Lessons from an Old Dog

When I throw the ball, he glances at it through cataract graying eyes, then stares up at me as if to say, Dummy. I’m good right here. You go get it.

He has trouble sitting down and standing up, but he’s moving better since the veterinarian prescribed some anti-inflammatory meds for his bad back and hip.

His hind quarters and hips are dotted with golf ball-sized lipomas (fatty benign tumors) that look painful but aren’t.   Still, I wince a little when I see them from certain angles.

When Bear gets excited—like when we go to the spa (the kennel where I board him from time to time) he has a tendency to forget the lobby is not the place for him to—how do I say this?— poop.  So yeah, I sometimes get stared at by the other pet owners there with their bright-eyed, well-mannered pups.  The place is nicer than a lot of hotels I stay in, so it’s awkward when this happens.  At least for me.

This morning when I went to his room—yes, you read that right, he has his own room that used to be my office—he didn’t move at first and I’ll admit I was afraid he’d died sometime in the night.  To my relief, he struggled to his feet and dutifully headed to the back door.  He knows when it’s time for breakfast.

Bear is thirteen-year-old yellow lab with a white face, a finicky, almost anorexic appetite, who let’s me have the privilege of caring for him.  In return, I get a limited amount of tail wagging, and his determination to trip me as he follows my every step around the yard and house.  Bear gives what he has to give, but truth is that isn’t much.

It didn’t cost me anything to adopt Bear.  I took him in when a friend posted a picture on Facebook and I learned he had been left pretty much alone since his owner had gone into a nursing home.  But since then, he’s cost me a lot of money.  Vet bills.  A new fence.  And, of course, a new vacuum cleaner that will suck the carpet off the floor—but somehow seems to leave more dog hair littering my hardwood floors than it should.  I’ve stopped counting how much I’ve spent because I’ve learned something really valuable in caring for Bear.

I’ve learned that caring for someone or something who really can’t give you anything in return is of immeasurable value.  Most of us willingly care for our kids, our spouses, and even our parents and other families if we need to.  Generally, we get something in return for that care.  It may only be the satisfaction of seeing our children do well, our spouses find happiness, or our parents living their final days in the warmth of our love. But we do get something in return.

As I write, I find Bear has given me something more than I could have expected from an old dog.  He’s helped me recognize the day may well come when I may need to be cared for and be unable to offer much in return.  Maybe, if I’m fortunate, I can offer a warm smile of gratitude, or speak the words that accompany it.  Maybe I will even be able to offer someone comfort, encouragement, and make them laugh.  But maybe I won’t.

In a few weeks, I will have the opportunity to emcee an event for an organization that offers help to the aged and homebound who can’t really give much in return for their help.  CASA, as it’s known, has been offering help in my community since 1979.  They build ramps, install grab bars in showers, deliver food, and a variety of other things for people who can’t do the things for themselves they once could.  The staff at CASA doesn’t do it for the money.  They don’t do it for praise or glory.  They do it because it needs to be done.  When I host the event, I will be asking the audience to offer their financial support to this organization so it can continue to do its work.  Somehow, Bear has made me want to do an even better job than I’d already hoped to do.

When I was sitting on the porch with Bear this evening it struck me that my relationship with him has somehow inspired me.  Maybe all this seems a bit strange—a dog inspiring me with more compassion for a human services organization.  But Bear keeps teaching me things I hadn’t expected to learn from him.  He’s helped me see my own frailty.  He’s helped me become more patient.  And he’s imbued me with an even greater sense of compassion for people in need.

Damn.  That’s some dog.