Samantha Johnston: God bless old dogs

Samantha Johnston
View from the Newsroom

There’s part of the human heart that gets unlocked when we love an old dog. For some, it starts to happen when we see the first gray hairs on their snouts; when we realize that our walks are half the distance and twice the time; it’s most vulnerable by the time we feel the pit in our stomach that is a constant reminder that nothing lasts forever. And whether a good dog lives a short time or a long time, whenever they leave us, it’s always way too soon.

When my golden retriever, Murphy, died unexpectedly in 2016, I couldn’t imagine my life without him. I also couldn’t imagine my life without a dog. But if and when I did get another pooch, I wanted a male golden retriever puppy. Period. After all, the dog I loved the most was Murphy.

Two years later, I was at a holiday party and overhead a conversation among colleagues about “rehoming” their yellow lab. They were moving back East to care for their aging mothers, and a medical condition made moving their 13-year-old dog to a hot and humid climate less than ideal for their dog’s golden years. I concede that it may have been more so the cumulative effects of the merlot we were enjoying and less my altruistic nature that made me blurt out, “You’re rehoming Maggie? I’ll take her!”

And so it was.

Nearly every friend I have asked me if I had lost my mind adopting a senior dog. Didn’t I know that I was going to get my heart broken again? I wasn’t planning on it. I mean, how long would a really old dog live? Not long enough to love as much as Murph.

Turns out I was right. It was impossible to love her just as much as Murph. I loved her more.

It’s hard to put my thumb on exactly when I knew that I was headed for another heartbreak, but I think it started with her Mickey Mouse ears bouncing in the wind as she bunny hopped after her tennis ball. She melted my heart every time she looked up at me with her big browns when she was just about to do something that was definitely against our better judgment. She had a certain spunk that showed up at exactly the wrong time. Her youthful heart remembered the days that her aging body could no longer keep up with. Sometimes, I secretly hoped that she’d tear off to do the thing she most certainly shouldn’t do before I noticed and let my good sense get in the way of her spirited soul. Her shenanigans are what kept her spirit young.

Every day with Mags was the best day. As time passed, first months and then years, her innate sweetness ripened ever sweeter. Some days she couldn’t walk all the way to the office, so we requisitioned a red Radio Flyer wagon, from which she jumped out into a crosswalk more than once. On one occasion, a woman in a car rolled down the window and yelled, “You know, if she’s capable of walking, you should let her. It’s good for old dogs to get exercise.” I bit my tongue. Maggie laughed inside.

Because of Maggie, I became kinder. Gentler. More patient. I came to cherish our long, slow walks when she would stop to raise her snout in the air and take long drags of whatever scent reminded her of something she knew or loved. I took pride in telling anyone who would listen that she was almost 16 when they would ask how old she was. But mostly, I just loved having her by my side.

She was completely deaf. She was beautiful. And she was perfect.

There’s a sweetness that old dogs possess that is more than just the sum of their years. It’s when their soulful eyes can speak a language only their humans understand. It’s when they enter the golden years and you believe, for just a second, that maybe your dog will live forever. Miracles happen every day.

But time stops for no man, or dog. Toward the end, I would go to bed at night praying to whomever was listening that if they would let Maggie just go to sleep and never wake up, that I’d spend the rest of my life trying to be a better person. And I meant it. I just didn’t want to have to make the decision to let her leave me. Every night, I would kiss her goodnight and tuck her in to her warm blankies and tell her that when it was time, it was OK for her to go. And when she would wake up in the morning, I’d hug her and tell her that I was so glad that we had one more day.

Nobody answered my prayers, by the way. Just before her 16th birthday, I knew. We swam in the river. She ate salmon and cheese and crackers. And we met her vet in the park. She left me with a tennis ball in her mouth stretched out in the grass on a sunny day.

If and when I was ever ready for another pooch, I said I wanted an old female yellow lab. Nothing else. Period. After all, I had loved Maggie the most.

In November, we adopted Ernie from Lucky Day Animal Rescue. He’s a 9-year-old Arkansas hound with a heart problem. In the event that he doesn’t live forever, I want an old male hound. Period.

I’ll never learn. Or, maybe I’ve learned the only lesson I really need to know. God bless the old dogs.

Samantha Johnston is the publisher of The Aspen Times and loves dogs. A lot.