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What My Aging Dog Is Teaching Me About Life With a Disability

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Eight years ago, I moved into my Family Care Home (my own suite inside my caregiver’s home, where she lives with her husband and two sons). The front door of my suite opens into the backyard where their German Shepherd/Blue Heeler lived. Paco was a healthy adult in his prime, full of confidence and energy. He had belonged to my caregiver’s son, but when the son moved to a place that didn’t allow dogs, Paco was left behind. He had spent most of his life outdoors in the spacious backyard with a small room for shelter. For a while, he shared the yard with a pack of four other dogs, but one by one, the others disappeared until he was by himself. I don’t know how long he was alone, but when I met him, I could see he was desperate for companionship, and I was happy to oblige.

We began to hang out and spend time together. During that time, I was feeling depressed, anxious, and uncertain about my future, and Paco was exactly what I needed. And I think I was exactly what Paco needed. I let him come inside my suite, and at night he slept on the floor in my bedroom. I began to take him for walks, and bought him treats, toys and a bed. I took charge of feeding and watering, and eventually took responsibility for his vet visits and vaccinations. With the approval of my caregiver, Paco became my companion and my responsibility. Besides my hubby (who I am currently unable to cohabitate with), Paco is my best friend.

Over the last year and a half, I have noticed my friend slowing down as he enters his senior years. The 3 km runs we used to take (me in my power chair, and him happily leading our tiny “pack”) have become 1 km strolls, with multiple territory-marking stops, and pauses to enjoy long luxurious sniffs of various interesting odors. He no longer flops on his belly, but rather eases himself gently down with a low breathy groan. Getting to his feet or off the couch is often accompanied by a sharp pop from an arthritic joint. He has developed cloudy cataracts, and his hearing is beginning to fail, so he often misjudges an obstacle, and rarely hears me when I call to him. I know what living with chronic pain is like, and I totally empathize with what it’s like to lose physical abilities I once had. I feel such deep sympathy for him as he tries to cope with a body that frequently hurts, and adapt to senses that are not nearly as sharp as they once were.

What pains me the most is the hesitation and loss of confidence Paco has experienced. He was an Alpha, accustomed to being strong and dominant. He is calm and gentle with humans of all ages, but he has a strong prey drive, and would attack and sometimes kill other animals (particularly small ones). It was quite a sharp learning curve for me to learn which type of leash works best and how to control it to prevent Paco from attacking another dog walker’s animal or getting wrapped around my chair. I eventually trained him not to lunge at the first sight of another animal, but that didn’t stop him from barking furiously at them as they passed by. I didn’t blame him, though; I don’t think he was well socialized with other animals. Plus, he was never neutered. His behavior is only a reflection of breed, instinct and training (or lack thereof).

But, alas, the tides have turned. A few months ago, Paco was attacked by an unleashed dog on two separate occasions. Both times, the attacker was younger and faster than Paco, and my poor friend never stood a chance. I felt so frustratingly helpless, as I sat there screaming and watching him get his ass kicked until the owner pulled their dog away. As a result, Paco was traumatized and is now fearful of other dogs, even the small ones. Because his eyesight is impaired, on our walks he is hesitant around blind corners, and freezes the second he sees something moving. Because his hearing is impaired, he is badly startled at sudden loud noises, and a barking dog behind a fence makes him anxious and confused. He is not the same confident wolf descendant he was eight years ago.

The intuitive part of me can’t help but note the “karma” of the situation. The realist in me understands that this is the cycle of life and the natural world. But the empath in me is filled with angst. Oh, how I understand that vulnerable feeling, that sudden realization that you are no longer the young, strong, healthy individual you used to be. I once held a red belt in Tae Kwon Do and was well-trained in self-defense. Even though I am a woman, I did not fear walking at night or being alone in a parking lot. I felt confident in my physicality and ability to defend myself. When I became disabled, I was painfully aware of how vulnerable I had become, and disturbed by the fear and anxiety this raised. Watching Paco become hesitant, nervous, startled, and even fearful fills me with a mixture of abject pity and “mother bear” protectiveness.

Yet, I also admire him, learn from him, and am inspired by him. Paco lives in the moment. He does not spend much time brooding about the past or worrying about the future. I don’t think he lays in his bed, weeping about his misspent youth, and fretting about who will care for him when he’s dying. To him, each day is a new one, and he begins it with the same puppy joy he’s always had. He still tosses his head and barks excitedly at the prospect of going for a walk. When he hears the rustling of his bag of treats, he still hauls himself to his feet and jumps painfully off the sofa, bright-eyed and hopeful. To him, each moment is what it is, and he simply accepts it and folds it into his existence. And he seems at peace with that. I’m trying to take a page from my friend’s book, and adapt it to my complex human experiences. I’m trying to stay in the present, accepting life on life’s terms, adapting to each new challenge, and simply folding them into my life.

Paco is teaching me about self-care and kindness. If he’s hungry, he eats. If he’s thirsty, he drinks. If he needs to blow off steam, he draws from his inner puppy. When he needs to rest, he settles himself and closes his eyes. He loves physical attention, but when he’s hurting, he will not hesitate to avoid my outstretched hand, opting to curl up nose to tail on the couch instead. (In the mornings when he’s stiff and achy, I bring his treat to him, instead of him coming to me…What can I say? I’m a well trained human!) He never procrastinates or puts off what he knows he needs in the moment. He never pushes himself beyond his limit or beats himself up if he can’t accomplish something. I can see how happy and content he is, and if I can learn to practice care and kindness with myself even in these simple ways, perhaps I can experience some of that contentedness.

Even though he is growing old and sore, and he is losing his sight and hearing, Paco is sweet, gentle and loving, and has many moments of pure joy, excitement and playfulness. His physical limitations have not seemed to impact his mental wellness, or his ability to enjoy the pleasures of life. I guess that is part of living in the moment. He takes life as it comes, and thoroughly engages in the things that make him happy. The chronic pain and stiffness haven’t changed the way he behaves with me and other humans. He still happily greets me when I arrive home, gazes at me lovingly from across the room, leans into me when I stroke him, and is always eager to engage. When I’m having a bad pain day, I can be grouchy, sullen, apathetic, and depressed. My limited mobility and range of motion sometimes frustrates and irritates me, and I can become impatient and lash out at others. I want to be more like my friend, remaining gentle and respectful of others, even while battling my own issues.

I understand that there is a vast difference between the brains, motivations and experiences of humans versus dogs. I understand that Paco may not even perceive pain, emotion, and thought in the same way I do. But watching my dog age and cope with his new limitations and impairments makes me want to follow his lead. He manages in ways that seem to allow him to continue to live in peace and happiness, and I want that. Doesn’t everyone?

Originally published: February 14, 2021
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