When I officially adopted Yeager on New Year’s Day 2002, he was six and a half years old, almost to the day. I was spared the frustrating joys of inculcating good behavior in a puppy and got to jump right to those fun years of a dog at their keenest engagement.
With hunting breed dogs like the Weimaraner which need to walk, run, forage to be healthy and happy,it means their human companion gets a lot of great exercise in the fresh air and sunshine.
Living in Los Angeles, this meant the nearly-daily challenge of hiking the most rugged and dusty trails at Runyon Canyon. It was the very first place I had ever enjoyed with Yeager, having driven him directly there from the Friends For Pets weim rescue in the San Fernando Valley on the day we met in the third week of November 2001.
On that first trip, he proved immediate loyalty, constantly smiling and looking up at me. He was seemingly thrilled to be exploring the widest outdoors again after some four months of necessarily being contained to a crate with brief walks by volunteers at the rescue.
On our second visit, I allowed him off-leash and without hesitation he shot off like a cannonball, racing up the path and instantly out of my sight. I feared the worst possible scenario of never finding this dog that had seemed so astoundingly well-disciplined from the first moment we met. As I ran up, rounding a bend that afforded a sweeping view of the path to the top of the steep canyon hill (Easterners call it a “mountain”), Yeager was racing right back to me. His enthusiasm had overtaken him before he realized we were out of range. For the rest of the hike, he never trotted far. For all the many years to come, whenever we hiked, Yeager paused constantly to look up and around and catch my eye. Nothing distracted him, not owls, snakes or Cameron Diaz.
No matter what problems I sought to resolve in my head during the hike, Yeager’s intense attachment to me always took me out of my head and into the moment with him. Always. No experience has ever managed to do that. However routine the Runyon hikes became, I was always conscious of that moment being the best time of life. Despite pressing deadlines or even a mending torn knee meniscus, I kept my promise to Yeager: he could always run Runyon, as long as he wanted to. It might be wet, dark, or cold, but we went.
Just around St. Patrick’s Day in 2008, I noticed that he was dragging the knuckles of his back left foot. Alarmed, I took him to his regular vet, a veritable Doctor Dolittle, who seemed to divine direct truth from the non-human beings he treated magically, but failed to always communicate what was transmitted to his fellow species. He shrugged, mumbling it was the same old pinched nerve towards the end of Yeager’s very long lower back. and maybe he should lay off the hiking for a few days.
Always way-too vigilant about Yeager’s health, I sought a second-opinion from a Legendary Animal Neurologist on Olympic. This nasty old bastard seemed to expect frankincense just for granting one of his coveted, rare and expensive appointments. In his crowded waiting room, a cat lady with kitties in cages too close to comfort inevitably began a one-way chat-up with some dog dude beside her. He nodded, and plugged in his iPod. Undeterred, Miss Kitty smilingly looked around the room at the one other dude with dog there. It is hard to make a 90 pound Weimaraner seemed invisible and sure enough, she launched an unprovoked monologue my way, across the room of lizards birds, cats and their human companions.
Her ex-husband had loved his Weimaraner more than he had loved her, she started off. Perhaps finding sympathy with her husband in my eyes, she then asked Yeager’s age and weight. Almost thirteen years old and ninety-two pounds I told her. Her eyebrows lifted in disapproval, and after a perfunctory swoon over his stamina and appearance, she punched me with what seemed poorly disguised as flattering shock value, “My, my! Well, he should be dead!” I hit her with the proudest of facts: “He hikes Runyon an hour a day.” She tsk-tsked darkly, “You will kill him, you will kill him. He’s too old to hike.” I asked her age and weight. She withdrew into a sour poker face. but the damage was done. I remembered another fact I’d chosen to forget.
Before adopting Yeager, I’d wasted money on several of those eugenicistic “all-about-the-breed” books, filled more with color pictures of genetically perfect specimens on thick, high-quality paper. These books all viewed dogs as objects for display, rather than beings to respect. These books are also humorlessly cold. It was in one of them that I was thrown into turmoil when I read: “The male Weimanarer standard at 50 pounds will live for 10 to 12 years.”
The Legendary Neurologist was even more grim. After tugging on Yeager’s toes and pushing deown his back until his hind legs collapsed, he turned away from me and began writing in Yeager’s chart, matter-of-factly remarking, “He has D.M. Degenerative Myleopathy. There’s no cure. His back legs are becoming paralyzed, and soon his front legs will be too. He’ll be entirely paralyzed soon. At best, he has six months. Besides, even without DM, he’s far outlived his life expectancy. You’ve had him twelve years. Don’t be selfish. You can make an appointment to put him to sleep at the front desk.” And he walked out.
I had not had him twelve years and I would not make an appointment to kill him at least not so immediately, not until I had done some research of my own.
I bought DVDs about DM and gulped at the horror of video clips showing dogs losing their back footing, crawling on their front paws with their back ones entirely useless and then laying there whimpering without any moving limbs. This is happening to Yeager, I kept reminding myself. Face it, I repeated in my head: He’s old. He’s almost thirteen. He’s outlived his life expectancy. Don’t keep him alive because you can’t deal with his absence, don’t put him down too late.
I found the nation’s leading expert on DM, and poured through his clinical studies, to further impress upon myself the reality that there is no cure. At that point, there was not even a definitive test. There was a home-cooked meal with a balance of spices and herbs that might help – so I bought a food processor to grind the many ingredients, and a mortar and pestal to grind the numerous vitamins.
Yeager just stood staring up at the kitchen counter, sighing heavily as he waited for dinner. Whether it took a minute or an hour, whatever food was in front of him was gone in seconds. Then he sighed again, hoping for more food.
Through the rest of March, and all through April, I would not take Yeager for his daily Runyon hike. Instead, I took him to Pan-Pacific Park, with more gently rolling hills and long stretches of flat runs. The first time he jumped out of the car there, he stood poised but hesitant. No, it wasn’t any one of the familiarly-scented streets around Runyon. He sat in the parking lot. He looked up at me. Hesitantly, I tried to explain why he had to hike here now. He looked away, uninterested.
It was odd how hesitant he had become. Perhaps he was finally recognizing how old he really was. No, actually – it was the fact that I had him on leash, which we never used at Runyon. I removed it. He sat, erect and eager, but kept patiently in place. I tried the familiar refrain heard daily at the canyon: “Who wants to run?” With that, Yeager was off like a rocket.
New territory, new adventure, Yeager was indulging his hunting instincts with entirely fresh, unfamiliar and exciting scents, ducking behind bushes and shrubs, dashing across a ball-field. I watched from afar, heavier with grief the happier he seemed: He doesn’t know. He’s dying. He’s got six months to live. He’s very old. He’s outlived his life expectancy.
Just then, Yeager dashed over to drop off a pigeon he’d just killed, before breaking into a wild sprint across the expanse of a soccer field. Letting your dog kill pigeons in a public park is not good form. I ran after him, leash in hand. He outran me, darting up an incline so steep and rocky, I was sure he’d fall. He didn’t. He stood at the top of it, victorious. I yelled at him sternly: “Get down! Come here! Now! You’re too old!” I know he opened his mouth widely because he was panting, but it sure looked like a smirk. He came down the incline and walked intop his leash collar. There was no knuckling.
A month later, I thought it only fair to at least let Yeager try another Runyon Canyon hike. It was May and yellow California wildflowers covered the rocky valley and twisting paths, the sky bright and clear, the air soft and sweet. He panted, he explored, he hiked. He didn’t knuckle. He also didn’t do much sniffing or exploring, but rather seemed eager to get up to the top of the canyon and back down again. He’d done all this. Moved on, perhaps.
It proved to be Yeager’s last day at Runyon Canyon, not because he couldn’t make it, showed signs of suffering or stood poised at the dark valley of death. Unlike previous hikes, he wasn’t eager before we started up, and he wasn’t all jumpy enthusiastic when we got down.
Two months later, I got another dumbass hat on Independence Day for his birthday in 2008, his thirteenth. He was visibly shaken that day, riddled with anxiety. The momentous question hanging over his head that day was just when he was getting that damned dog food cake I had made and put in the fridge.
It is now three years later, and Yeager is, yes, even older. I know. He can’t possibly live much longer. Can he? In five months, he will be sixteen years old – but only if he makes it. Which he may not. He has outlived his life expectancy by at least four years. More importantly, however, he has outlived by two and a half years the incorrect Degenerative Myleopathy diagnosis of the Legendary Neurologist.
With each passing day, I force myself to acknowledge that Yeager is in the process of dying, but I am constantly being interrupted by Yeager who points out the fact that, really, he utterly enjoys living.
The last hike at Runyan has been run, but there’s a lot to be said about a walk in the park.
- A Dog Up For Fun: Fostercare Weimaraner #2: Weimy (carlanthonyonline.com)
- A Dog hurt by Neglect: Weimaraner Fostercare #3, Beamer (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Dog’s-eye view of hiking Runyon Canyon (gadling.com)
- Weimaraner Dogs (dogster.com)
- Runyon Canyon (hikela.wordpress.com)
- Into The Wild Wednesdays: Runyon Canyon (kroq.radio.com)
- A Dog on the Verge of Loss: Fostercare Weimaraner #1 Paddinginton (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Orlando Bloom: Runyon with Flynn & Sidi! (justjared.com)
- 17 Warm Weather Activities for Los Angeles Kids (redtri.com)
- Jenna Dewan & Lulu: Runyon Canyon Dog Walk (justjared.com)