lame, old dog, and petting her austere great-aunt of a tortoiseshell cat, Millicent (also on the review committee). Like many of us, Roberta had gone through her fair share of romantic travails and, upon reflecting on the various problems and the last straws, she realized that her pets had generally not liked these men before she figured it out—so she decided to use them as her radar, her advance scouts in romance and compatibility. Good thing for me, critters generally like me.
So I never knew Vinnie as a puppy, a young adult, a mature dog—as anything other than my grizzled old friend. He had been the subordinate dog of a pair for the first ten years of his life, before his prior humans moved and he was adopted by Roberta. He was 14 when we first met—98 in people years, already hobbling cheerfully along and always up for the great sport of his life, fetch, even as his legs grew stiff and weak. His bouncing gait was so slow the ball would stop rolling even before he got off the deck, but he never let infirmity deter him. I perfected the three or four ball system with him, as the moving ball is always most fascinating. As he brought one back to me, it was just a matter of moving around the yard and keeping the balls in motion.
The car’s backseat was his favorite bed, his portable den away from home, and we enjoyed taking him with us for rides, often curled up in back slumbering, other times sitting upright and sober, reviewing the passing world like a statesman. We called him Abe Doberman.
Once we were married we bought a bigger house, with one flight of stairs in front, and another flight of stairs from the back deck down to our yard, never suspecting that Vinnie would age perceptibly and begin to have trouble with stairs soon after our move.
Previously he had negotiated stairs with bobbing ease—now for the first time he hesitated, and began using his weakening backlegs in unison, moving like a teetering tripod. Sometimes I carried him when he seemed stiff and hesitant, but he didn’t like that, even sitting down in uncharacteristic rebellion. We joked about adding an elevator on the back deck and lowering him to the yard. When going for walks, we had seen older dogs pulled around in wagons, and now we imagined our dear boy sitting up in back of one, out for his evening constitutional in his Abe Doberman pose, erect and serene.
One morning, when I called to Vinnie, he didn’t immediately wake up. Concern giving way to alarm, I crouched, my hand on his warm body, “Vinnie” I called, stroking his side. “Vinnie.”
He woke from deep slumber. I had never seen him so slow and groggy. It was everything he could do to lift his head. I petted him until he was ready to rise and come stiffly down the stairs. Roberta and I realized he might not have much time left.
After some deliberation, we decided we wanted our next dog, our new dog, to know him. We wanted the new dog to learn his sweet role, if not his sweetness. Not that personality would be relayed, but that dog sense of pack behavior might be passed on to the next generation.
So in June 2003 we got Ernie Kovacs, an 11-month old German Shepherd mix we guessed might have some greyhound; the animal shelter didn’t know his parentage. His coal and honey-colored coat covered an amazingly supple body. I was accustomed to Vinnie, old and stiff, whose limbs remain rigid although he takes medications for his arthritis; in comparison, I wondered, did the puppy even have tendons connecting his loose, springy bones?
Vinnie had been the only dog in my wife’s house for the last six years. We had never seen him with another dog in the pack, until Ernie came along. And a wonderful thing happened—a sweet, geriatric regression into second childhood. It was a joy to see him become so canine again, after years of just having mostly humans to relate to. I would play chase and tag and tug-of-war around the house with young Ernie, and Vinnie would romp along after us, long ears flared high, panting, wagging, begging, and bobbing along in his limping run to keep up. Excited, Vinnie would seize upon his large bed, and give it a thorough shaking. Although weaker in his limbs, his torso has remained muscular (many guests have commented that his bent elbow stance makes him look like an old weightlifter), and he’d thrash the bed, slightly bulkier than himself, within an inch of its life. After trouncing it thoroughly, he’d looked up proudly at my wife as if to say, “Look at us! We’re dogs! And we’re doing dog stuff here!”
Although Vinnie is no match for Ernie physically (our 80-pound puppy is fleet), he seems to rely on him and is more attached to Ernie then the pup is to him. For Ernie, life is play, and the old dog is there mostly for Ernie to tease. “See this chew toy?” Ernie holds it close, “C’mon, try and get it. Just try.”
Vinnie tolerates the exuberance, but sometimes whines if Ernie has a chew toy he wants, trotting stiffly up to me in victimized geriatric suffering, employing high-pitched wheedling for me to intercede on his behalf. So sometimes I get him a new and better toy, and of course a minute later it is dropped and forgotten. It is not the possession he wants so much as the favor, acknowledging his place and belonging in our pack. He turns 18 this October 2004, and finally in his long life he is the alpha dog.
Vinnie is half-blind I think and if not growing deaf, his hearing has become quite selective. Scent has become all to him—in the morning, when I come down the stairs, he plunges his nose into my ankles, bathrobe, and knees pulling deeply of the smell of me, reassured, feeling safe, knowing I am there to fed him, water, him, let him out the back door.
These days, I find myself imagining him close to the end. I envision holding him in my lap and saying to him, “it’s okay, dear old boy. You can stay if you want, you always have a home here. Or, if it hurts too much, you can relax, just let go. Whatever you like. It’s okay; we love you all the same.”
It doesn’t feel sad to me, so much as happy for him, that he’s had so many years and has managed to stay so sweet for so long. He remains loving and cheerful, even though I suspect the aches and pains of being so old are tough for him.
I wish he would let me carry him up and down our backstairs—but he wants to do it himself. So I stand by the stairs and watch him cautiously, gingerly bob down the steps—an anxious parent in reverse, watching some of my old boy’s last steps, rather than an infant’s first. Maybe some day he will be ready for me to carry him. After all, I’m only a member of this household because he accepted me. It will be the least I can do.