When Is a Dog Old?


Yeager, January 2010

Yeager, in January 2010.

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.

Yeager, June 2010

Yeager, six months later, in June 2010.

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.

The result?

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.





Categories: Dogs, Old Dogs, Senior Dog Care, Yeager the Weimaraner

Tags: , , , , , , ,

8 replies »

  1. Beautifully written… but hard to read. Only because I dread the day when I have to ask this question about my own dog. He’s at the other end of the spectrum in every way… He’s only two and is a miniature dachsund. It’s amazing how we can become as close to them, sometimes closer given their unflagging devotion and lack of judgement, than the human members of our families!

    I, for one, agree with your conclusion and hope I have many more years with Louis and you with Yeager.



    P.S. What kind of car is he in in the 1/10 photo?

    • Jake, you’re my most attentive reader and subscriber thus far; thank you. Much more to come on Yeager, addressing perhaps one aspect of life with dogs that is rarely considered yet which is, in its way, a privilege to experience – what they’re like at a very advanced age….much more to come on this.

  2. to beautiful, to sad… to soon! forever blessed with an amazing companion, dear carl.

  3. Thank you sooo much for your posts about your beautiful Yeager. I reached a point today where I felt like I had *almost* given up on my 14.5 year old weimy – Murphy. When I came across your website…just the title ‘helping YOURSELF help your old dog…’ made me cry and touched my heart instantly. It was exactly what I needed to hear. You helped me help myself not to give up on my old gray fellar today. Having been his sole caretaker for the last year, I have felt at times like it was just me and him against the world. Reading your blog entries was a serendipitous event….I immediately felt renewed, reinvigorated, and knew that all I had to do was recommit to the decision to do whatever it takes to keep him well for as long as I can. It was important for me to share with you the difference you made in our lives today…and I can’t thank you enough for that!!!

    • Tara – You are the one to be thanked. For what you do for your dog companion and for what you’ve done for me today, 2nd anniversary of Yeager’s death, which is not as much a sad time for me but a time when I examine those last eight months of his life. In fact, very shortly I will have an article posted here about him. You can’t begin to imagine how much your comment means to me because the sole purpose of my doing these stories is to offer examples from my own experiences which might resonate with others who are currently experiencing what I did. I know just what you mean about feeling like you and your dog companion are in it alone against the world, but the more I put out there about this subject and the more I respond to people who react to what I put out there….the more we should all realize that, even if we’re not able to physically meet or speak, you can be guaranteed that at any given moment we are coping with older dogs…..someone else is doing the same thing at the very same moment. But your articulate appreciation is like a wellspring that encourages me to continue to do what I can as I find myself increasingly committing to the cause of aging canines and helping dogs who might be disabled or old but who are otherwise healthy, not in pain and very much enjoying life. So – thank you very very much Tara. Carl

  4. Thank you, Carl…..that last line is so true…

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