At one point in the life shared between human and dog companions, it will often belatedly dawn on the former that the latter has suddenly found his day to be perfectly fulfilling with just a deeper sleep and a Greenie.
As is so more often the case with a dog, this transition is accomplished with far vague subtlety than the humans who are now usually compelled to crassly proclaim their every turn of nature on Facebook. For the dog, this period comes before they’re no longer able to pursue that nemesis of grinding gears, the garbage truck, but after they’ve grudgingly shrugged their shanks to realize the potential thrill isn’t worth risking a sore paw. Eventually, they decide they neither want nor need a walk or a Greenie and the human decides the dog is too old to live anymore.
There are also those who long gave up chasing garbage trucks yet refuse to go to sleep at night because they failed to snatch a half-loaf of bread earlier that morning, and rise as many as four times to nudge their late-night-working human companion with the chance to rectify this grievance. In the case of Yeager the Weimaraner, my perpetual companion, it’s been impossible to pinpoint when this allegedly twilight period began, or even if it has.
I do distinctly remember walking him at dusk, in the dimming days of 2009, when suddenly he appeared to my eyes as a wrinkled grey paper sack. He’s aged so rapidly, I thought, he must have a fatal disease. I pressed my face against his to see how well he felt, only to have him impatiently turn and smash his snout into my jaw, a defensive reminder of his dense skull, as powerful as granite, then smile, as if apologetically, to show off his glowing pink gums and shining white teeth. Two months later, on February 1, he seemed to hover between life and death, not moving all day, breathing heavily, eyes shut in pain, all without warning. After the shocking but inevitable plan for a last farewell was made, the faintest scent of peanut butter raised him like Lazarus. His limp into the kitchen was the first clue of his secret jump the day before onto a forbidden sofa, and his certain fall as he scrambled off it when he heard the car pulling up the driveway. He wasn’t denied walking privileges for three days, took a few pain pills, and the funeral wreathes went back into the garage. Nevertheless, his shining handmade wheel-cart, made to order with his massive measurements, was ordered and he was, occasionally, forced into using it when his back legs evidenced weakness.
All this made it even more happily shocking and utterly inexplicable when, in May of 2010, without warning or rationale, he busted out into a rabid horse-trot, ignoring the morning spray of swacking lawn sprinklers as he sprinted down several Soviet-long blocks and back home again, using nothing but his four seemingly miraculous sturdy legs, never the worse for it. His weight of 90 pounds remained as consistent as his incontinence. Eight weeks shy of turning fifteen years old, Yeager was neither absolutely strong nor weak.
Three months later, in early October, he contracted pneumonia and was too weak to stand. By early November, however, a full month had passed since he’d needed to use the cart. Two weeks ago, he was so listless that I finally talked through the euthanasia process with someone at the vet’s office. Three hours later, a hamburger went suddenly missing from a relatively high countertop, and Yeager’s lips were smeared with ketchup, as he ran from the kitchen. Is this dog old? By what standards?
Of course, yes, rationally, realistically, practically, Yeager is extremely old by any measure. It’s just not possible that he can live much longer. Using that standard translation of seven human years being equal to one dog year means that when Yeager awoke on his Independence Day birthday last year, he’d been alive for fifteen years, or one-hundred-five human years old.
In fact, that equation is now often challenged on the premise that the size of a dog is a crucial factor in determining their age. During a recent examination by his veterinarian, I consulted a wall chart that allegedly calculated a more accurate dog to human years translation, with consideration of the dog’s weight being a crucial factor. The chart, however, offered no comparable human age for a dog of Yeager’s years and size; in fact, by the new gauge, he would be considerably older than 105. His age is literally off-the-charts. By even the traditional standard, he’s about 111 years old.
As advanced veterinary sciences help extend the lives of dogs without extreme measures even being necessary, and the fact that, according to the Humane Society, nearly 40 percent of American households include at least one dog as a “family member” the question of how long these beings can live without pain and suffering, and how accurately one can asess their age in a way humans comprehend is becoming increasingly relevant.
Far too conscious of Yeager’s imminent death ever since he was at least 84 human years old, I have vowed to him to treat each of his remaining waking moments as possibly his last, overwhelming him with all forms of love and attention. For nearly four years, I’ve plied him with verbal assurance dozens of time each day that he’s “a very, very good dog,” patting and kissing his head, pressing him closely to me, checking in to see if he needed to go outside.
Impossibly, he not only continues to live but remains vitally engaged in life, despite decreased agility.
I’ve come to learn that the most crucial factor in precisely determining the truth about how “old” a dog may be is one, single expert opinion.
That of the dog.