For the last two years, four dogs have been building a friendship on long walks they’ve taken together in the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Now, sadly and inevitably, they’re starting to get old together.
Lucy, my dog, is the runt of the group. She’s a twelve year old, twenty-two pound rat terrier. She’s eager to be liked and petted, and loves to run as long as she keeps the rest of the group in sight.
Cooper is a twelve year old black Lab mix. He’s neurotic. His owner says if there was a nuthouse for dogs, Cooper would be one of the star patients. He barks loudly–“Let me out!! Let me out!!”–all the way on the car ride to the the trailhead where we walk, but then once we exit the car, he usually falls meekly in line behind his owner, scared of what might lie ahead. Strange noises scare the hell out of him. But other times, inexplicably, he races off with total abandon. He climbs to the top of ridges, he slogs through heavy snow, he pursues the scent of some unseen wild animal. He’s our bi-polar adventurer/wimp.
Lokey is a ten year old yellow Lab. She’s a good-natured gal, lumbers along with us, never sprints, and never ventures off the trail unless it’s to roll around joyfully in the snow.
And then there’s Fidel, an eleven year old, one hundred seventy pound Newfoundland. All black, with a mass of thick hair. He really lumbers, just barely able to keep up with us. He’s noisy as well, breathing heavily through his mouth which is frequently covered by saliva, snot or snow, or all three.
Last summer and fall, the four dogs all eagerly walked and ran with us on a three mile trek along a lake amid a forest of pine trees. It was the highlight of their day. The cool air, the sun peeking through the trees, the smells of other animals who had passed this way, and the ability to get out and stretch their legs all brought out the natural exuberance of Lucy, Cooper, Lokey and Fidel.
Life was good. No, great.
Well, Lucy these days is still able to sprint up and down the trail, as long as she keeps us in sight. And Lokey, who’s always in a good mood, still plugs along.
But Fidel, the big Newfoundland, is slowing down, actually stopping sometimes when his lungs and his heart tell him they need a break. We’ve shortened our walk on occasion to accommodate him.
And then there’s Cooper, the erstwhile crazy dog, the barker, the hunter, the sprinter, the bi-polar adventurer. His back legs are giving out. His right hind paw is pointing outward. He slips frequently on the trail. He doesn’t run anymore, and yet he wants to, badly. You can see it in his eyes. Sometimes, we’ve had to turn around after a quarter mile because his back legs have turned to spaghetti. Sometimes, we’ve even had to leave him at home, which breaks his heart.
It’s hard to say whether Lucy, Lokey, Fidel and Cooper know what’s happening to them–that they’re slowing down, they’re getting old and infirm, and that they’ll eventually die. They must have some instinct that allows them to accept sickness and death as the natural process of life.
Regardless, the four of them still seem to enjoy their lives. There’s light in their eyes, they bark, they wag their tails, they’re always eager to take on a new day. They truly seem to value their friendships, they adore the outdoors, and they long for adventures, even when their aging bodies are telling them to slow down.
Whether they know it or not, they’re teaching their human friends a valuable lesson.