Four Tricks You Can Learn From An Old Dog

4Kids1DogToday he turned 105. When I woke up this morning, he was curled in his signature twist next to me. Snoring softly.

“Happy birthday, Boy,” I whispered as I scratched his now-completely gray ears. He didn’t move. He’s deaf, and he likes to sleep. It’s mostly all he does these days.

My heart ached as I watched him. It’s his birthday and I should be happy he’s still alive, but instead I feel sad. This could be the last birthday we’re together. Fifteen years is a good, long time for a dachshund to be on this earth.

It was a beautiful spring day when we drove up to Santa Rosa to get him. His tiny body belied his playful personality and gregarious spirit. He fit in my two cupped palms. His mom’s name was Ruby and his dad was Spike, and on the way home he curled up in my lap, tucked his nose and feet in toward each other, all twisty and pretzely. By the time we got back to San Francisco, his name was Pretzel.

He was my first baby and we were inseparable in those days, Pretzel and I. Before the human babies came, we spent hours at the beach or the park every day. When his short legs couldn’t carry him anymore I scooped him up and bundled him into my fleece. Dachshunds are bred to burrow, and from his very first night with us he nosed his way under the sheets and blankets, and slept curled at my feet or right next to my pregnant belly. His reddish-brown fur is grayer each day, but he is still the warmest, softest bed partner ever.

As I watched him slowly open his now blind and milky eyes this morning, my heart tugged as I remembered the ever-present, frisky, high-spirited doggy he once was. Suddenly his tail started to wag as he lay there, warm in my bed. Almost as if he knew what I was thinking. And he was reminding me that he’s still here.

He is old, this dachshund, but he’s still here. And watching him live and age over these last 15 years, he’s taught me a few things:

1. Eyes may develop cataracts, bright, healthy fur fades and grays, and in time even the floppiest ears lose their hearing. But an inherently happy, determined spirit will keep you alive even when your heart and bladder are weak.

2. Blatant chutzpah will get you what you want, even at 105. This little dachshund bumps into walls and doors, has a hard time walking up and down stairs, and can’t hear us when we call him. But when he wants a slice of brisket he knows where to find it, and how to get it. Even if it’s high up on the dining room table.

3. Which brings me to his appreciation for good food. His appetite has not completely disappeared but he definitely doesn’t eat with the same gusto as he used to. Unless it’s leftover chicken or hamburgers. Watching him wolf down a chicken leg in no time, I wonder if his bowl stays full during the day because he is saving his appetite for the good stuff. Who wants Beneful when there’s a chance of steak for dinner?

4. There are all kinds of ways to love each other, but unconditionally may be the purest, sweetest and hardest to come by. Unless you have a dog. He will love you if you walk him and he will love you if you don’t. She will love you if you leave her for hours, or even for a few weeks. They will love you, no matter what. And that is the most heartwarming, fulfilling way to be loved.

He is old, our Pretzel. And he’s still here.

Ninety-eight and still has chutzpah!

He can barely see. One eye is completely covered by a cataract, and the other looks pretty blank to me. Those big ears of his do not hear much anymore. He definitely can’t hear me calling him. His bladder has shrunk. Or disappeared altogether. His bones are old and his hair is almost white. So for a 14-year-old he’s in pretty good shape!

Of course, that’s 98 in dog years. Or is it 98 in people years and 14 in dog years? I get confused. All I know is that there’s a multiple of seven involved. And today is his fourteenth birthday. I’m feeling strangely sentimental and emotional about my aging dachshund, whose bark drives me crazy and who is causing way too much unnecessary stress between me and Ryan – it’s that shrinking bladder, the midnight and 3am excursions outside, the high-pitched bark at nothing and everything because the poor creature can’t see much… an aging dachshund is eerily similar to a newborn baby. Been there, done that!

Pretzel was our first.

It was a beautiful spring day much like today when we drove up to Santa Rosa to get him. He was teeny. He fit in my two cupped palms. His mom’s name was Ruby and his dad was Spike – they were all small standard, red, short-haired dachshunds. Just adorable. I don’t remember how we chose Pretzel. But we did. And on the way home he curled up on my lap, tucked his then-short nose and feet in toward each other, all twisty and pretzely. By the time we got back to San Francisco, his name was Pretzel. Perfect.

(Weeks later I discovered there was a children’s book about an extra-long, heroic dachshund named Pretzel, written and illustrated by Margaret and H.A. Rey. Serendipity. We have several copies of that book. It’s one of our favorites. Along with The Halloweiner. And Schnitzel von Krumm.)

Now I’m not a crazy dog-lover. I like dogs. I do love some dogs. I always had a dog growing up, and I think a pet is wonderful to have in a household. They love you unconditionally. To love and take care of them is incredibly fulfilling and heartwarming. They bring life and warmth and fun and gentleness and craziness, and hair, and extra work, and mess and happy licks and wagging tails and lots of walks and special moments of quiet and peace. And before I had kids, and when I was working from home, Pretzel was my life and I may have become a crazy dog-lover – which is easy to do in a crazy, dog-loving city like San Francisco!

I took him to the beach and when his short, little legs couldn’t carry him anymore I scooped him up and bundled him into my fleece. We spent hours in Dolores Park each day, and made friends with every dachshund and chihuahua in the City. He slept in our bed from night one, curled up right next to me or at my feet – and I have not met a dachshund parent anywhere in the US, London, Sydney or South Africa whose dachshund does NOT sleep in their bed. They are bred to burrow, and since they are not running down rabbit holes or hunting badgers in these urban environs, they burrow into sheets and blankets – warmest bed-partners ever. Even Ryan agrees.

Babies in strollers were no competition for jaunty Pretzel on those San Francisco hills. That proud little dachshund could barely strut three feet down Union Street without being stopped and petted and questioned and tickled. My new-mommy friends were not impressed as their bonny, bouncy six-month olds – cute as they were – were blatantly ignored. Want attention? Get a dachshund!

We had fun times, Pretzie and I. He was friendly, and social, high-energy and obedient. He barked a lot when the doorbell rang, and he would pee if he got too excited (doesn’t everybody?) but he quickly became part of the Gilberts, like all pets integrate into their families. On his first Rosh Hashana with us, I hosted a large buffet-style dinner. “Can I give him my leftovers?” asked my sister, one of Pretzel’s biggest fans. “Absolutely not!” I replied. I would make him his own plate of brisket and kugel! By the end of the evening that little belly of his, already mere inches from the ground, was dragging.

My proud Pretzel does not have my undivided attention anymore. During the last twelve years he’s slipped lower and lower on my list of Beating Hearts That Need my Love and Patience. His loud, incessant barking whenever the doorbell rang caused immediate spasms in my jaw as I shushed him because a baby was sleeping. He would steal the kids’ food. He’s been skunked twice – admittedly that’s more my fault than his, but man, what a pain (tomato juice does not help)! His nails need clipping, his teeth need cleaning, he has a weak-ish heart. He is no longer my first. He’s my very, very last.

Of course I still love him. And care for him. He still sleeps in my bed – although he can’t jump up anymore, I have to lift him. I pick him up under his arms just like he’s one of my kids. And I carry him down the stairs – those long spines don’t manage the descent so well over time. He doesn’t bark when the doorbell rings because he can’t hear it – not that it would matter, nobody is taking a nap no more! And he has more people than ever to love him – most notably the youngest. I often find the two of them twisted around each other on the couch, one stroking the other’s ears.

Pretzel cannot see the food that drops on the floor right near his long nose, and he can’t jump up onto my bed – but this morning I came home to discover that nose had found its way high up onto the dining room table and into the gift bags full of hamantashen (cookies I’d baked for the Jewish holiday of Purim). He had helped himself to a few. Now that is chutzpah!

He is 14/98 years old today – and it is clear he is not going anywhere, this doggedly determined dachshund. Till 120 they say in Hebrew, when someone has a birthday. Pretzel, may you live till at least 120: a full, fun life, surrounded by so many who love you.

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