Helping Yourself Help A Very Old Dog Live Longer and Well (Part II)

Helping yourself will help a very old dog live longer and well…

It’s understandable how striving to maintain a very old dog’s well-being may appear futile.

Given a dog’s shorter life span, the time, energy and money expended on behalf of what may only be a matter of several weeks or months makes no sense to even many of those who loved sharing their lives with animals. Despite my intense attachment to Yeager, there were times when I wondered if I could justify “putting him down” to relieve the strife it sometimes created for me. From a purely selfish viewpoint, however, I ultimately gained more than I gave.

Like those practical methods which helped Yeager, those I found useful to helping myself will be apparent to anyone thinking it through. Still, imminent or even eventual loss of an animal companion is an emotionally upsetting prospect. Along with the lengths we humans can go to avoid, deny or delay is our instinct to sublimate the pain of potential loss to the point of overriding rationality.

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1. It’s Your Choice

So many of my instinctive decisions came down to eye to eye contact and recognizing Yeager not as a dog but a living being worthy of respect equal to human beings – not a widely popular view.

Especially during the more overwrought moments, I reminded myself of two facts. Every so often I had to tell myself that, truthfully, the effort made to give a disabled or senior dog a comfortable life is a personal choice. Humans might lack the control of nature to extend the life of an animal, but they have been given the legal right and power to end it. With a dog’s perception – not a human’s, Yeager’s resistance to my help was often frustrating, and sometimes felt all the more futile when I took an accounting of the different kinds of costs involved. Reminding myself that I didn’t have to do this – that the choice of euthanizing him was always immediately available – instantly cooled that frustration. The stark reality that even without him being in pain but simply being old or disabled I could just end his life and my own “suffering” affirmed my private moral code and only increased my determination not to give up on him. Everyone and their mother presumed the right to declare I was right or wrong, but it was always my choice. And once I reminded myself I was choosing this because, for me, it became about respecting a living being, I gave myself over to it.

2. It’s a Brief Period

The second fact, which played into my decision on the above, was that, optimistically, Yeager’s life as a very old dog would consume a year of my own. Everything passes, every situation, condition, crisis evolves. Life changes whether or not we want it to. I had to silence the chattering by which others confused my instinct and keep the reality that each day which passed was another one closer to the end of my time with Yeager and seize the fullest possible value while I was experiencing it. In the big picture, caretaking a dog can only a brief chapter of time in human years.

3. Your Situation is Unique

My unique situation, like everyone’s – had individual advantages and deficits but working at home is what really allowed me to caretake Yeager through his last eight months.

Many people might share my views but not the  limitations or privileges of my particular situation. The factors of one’s personal home and work situation will naturally mitigate any one of our range of choices.  I work from a home office on a laptop and am rarely required to travel from home.  I’m not responsible for children or other people in needfor whom I’m also responsible (and I had credit cards with wiggle room – at least when the process began). Though obvious, its worth repeating that whatever is offered as a guideline is only as helpful as it applies to an individual dog’s condition, and their human’s home life, work situation and ability at equip for the eventual aging and loss of the animal. We can prepare for debility and loss only so far as fate allows us to but no amount of it, even under ideal circumstances, can predict our reaction to the loss or where we are with the rest of our lives at that point. To cut all that gingerbread, just remember that the life you and your dog lead, apart and together, is unique from those of others; apply advice at will.

4. Adhere to Your Personal Values

Yeager’s curiosity in exploring and keen senses were another way I made a judgement on his shifting condition. Keeping him engaged proved to be as important as nutrition.

I’ve come to believe that using the expression “put to sleep” for what is, in fact, a “mercy killing” can innocently mislead our collective perception down a dangerous path. It may removes an uncomfortable edge for the human making the decision, but it can also desensitize the value of life to non-human beings and distort the significance of the decision. Most humans place a higher value on our species above all other forms of life; it’s the reason why rigid opposition to any human euthanasia, despite the individual circumstances of terminally-ill people, is not a moral principal extended to animals. Just as I felt the unfairness of others critiquing my choices for Yeager based on a snapshot moment, I’ve learned it’s not my place to judge the reasoning by which others decide to end the lives of their individual dogs at the junctures they do.

5. Seek Advice from those Who’ve Been There

Observing Yeager’s behavior, examining his condition were part of a daily routine that defined how – and at times – whether to continue to care for him

The factors inherent in humane euthanasia of animals are complex and fraught with contradictions, even without the comparisons of laws preventing humans from making the same decision about their own life. Without asking for and receiving the guidance, advice, and experiences of those who’ve either faced or made the decision on euthanasia on behalf of their animals, however, it can be a haunting and solitary dilemma.

In retrospect, I recognize just how vital several friends were at different turning points for me. Maybe nothing can help a person more than to seek advice from those who’ve cared for an old or disabled dog and faced the decision of their euthanasia.

6. Define The Thresholds

Jake and Daren Phillips.

In October 2010, just when Yeager’s independence was first seriously compromised, I’d been struck by the poignancy of the last pictures of my friend Daren Phillips and his golden retriever Jake together, which I’d seen on Facebook. Prior to moving to Los Angeles and adopting Yeager in 2001, I often saw them in a park near my home in Washington, D.C. Having witnessed their intense bond was not only proof enough of how difficult Jake’s ordeal of cancer had to be for Daren but the care and caution he would have had to use in humanely releasing his dog from pain by choosing euthanasia. Despite my call catching him in the midst of preparing dinner, Daren put aside any potential upset it may have caused him to invest a lot of time and sensitivity in posing set of direct questions not so much to answer but to honestly face and resolve within myself about Yeager’s condition. Daren’s talk proved absolutely crucial.

7. Recognize Others Face Tough Odds Too

Jeff Buhler and Rebecca Hughes with their son Rocco and dog Tallulah.

For all but the last two years of his life, Yeager’s closest canine pal was the American Staffordshire terrier Tallulah who lived across the street with my friends Jeff Buhler and Rebecca Hughes. They underwent great change in a short period: Jeff and Rebecca married, had a baby, moved to a larger home, and then to a smaller one.

Rebecca, Tallulah and Rocco.

Just as their son was maturing into a toddler, Tallulah’s mobility and digestive control was giving out. They didn’t view their life as being a choice between committing to their son or to their dog but rather, to both. With limited time, no caretaking support, and pressure to euthanize Tallulah from loved ones, their decision was steadfast. Never complaining or explaining, they just did it until Tallulah began experiencing pain with no chance of it vanishing. They had to euthanize Tallulah in October but it was in the eight months which followed that their history of enduring costly vet checkups, constant carpet-cleaning, and regular sleep interruptions on behalf of her while she lived without pain that buttressed my own resolve to do likewise for Yeager. Darren was a role model I emulated to honestly ensure I didn’t selfishly lengthen Yeager’s life. Jeff and Rebecca became my standard which ensured that I didn’t selfishly shorten it. And that while I often felt my choice was a burden, they reminded me that many others making the same choice face even greater pressures.

8. Suspend Travel, Keep Schedule Flexible

A great change my choice also essentially forced me into suspending a scheduled life or extensive travel. And that had consequences. Through the holiday season, I found my sense of mission encouraged by compassionate wisdom from some without dogs and by outrage incited by others with them. Invited to dinner on New Year’s Day by a friend, I accepted on the condition that I could only leave Yeager for about two hours. During the course of the meal, the intention became apparent when my friend unrelentingly insisted that Yeager was in pain, despite what the vet said, and that I needed to end his life and renew my own. My confusion was mitigated when I realized how long it had been since I’d been able to play tennis with her. After a crisp verdict of “worry” from my brother visiting from Australia about my curtailed life due to Yeager, my mother called to affirm her unequivocal understanding of why I didn’t join our family over Christmas, support of my care of Yeager and faith in my judgment if I needed to change course. That validation was the greatest possible gift and encouraged me to continue on.

9. Find Fullness in the Moment

Edward Purcell was visiting from Washington when his father died; time spent with his father freed him from a sense of regret.

I also learned to find inspiration and apply it, even when it didn’t involve a dog. Perhaps the most powerful yet indirect shoring up at the mid-point of this period resulted from a shock. Edward Purcell, a friend of many years visiting from Washington with me (yes, and Yeager) on New Year’s Eve learned two days later of his father’s sudden death back home. Edward composed a moving letter to his friends about having consciously put aside part of every Sunday in the previous year to spend with his father in the older man’s routine of life. Despite his father’s strength and good health, Edward recognized the fleeting nature of time and although he’d sometimes rather spend the day attending to his own interests, he cleared his mind to enjoy the moments with his dad. As a result, he was left without a whit of guilt or regret. His letter fortified my resolve. I wanted to feel the same way when, on that approaching day, Yeager died.

Employing the principal of gratitude also helped. I most frequently felt it on our quiet evening walks when simply watching how stimulated by life Yeager continued to be. Whatever deficits I might have been operating with in terms of his care, I never forgot it was actually a privilege to be caring for him, to be working at home to spend all my time with him, and to possess excellent health myself, minimizing necessary diversion of my focus. Having learned to face the situation as honestly as I could each day ended up with another compounded benefit. Because the day did come when I felt I really needed sleep, a break and a confidante about the issues being faced.

10. Accept Help

For some months, a friend had enthusiastically offered to help out in anyway with Yeager. On one occasion, I took a day away and they handled an especially rambunctious Yeager all day. Just as I didn’t want to potentially euthanize Yeager too late – or too early, I didn’t want to ask for help before I felt I honestly needed it. So, when I did, I meant it. Accepting occasional help let me catch up on neglected aspects of my life, renewed my own patience with Yeager, and some sense of balance was restored, if even for the time being. I remained the primary, daily caregiver, responsible for every aspect but there were times when I absolutely needed to attend to other matters and so, for several hours, took comfort in knowing there was reliable aid. While I was proud of what I was accomplishing, forcing myself to always be realistic about my own limitations allowed me to ask for and accept the help when it was genuinely needed.

11. Make Arrangements

Rich Burns who committed fully to caring for his dog Phoebe to the end, and helped me by speaking about the experience .

Quite literally overnight, Yeager manifested the first sign of what threatened and ultimately proved to lead to his death. Fifteen days before he died, I got a random call from another friend, Rich Burns, in Massachusetts, just to see how I was holding up. It was a welcome coincidence. A fellow writer, he’d spoke so vitally about his departed dog Phoebe, although I’d only met his current dog Rufus. I also knew the loss of Phoebe, likely a shepherd-collie mix,  had been difficult. Now, as I told him what I was going through with Yeager, he was willing to impart the full range of what he’d felt, as well as sad but necessary decisions I had to soon face, but was reluctant to discuss. After speaking with him facing the practicalities after a dog’s death, like cremation, burial, and transportation of the remains was far easier, a reminder that millions of people who’ve loved their dogs just as much as I’ve loved Yeager have endured the loss – and millions more will in the future as well.

Yeager with Friends For Pets founder and director Diane Monahan in 2005. go to www.friendsforpets.org for more information on the rescue.

12. Attach and Detach

Throughout Yeager’s eight months as a very old dog, one voice had the greatest sustaining influence on me in relation to dogs, as it had since that November 2001 day when I adopted him – and that was Diane Monahan, founder and director of Friends For Pets, the rescue shelter, who’d initially matched us together by personality. In her daily tasks at the rescue, she has seen acts of cruelty acted out on dogs, heard terrible stories of abuse, and arranged for volunteers to race out in the eleventh hour to rescue dogs abandoned by families in deserts and freeways and city pounds, slated for death. At the Friends for Pets shelter, she’s helped to patiently,  reassure over a thousand dogs and manage to somehow communicate to them a sense that life would get better. She and I long spoke about respecting the “dignity” of all living beings and how to recognize when it was no longer present in a dog’s life. It was, however, her ability of duality – t0 be able to commit to the rehabilitative well-being of an individual dog, yet then also release them to a new life and never see them again that she served as an exemplar. To be entirely attached yet accept the inevitability of detachment, to be able to love knowing it would not last – and to do it with beings that cannot speak directly to us: that guided me, especially in the first days of June.

I’d never been a caretaker to a person, let alone a dog. I still childishly wish some magic granted dogs longer lives. I would have to say the often sad struggle for me in those eight months ultimately proved worthwhile. In the months since, I’ve also come to find an enduring meaning from the experience and assess how it changed me.

Most importantly was the recognition that however much I often felt alone,

I never really was.

 


Categories: Dogs, Senior Dog Care, Yeager the Weimaraner

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15 replies »

  1. I have just been through this for the last 17 months with my dog Nike. She was in the same wheels as you had for your dog (Eddie’s Wheels?). She was a German Shepherd, paralyzed in her hind legs and was great in her cart until this past September when her front legs went. She lived her final days (16 yrs old) up until last week, riding in, and loving her big motorized red wagon. People say that you and I and people like us are extraordinary or special or Saints. But we owe that to our animals,when they give us unconditional love and are there for us no matter what. Her loss has been devastating to me but I loved giving and caretaking (even though it became 24/7)and it was the most gratifying experience that I have ever had in my life.
    Bravo to you, I loved reading your article. You are wonderful.

    • R. Your words give me pause – in a good way and one which I appreciate, honored to be told. But it does take one to know one – meaning we share that experience and I empathize with what your experience was like. And without any hyperbole or exaggeration I concur that what is ultimately a brief period of our life is not a horror but a gratifying experience, and a glimpse into and grasp of so many intangible aspects of the process of life. In the quiet way wisdom can alter perceptions about everything, that experience gives up a third eye on life and – oddly, might be seen as the greatest possible gift our dogs can leave us with. Thank you very much.

  2. Thank you so much for writing your story, it just renewed my feeling that I’m doing the right thing. My Shadow is a very old dog, just turned 15 six weeks ago.He was overweight, but as his rear arthritis started becoming obvious my family and I got serious about it, I cooked and prepackaged meals for him and he lost the weight.He’s needed help up stairs for a while, but now his front legs are arthritic as well, and he’s having trouble getting up. I just got the helpem up harness today, and can tell it will extend his quality of life.I have already been receiving well-meaning advice to have him put down, but his eyes aren’t telling me it’s time. Your writing has reaffirmed that feeling, it’s so helpful to know others have gone through the same trials, and see how you adapted to make Yeager’s time as happy as possible.

    • Dear Julie – I just wrote another person going through this – and I think that is perhaps the most important thing to hold onto as you do go through the caring of an elderly dog – it may sometimes feel like an individual or couple or family is alone as they endure the tougher aspects of it, but the truth is that there are tens of thousands, perhaps millions – I don’t know, not having been able to find figures on this issue – who are “with you” because they’re going through the exact same process. And one thing I am currently writing about for a future article on this issue is the fact that an old dog – or a young dog, or an old person, or a young person – all beings are simultaneously dying while we are living, and living while we are dying. For me there is nothing more of a rare experience with insights into the process of life than to decide to respect and honor a living being who is not in pain or whose twinges of discomfort are not enough to make them lose interest in walking and socializing and eating. And next time anyone questions your decision to respect a living being, however much hell it creates for you, question their choice of haircut or the car they drive, etc. not meanly, but really to point out that it is a choice of how you wish to spend what will be a fleeting period of time and ultimately a momentary chapter in your life. There is nothing more meaningful to me now in this department than to hear from other people with other dogs who can perhaps benefit in some regard from my experiences. In an odd way, I translate it as Yeager continuing to do the work he did for me.

  3. I am just now entering this world of care taking for my dog. He isn’t considered that old at age 9 but recently had his spleen rupture and he was bleeding internally. After the emergency surgery his back legs are paralyzed, then the news came that the tumors that ruptured where cancer. Many people including my vet stated they would euthanize and I didn’t feel like it was time, I have been struggling with this decision as our society seems to edge you toward “putting them down”. I thank you so much for this post it has helped me with my constant battle of is this right or am I selfish. We are trying acupuncture for his legs and I am ordering the Helpemup today so hopefully he gets to walk again, if not I will get the wheel chair as I don’t want him depressed he can not walk. The cancer is another story… he is not in pain from the cancer (still recovering from the major surgery) but we are trying some herbal remedies to prolong his life. Again I thank you for this post it really lifted a lot of stress, it takes a special person to put their life on hold and you are beyond that special person! You gave your dog the same Innocent love he gave to you and he is forever grateful I am sure.

    • Dear Ashley – I’ve waited a bit to write you, thinking about what you are going through. There is so much I can say, yet it also seems like you know the answer wisely, within yourself. That is a horrible situation for your fellow. But I would say the main issue is pain – and if a dog is not in pain and adapts to whatever limitations life and illness may place on them to still enjoy themselves and if – the big if – you are ready and willing to become a caregiver, well for me that’s the difference between compassionate euthanasia with the dog’s best interests as the priority and simply killing a being with the human’s best interests as priority. And the last thing I would ever do is presume to judge or understand every person’s own individual limitations, be it time, money, health, experience or other mitigating circumstances. I have recently heard, however, that there are or will soon be something along the lines of a hospice where ill or dying animals can be cared for professionally if their human companions are unable to provide the necessary home care. I will tell you this: the helpmeup and the Eddie’s Wheels cart saved Yeager’s life – and made him so, so happy. Especially that cart which allowed him to completely be independent once placed in it – he loved it and he kept walking which kept him engaged and curious – and paradoxically, while age began to waste his back leg muscles, the walking continued to build up the leg muscles. And thank you so much for saying what you did at the end of your message. Next week it is one-year since I lost old Yeager and I miss him every day, but I’m also so proud that I listened to my instincts and committed to caring for him. It was a privilege – and a huge sacrifice which I know not everyone can make – and I am definitely still paying for it now in many ways – but I would do it all again. For me, it was worth it. Regardless of that, you sound like a compassionate and thoughtful person and I would definitely count on one fact: you will do the right thing because you are that kind of a person. Take comfort in knowing that.

  4. I just wanted to thank you for your writings. I have an 11yr 7 month old Newfoundland that is the love of my life. We have no human children, only a furry one. He has made me a better person. He has trouble controlling his bowels, at times, but a roll of paper towels and a disinfectant fix that in a second. His back legs are giving out and he has trouble going up and down the stairs. I put a ramp on the front steps. I was showing him how to go up the ramp. He looked at me as if I were insane and walked up the stairs. Just the night before, 3am in the morning, I had to lift his back legs up the stairs. We have our good, and not so good, moments. We have hardwood floors, which make it difficult for him to get up. I have strategically placed cushioned, rubber backed rugs all through the house. Everything I do for him is worth it. All the vitamins, cooking his meals and all the vet bills, are nothing compared to what he has given to me. Just the other day, we took the frame off of the mattress so it would be easier for him.
    Reading your article made me teary and put a lump in my throat. I truly believe you are one of the good ones. I thank you for giving me peace this evening. I would do anything for Bob my Newfy. He is the greatest gift I have ever been given. He still has his wits about him, and seems to be getting old and stiff, and not in pain. I feel the same stiffness. It is part of getting old. I purchased the harness that you recommended. Hopefully, it will give him some relief and more access to the car rides he used to enjoy. Bless you.

    • Donna – I have taken a longer time than usual to respond to you because I wanted to take the time to do so with thought. There is so much I want to say and yet perhaps not publicly – but to summarize I would say that we clearly share the same values about showing our beloved companions the same respect we would hope to receive, even if they are non-human. And all the steps you have taken immediately brought me back to two years ago. Every one of them. And I hear in your words the same sense of gratitude I felt for my dog companion – as you say, making you “a better person.” This is a large part of the unexplored but vast topic I am exploring in the book I am writing about Yeager’s care. It really is a brief moment, ultimately, in the time of our lives and we must “use it or lose it.” I would also say that giving your focus and energy to him provides a sense of assurance and belonging and love which reduces the stress he may be feeling in reaction to the changes he is undergoing. I can’t even begin to start expressing the depth of my appreciation for your writing – the whole reason I have written about this subject is to be of practical help to others undergoing this poignant period and your response gives me a feeling that my sense of purpose is helping people here and there. Thank you.

  5. (Finally figured out how to comment here)

    Carl, this is the article I keep coming back to. Taking care of an older dog is so much more complex than I ever imagined. Your words here have helped me with my Smokey more than you will ever know….and for that I thank you so much. I get a little down sometimes…thinking, hoping I am doing what is the very best for him….and then I read this and understand. Thank you…

    Yes, the Help Em Up Harness sure has helped us, as well. When his DM first came on, I got a wheeled cart. Smokey would not have any of that! I tried several times…slowly, to introduce him to it. I think he saw the cart as his not being able to walk. And that scared him so much. But with that harness….he is right beside me, ‘walking’ and he is happy. And that is always what I have wanted for him……

    • Beth – your generous remarks about this article which is among the most meaningful to me gives me a depth of satisfaction hard to describe because it is heartening evidence that it can be helpful to others trying to delineate these often subtle but important elements in making decisions about the care of an elderly dog. Trying to offer ideas and suggestions to others going through this and to show that nobody is ever really alone when facing these often daily decisions – those are the exact reasons why I wrote it, along with the other part. Thank you very much.

  6. Thank you so much for both parts of this article. I’m dealing with something very similar with my dog, whom I’ve had for 13 years. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, but your posts were so affirming. And, I’m finding this time I’ve been spending with her is priceless and I feel lucky to be with her through her decline. Peace.

  7. Carl,

    About a month ago I sat in front of my computer with Camry, my 14 1/2 year old Weimaraner on my lap, and I Googled “how old is the oldest Weimaraner in history.” Your tribute to Yeager popped up in the search results and I watched your beautiful video. I sat in tears of sadness and joy as I watched your life with Yeager and how it mirrored mine with Camry. My sweet boy has been right by my side for many of life’s ups and downs, helped me raise two children. He is my constant companion every day, in the kitchen, the yard, and the car (his favorite place). Unfortunately, he has been battling cancer and arthritis for years. Fortunately, he’s been winning this battle because of an amazingly healthy diet and a litany of immune boosting supplements. The latest blow is a diagnosis of DM.

    I can’t tell you how much your tribute and subsequently reading your advice on caring for an older (actually at this point, very old) dog has helped and inspired me to keep doing whatever I can to allow Camry to pass comfortably and on his own terms. I too had the appointment with the euthanasia vet and canceled because I simply can’t do it. We have an agreement, Camry and me, we continue to fight until he does not want to fight anymore. In the last few weeks, he has lost all function of his back legs. The natural progression of DM. Ignoring all sense of “reason” and “the inability to look beyond myself and not let him suffer” I drove him to Eddie’s wheels today and we got a cart. I’m so glad we didn’t listen to the naysayers. Why the rush? We are still trying to get used to the cart, but the folks at Eddie’s made it very clear that he was a great candidate and he will adapt. It was so nice to hear that there was another option for him and that he could still enjoy his journey a bit longer despite the difficult diagnosis of DM.

    Your advice and specific recommendations have proven to be priceless and I want to thank you for taking the time to write about your experience and share what you have learned. Camry, by the way, is the spitting image of Yeager. They look like they could be brothers. He has been my rock, my best friend, the wagging tail waiting for me when I walk in the door, the bane of my existence at times in his Weimaraner way. A force to be reckoned with for most of his life he made “Marley” look like an angel. I wouldn’t change a minute though. It sounds like you wouldn’t either and you left no stone unturned. Thank you for your inspiration and words of wisdom.

    • Dear Lisa: Of all the articles I’ve written, the two you refer to “Helping an Old Dog Live Longer” and “helping Yourself Help a Dog Live Longer” are the most important – and your thoughtful, generous response to it are a grateful reason for why I wrote them – to help other people going through the same process who felt alone and confused. It always seemed curious to me that anyone could doubt that those who were so invested in providing the best possible life to their dog companions could seek to “keep them alive” if they were suffering – it is, as in your case, as it was in mine – a matter of ensuring that every hour for whatever time they have left is of the highest possible quality. I will tell you this too – it is not in vain. By focusing on the moment, even minute by minute, certain realizations and discoveries about life itself will open to you and you will have them as long as you live….and that is a direct result and an eternal gift from Camry. The book is finished only in first draft and needs a major rewrite and edit, but the working title is “Very Old Dog: How I Helped Yeager Live Happily Ever After.” And your note today prompts me to once again make a priority of the process of finishing the best draft I can and bringing it to a literary agent who will bring it to a publisher. Thank you – and really, in a way, I have Camry to thank. And hopefully this might eventually help so many others who are coping simultaneously with your current situation. Again, it may feel like we are alone in the challenges here – but in truth we are not at all. Thank you – and I will be thinking of you both in the days and weeks and months ahead.

Trackbacks

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  3. The Yeager Fund for Special Need Dogs Who’ll Never Be Adopted « Carl Anthony Online: Presidential Pop Culture, Holiday & Food Americana, Myths & Old Dogs
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  5. Smokey: A Dog I Knew but Never Met « Carl Anthony Online

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