My childless dog and I face old age together

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April 10, 2008

Fred and I adopted two 7-week-old puppies last week, and it really feels as if I have two babies. They’re the same weight as babies, have the same needs, and fill the same needs in my heart. Last night, my church choir surprised me with a puppy shower. There were two baby blankets, but of course no little onesies. I did get dog treats, chew toys galore, balls, wee-wee pads, and lots of advice. There was a gorgeous white-frosted cake with big red flowers on it. This may sound totally nuts, but it felt as if I had received something I’d been waiting for all my life. I sat on the floor of the chapel opening presents and soaking it all in.
As assistant director, I was surprised that there had been a wave of e-mail that didn’t include me. Those sneaky singers.
Puppies are certainly not the same as humans. They won’t take care of you in your old age. Conversations are rather one-sided. And they poop and piddle on the floor. But for the childless woman who wanted children and didn’t have them, they’re one way of filling that emptiness.
Has anyone else found that to be true? What other ways can you feed the maternal need? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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I wrote the above in 2008, shortly after my late husband and I adopted 7-week old puppies Chico and Annie. Those dogs took all my attention in those early days. Messy, needy, adorable. They were my babies, or as close as I was going to get.

It was absolutely the wrong time to adopt dogs, especially two at once. My husband’s Alzheimer’s disease had reached the point where I couldn’t leave him alone, and within the year, he would be living in a nursing home. Three years later, in April 2011, he would die. By then, I had just one dog, Annie. I had to give up Chico, prone to jumping fences and attacking other dogs. I have a bite scar on my leg from when I tried to keep him away from a visiting dog. It broke my heart to lose him, but I couldn’t keep coming back from the nursing home to find that he had run away again. I don’t know what happened to him. As in old-fashioned human adoptions, once I signed him over, I gave up all rights.

Now it’s April 2021. My Annie has gone from baby dog to middle-aged to old. She’s stiff with arthritis and loaded with benign fatty lumps. Her once-tan face is now completely white. Instead of saying how cute she is, people comment on how old she is. Some hint that she won’t be with me much longer. I know. That’s the hell of “fur babies.” They don’t live as long as we do. In less than two decades, we watch them go through the entire life cycle from birth to death.

I’m feeling very sad because she has lost her most of her hearing. Yesterday, the vet confirmed there was nothing they could do about it. I wish I could give her my hearing aids. I know what it’s like not to be able to hear. Both of my parents had severe hearing losses, and my hearing isn’t great anymore. Even yesterday at the vet, trying to communicate from the parking lot (COVID restrictions), I had to admit to the technician that with all the traffic noise in the background, I couldn’t hear what she was saying, even though the phone was turned all the way up. She came out to talk in person.

Annie doesn’t hear me coming and going anymore. She curls up in the doorway so she can watch me and know where I am. She doesn’t respond to verbal commands. I try to use gestures now. She mostly understands. I talk to Annie all the time—since Fred died, she’s the only one here to talk to—but now I know she can’t hear me, and that breaks my heart. She is still my beloved companion, and I thank God for her every day.

I know I should be writing about you and your childless by marriage situation. I will get back to that, but I know that for many of you, your pets are part of the family. Feel free to tell us about them. With Mother’s Day coming very soon, we all need a dose of kitten or puppy love.

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Our pets are not baby substitutes, but . . .

Are our pets baby substitutes? We have talked about this before, and my answer to anyone who says, “Well, at least you have your dog,” is that it’s not the same, but recent events have made me think about this more deeply than ever.

My dog Annie has been in the veterinary hospital since Christmas. Because nothing local was open during the Christmas weekend, I took her to Corvallis, 55 mountain-road miles from where I live. The Willamette Veterinary hospital is incredibly busy. Due to Covid, people can’t go inside with their pets. I have now waited in my car in the parking lot for 12 hours spread over three different occasions and waited for phone calls every minute of every day and night. I constantly wonder if the vet will tell me it’s hopeless and recommend that she be euthanized. I constantly fantasize that the vet will tell me Annie is up and walking, hallelujah.

Day after day, they say she’s “about the same.”

Until Christmas afternoon, she was having a great time with me and “Auntie Pat.” She shared our Christmas food, went for a walk, and lay between us enjoying our company. Then she went to get up and collapsed. Got up, collapsed again. Somehow, falling again and again, she made it to the back yard, where she lay soaked in the rain and refusing to move until my neighbors helped me get her into the car. Christmas was so over as I sped in the dark to Corvallis.

At almost 13, after two knee surgeries, Annie has severe arthritis, but her main problem is something called Vestibular Disease, a sort of doggy vertigo that makes it impossible for her to find her balance. At first, she looked like she’d had a stroke, her face scrunched up on one side, her body falling to the left. She wouldn’t eat or drink, just kept whining and crying. Now she’s eating and drinking and acting much like herself, but she still can’t walk on her own. She has worn a catheter to urinate, which led to a urinary tract infection. She has bed sores from lying on her left side so much. Are we just putting off the inevitable?

The doctor asked me to buy a “Help ‘em Up” harness that lifts under her shoulders and hips When I brought it, I could visit. Wonderful. I would be able to see for myself whether Annie was still Annie. I got up early and drove to Corvallis, then called from the car to say I was there. An aide whisked the harness away, saying she wasn’t sure about a visit. But I could wait. I waited. All morning.

I watched the woman in the next car be reunited with her little dog. The dog licked her face, sniffed her all over, and settled on her shoulder, much like a baby, finally going to sleep, safe and content with “Mom.” But not Mom. His mother was a dog. The woman is his human, the person he trusts to take care of him. Watching them, I sobbed. I hadn’t seen my dog in 12 days and the way things were going, I wouldn’t see her that day either. They kept telling me they were too busy to arrange a socially-distanced visit.

At 12:30, I got them to let me in to use the restroom and broke their Covid protocol to accost the receptionist and beg to see my dog. She went into a back room to check. Maybe later today, no promises, she said. I went back to my car and cried some more. I felt cold, hungry, and hopeless.

In late afternoon, I was thinking I’d have to drive home without a visit when they told me to come in. Annie and I met in a little sitting room where the workers put blankets on the floor and brought her dinner. It took two of them to get her there, using the harness. Three hours of driving and five hours of waiting were all worth it just to hug my Annie and tell her I loved her, to stare into those big brown eyes. She looked better than when I brought her in, but she was not ready to go home. Maybe a few more days with the harness . . . God knows how much money this is costing me, but I don’t care.

This morning while I was in the shower, the doctor left a message that Annie is about as good as she’s going to get and is ready to go home. I have appointments and work to do today, and I don’t know how I would get my dog out of the car or into the house. The folks at the veterinary hospital don’t seem to understand that it’s just me here. No husband, no kids, no roommate. The four other people who live on this street are gone during the day. My friends, mostly older, are hiding from Covid. I don’t know what to do.

She’s just a dog, some might say. But she’s my Annie, my person, my partner, and my dependent. Because I am a childless widow with no family nearby, Annie is the only flesh and blood mammal I can hug freely and with whom I can be completely myself. I have cared for her from 7 weeks to old age. We have been through so much together.

Last night, I thought about what our pets are to us, what Annie is to me. I had watched an old episode of the TV show “Parenthood.” Talk about triggers—everybody is dealing with their parent-child relationships, and it just made me cry. Somehow I felt like a worried-sick parent as I watched. I am not Annie’s mother. But I have been responsible for her care since she was a puppy. She depends on me. She loves me, but she does not take care of me. She is my companion, but not an equal one. I control the keys, the leash, and the can opener. “Mother” may be the wrong word, but it’s something like parenting.

Whatever you call it, she’s an integral part of my life, the one I greet in the morning and say good night to when I go to bed. Child. Best friend. Partner. Roommate. Old Auntie. Pet. Pride and joy. A human is not supposed to be all these things wrapped into one body. You’re either a child or a best friend, a partner or a pet. But a dog can be all these things. Annie is.

The vet hospital “hold” recording that I have heard over and over refers to us as “pet parents.” The receptionist has asked if I’m “Annie’s person.” They don’t say “owner,” which I suppose would be accurate, too, although I hate the sound of it. I did pay for Annie, just like I paid for my car, but it’s a lot different.

Whatever we are to be called, a dozen of us sat for hours in that parking lot in the rain waiting to have our dogs taken care of or waiting to be reunited. Sitting there, I remembered my mother coming to get us after school on rainy days, the safe feeling when my brother, the neighbor kids, and I were in the car heading home.

If I bring Annie home tomorrow, I will have to cancel my few outings for the foreseeable future. I don’t know how I will manage by myself, but at least she will be on this side of the mountain and we’ll be together.

I have gone on too long about my own problems. The country is going crazy this week, and that is very frightening. But the subject of the day is our pets. Mine is a dog, but cats, rats, gerbils and llamas count, too. What are our pets to us and what are we to them? I still say they are not a baby substitute. For many, many reasons, it’s not the same. So, how do they fit into the picture for you? I welcome your comments.

Neighbors unite to find a dog named Donut

Annie and I came around the bend, and there was old Tom. He was holding an empty leash.

“She got away?” I asked.

He nodded, his ancient face working with tears and frustration. His black Lab, ridiculously named Donut, broke through a fence and escaped. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. She keeps taking off.”

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My puppy Chico in the early days

I sympathized. I once had a black Lab-pit bull mix named Chico, Annie’s brother, who was always running away. I couldn’t build a tall enough fence to keep him in. I remember the fear that filled my heart as I walked the streets of our forested Oregon coast neighborhood with an empty leash in one hand and a box of Milk-Bones in the other. What if he never came back? What if he got out on the highway and was hit by a car? Why doesn’t he come when I call? Ultimately I had to take him to a shelter. I couldn’t keep him in, and he was fighting with other dogs. One neighbor threatened to shoot him. The day he bit a dog and then bit me while I was trying to stop the fight, I knew I had to give up my baby, whom I had raised from seven weeks old. I still have a scar on my leg and a pain in my heart.

“Is that her?” Tom asked, pointing way down 98th Street where I could just make out a black dot next to a green garbage bin.

“I think so.”

Just then, another neighbor drove by the dog, and Donut started running west toward Highway 101. Please God, I prayed, let her turn on Birch and go toward my house where it’s safe. The neighbor, Shirley, stopped and rolled her window down.

“Is that my dog?’ Tom asked.

“Yes, it is.”

Shirley and I, both widows, talked for a minute about how glad we were to see a break in the weather, some blue sky instead of constant rain. “It’s depressing,” she said. “And I never get depressed.” Oh, I could tell her things about being depressed, but Tom was already walking toward where we had last seen Donut. Tom will be 80 this year, and his legs seem to miss a beat with every step. I feared this chase was too much for him. Annie and I hurried to catch up.

You see, dog owners understand each other. When a dog is in trouble, we all jump in to help. I may not be part of the Mom club, but I’m deep into the dog lovers’ club. I think Tom has children and grandchildren, one of whom may have chosen Donut’s name, but at that moment, it didn’t matter. There were no kids around. It was all about our dogs.

We caught up. Tom leaned down to pet Annie. “You’re a good dog,” he told her. I shared that she had been throwing up earlier and seemed a little sluggish, but now she seemed better. He rubbed her tawny head. “Not feeling so good, huh?” Donut and Annie are both nine years old, starting to feel the aches of old age.

We walked down Birch to where the resident dogs would have been barking if Donut were nearby. Nothing. Annie had been sniffing the trail where Donut had urinated, but she didn’t find anything on Birch.

It was getting late. Annie was limping. I had to be at church in an hour to lead choir practice. But all I could think about was Donut. Tom was hoping Donut had come home by now. We parted at the turnoff to my street.

As we got to our house, Pat across the street was just getting out of his truck.

“Have you seen a big black dog?” I asked.

“Well, yes.” He said he had seen Donut prowling around his yard at 3 a.m., but he didn’t know where she was now. He shook his head. His own yellow Lab named Harley barked at us from inside the house.

Twenty minutes later, I was at the piano practicing when Pat pounded on my door. He and another neighbor had gone looking for Donut and found her on Highway 101 heading south. The running dog did not respond when they tried to capture her.

Oh no. I ramped up my prayers. She could get killed out there.  I called Tom’s house. No answer. I left a message, but that wasn’t enough. What if he was in his yard or still walking around with his empty leash? I drove to his house. Nobody home, garage open, car gone. Clearly he had gone to look for Donut.

Please God, please God. Should I get in my car and try to catch her? But Pat and the other neighbor had already tried. Donut didn’t know me. I could cause a wreck or cause her to run into traffic. Tom was already out there somewhere. I had to get ready for church.

A half hour later, my phone rang. Tom. He and yet another neighbor named Larry had found Donut up near the airport, a half mile north of here. I was afraid to ask. “Is she okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s a wonder she didn’t get hit.”

I let out my breath. Thank you, God. I could picture their teary reunion, Tom scolding and hugging his dog at the same time. This morning, writing with Annie asleep beside me, I’m still saying thank you. I’m grateful that Donut is safe and grateful to be part of a caring neighborhood that will unite to save a dog with a stupid name and an urge to run.

Tom is no doubt working on his fence and cussing out the dog that almost broke his heart.

When you don’t have kids around, your dogs mean everything.

I told you last week I’d offer a dog story to counter the recent heavy posts about abortion and religion. I didn’t know the Donut story would happen.

I welcome your dog stories. I know dogs are not children and it’s tragic when a child disappears, but we love our dogs and consider them family. I did not bake a cake or throw a party for Annie’s birthday last week, but I did sing to her and give her lots of Milk-Bones. Her vet sent an e-card which I shared with her.

Keep the comments coming on the other posts, too. Take a minute to look back at what other readers are saying. We have a great community here, and I’m grateful for all of you.

 

Mothering my four-legged baby

This morning, as usual, I tiptoe to the kitchen, trying not to disturb my dog Annie as I take my pills and pour my orange juice. She sleeps in the laundry room, which has a doggy door to back yard. As soon as she hears me, she will stretch, jingle her tags, and come running to the sliding door in the kitchen, paws banging against the glass. The trick is to get myself organized before this happens, to grab a few minutes of peace for myself.

I open the door. She comes rushing in, gives me kisses and waits for me to serve her some Kibbles N Bits. But no. First, I escort her back outside, telling her to go potty. Obediently she squats on the grass to do No. 1, then races to the other side of the yard for No. 2. After sniffing the air and observing what’s happening beyond the fence, she sprints back to the house, where I let her in to eat.

While Annie eats, I crank up the pellet stove to warm the house. Annie joins me there, the orange light of the fire reflecting in her golden eyes. I hug and pet her and tell her once again how much I love her. After a while, she curls up on the pink blanket on the big chair by the window while I go to my office down the hall.

As I work, I’m ever alert to her actions. If she barks, I leave my desk to find out what’s wrong. If she comes wandering in, I give her a big hug and promise I’ll be free to play in a little while. If she snatches paper out of my recycle box, I’ll chase her around the house to try to get it back. Sometimes I succeed, but more often, she leaves shreds of paper all over the living room. And I smile because, compared to Annie, paper doesn’t matter.

Annie is a dog, but I raised her from 7 weeks old, when she only weighed eight pounds, the size of a healthy newborn human. Now 70 pounds and almost four years old, she’s still my baby, and most days, she’s enough.

Copyright 2011 Sue Fagalde Lick

Dogs and kids don’t always mix

I held my breath as my dog Annie sniffed at the little boy. Perhaps she thought he was an odd-shaped dog. After all, she knows even less about children than I do. But this little guy was barely old enough to walk, and my 80-pound pup was getting awfully interested in his diapered bottom. Any second, she’d jump on him and scratch or nip his pure white skin, and we’d be in big trouble.

The boy’s mom had let her three kids, ages about 1 1/2, 3, and 6, run free in the fenced dog park, a rectangle of bark chips, poop and shredded tennis balls. The boy’s older sisters played on the dog agility apparatus. Their own dog, a skinny brindled bulldog mix, sped around the park, touching noses now and then with Annie and a massive long-haired dolt of a dog determined to hump everything in sight. (His embarrassed owners would soon haul him away.) Meanwhile, the little boy staggered around in the middle of the park.

I grabbed Annie just before she got too friendly. The mom shouted out something like, “Hey, Winston(!), not all dogs like little boys.” To which he did not react. To him, a doggie was a doggie.

Mixing kids with other people’s dogs is risky. Dogs, as much as we love them, are animals. They communicate with their mouths and their paws. In a flash, they can bite or accidentally scratch someone. Poor Annie hasn’t been around children since I adopted her at seven weeks old. She knows nothing about them, does not understand you can’t sniff, paw or roll around with them the way you can with dogs.

Annie is a childless female like me. Spayed at six months, she occasionally displays romantic feelings, but she doesn’t know anything about puppies or baby humans.

Annie didn’t hurt the little boy, but things got out of hand when the mom passed out cookies and opened a Styrofoam box of French fries. Food! Annie tried to grab the cookie out of the little boy’s hand. I pulled her back. The bulldog dashed over to defend her family–or get some of the food–and a fight ensued. I dragged my snarling dog out by the collar.

I don’t hate kids or mothers, but the dog park is for mothers of dogs, not mothers of people. It’s one place where we can all be equal as dog owners. As my late husband used to say, “Grumble.”