How An Old Dog Taught Me New Tricks: The Wisdom Revealed By Our Aging Canines

This is the second of what seems to be shaping up into a series that was not entirely envisioned until a day ago. I’m reluctant about indulging too much about a personal issue like the loss of a dog – until I began to realize a lot of it reflects the stories related to me by others. With an unexpected and encouraging response to my initial article on Yeager from both friends and those I don’t know who have or have lost dogs, I realized that some notes I’ve kept in the last year might also be useful to others with animal companions.

I had a slight sense of regret for not having published some of the pieces I wrote while Yeager was alive and yet the paradox is that not taking the time to shape these writings while he was here but rather to spend that time with him was one of the primary values about living which he taught me, but which I hadn’t the perspective to realize until I had time to reflect.

Yeager expresses himself on my birthday, 2002.

In contrast to what I might have imagined before getting a dog, Yeager became more interesting and intelligent the older he got. As a result, it was not just the wisdom of his world I learned from, but the wisdom of the long time he lived in it.

I’m not always sure what to believe about human ideas on the nature of God, but I’m a true believer on the reverence due to the nature of Dog.

Through Yeager, I came to realize that all old dogs are wise Buddhas if their human companions are willing to consider that dogs might reveal more truth about human existence than those of our fellow species. I, for one, became less convinced that science by humans alone was enough proof for the presumption ours is the superior species.

Although he was in dog “middle age” at six years old when he came to me, and physically strong and agile until the last weeks of his life, in some respects Yeager was always an old soul. He was polite but distant with other dogs and any chew toys he was given he pushed around only a few times, as if to barely qualify as having “played” with it.  I may have caused the distraction, always speaking to him, keeping his ears and eyes always engaged in case there was a potential car ride, walk or run to be wrangled out of whatever he imagined I would do next. As time went on I was increasingly conscious of that prediction that he would likely be gone by the age of twelve, based on his size and breed. About 2007 when he turned twelve that I began to focus intently on his every move and mood and enjoy when he “spoke” to me. It also marks the last time I ever took a long trip away from him.  For the next four years, I spent about eighteen hours of every day in his company. This wasn’t heroic or noble – it was ignorance of perhaps how much hardier dogs might be and may have spoiled him by establishing a more interdependent pattern.  Nor was it always easy, though now I realize how deeply I would have regretted doing otherwise. In 2008, a few friends made a quick, fun trip to New Orleans. As I struggled with wanting to please and join my friends, the internal conflict felt like a gut punch when I looked over at Yeager. Without realizing it at the time, however, looking at him reminded me of the way he lived. It led to the first great lesson I consciously credited to his example: Refuse to let any being direct you against instinct. I wanted to go along but felt I couldn’t because it meant leaving Yeager to spend the long daytime hours alone. I explained this in a conflicted tone to one friend on the phone, as Yeager sat listening. And a second lesson came almost immediately.

Yeager always wanted me take him for a walk but always recognized it was my choice. It took me a bit longer to recognize that as well.

As I slipped his leash around his neck for our evening walk, I felt a rising resentment towards him until he sat down at the open front door, instead of dashing out. He tentatively turned his head upward, boring his eyes into mine, wondering whether I was going to chose to take him for a walk. It was peculiar. I just stood there, looking back down at him. I moved – and he started for the door. I stopped – and he sat back down. In that moment, he reminded me of a truth so implicit, it’s often overlooked: Be it action or reaction, everything is a choice. Whether he got his walk or I went to New Orleans, I was responsible for whatever choice I made. A dog or few friends can apply all the pressure they want, but in the end I make the choice and if it turns out to be an unpleasant experience it was based on my own decision. In this way, Yeager led me to take more time in making more conscientious decisions. I’m sure he didn’t intend to teach me this as much as simply react to the discontent he picked up in the tone with my friend.

Initially I spent a lot of time with Yeager to rebuild his confidence, but the last years were about my being led into learning about his world. I paused to observe him intently. I began to track his visceral reaction to sounds and scents I was largely incapable of perceiving. Once it was to take notice of his impulsive rush to a gutter where an injured bird was dying – only to back away yet insist on continuing to look and sniff from a distance. Another time it was his bizarre ability to repress his usual barking when a mail truck pulled up outside – only to discover it was a delivery of his dog food; all I can assume is that he must have somehow scented it.  One day, he pulled me across the street to avoid a neighbor he usually loved to greet – who happened to be walking with an intoxicated friend who always talked forever – and delayed Yeager’s arrival at Snackhouse where he foraged for bread bits. When the neighbor called his name, Yeager wagged his tail. not ignoring her. He was treating his friend with the same respect but intuitively avoiding  the delay he remembered her friend usually causing. This one reminded me of how First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy instructed her press secretary to treat meddling reporters. Yeager and Jackie shared the wisdom of that lesson: Give them the P.B.O. (Polite Brush-Off).

Even into old age Yeager always played the Sheriff on the job.

One of the more poignant moments for me came last summer when, as I worked in the back garden, he decided – wisely – not to join me as he usually did, ever the vigilant “sheriff” circling me in case there was threat or trouble. Instead, as I looked up, I noticed him smiling at me from an open window, from which he took in a wider view of the garden. I felt a pang of sadness at the change his age had brought. But then I noticed how often he turned his head back and forth, looking at different spots in the garden, instead of focused on me alone. And he smiled whenever I called his name. It revealed to me another lesson from the old dog: Being at it, instead of always in it, offers wider appreciation.

Yeager looking out at the garden and his view of where he once went easily.

Through such encounters, I detected the value of his primal wisdom about the process of life. I sought to translate his animal deeds into some human sensibility. I say “detected” because these realizations are more accessible if felt, rather than thought. Even after becoming aware of this “secret” world that thrives openly in the midst of human life, many of its truths remain frustratingly elusive to the way humans think.  In order to keep order, the structured systems running society must keep us focused on the tactile plane of political principals, religious rules and financial facts. Such guidelines are given in exchange to those who support and commit to a conventional institution and meant to provide the relief and security of answers to the mysteries of living. It’s a necessary business derived from abstract truths,  but whether those messages are crafted to alarm or appeal from Communists or Tea Partiers, Methodists or Muslims, the specifics are artificial distractions from rules of natural life we’d rather avoid. The more we track the lives of aging dogs, I’m convinced, the easier we can keep an eye on the real world backstage to the show we humans feel we must engage in as the only “real” one.

Living with and observing Yeager, however, began to raise my recognition of primal truths that exist in all beings, human or otherwise. Unlike those conventional assumptions which are implied as the ideal path for humans to live by, for me, at least, the new tricks I learned from my old dog ring more authentically: Friendliness is a strength; Trying to control how others perceive you is futile; Limping is still walking; Intention maps action. Some truths civilized society does still follow, at least in part (If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – but stop before losing the ability to try). Others contradict human ego but would ultimately serve us more efficiently: Drop anger instantly; What you want is secondary to what you want but also need.

Spend time observing any dog and their observant eyes and you'll almost always detect they've some mystery to be revealed.

Of course I like to think that Yeager was special and different – and I now know that he was perhaps, as one vet put it, a “highly developed” dog as a result of all the talking I did to him during the inordinate amount of time we spent together.  All dogs, however, have that potential to teach us various lessons by their unwitting example. The press of change that age brings, however, adds another more acute dimension not only to the way they respond to their secret world but perhaps also to the closeness with which we finally observe them with respect.

Categories: Old Dogs

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2 replies »

  1. Another great one Carl. Sharing like you’re doing is so important, I think, for mourning, grieving and healing. The lessons you learned from him was likely Yeager’s purpose–he’d be proud.

    And if you’re ever out in Palm Springs, let’s grab coffee again. It’d be good to catch up.


  2. Another sweet article. Thinking of you right now, especially with today’s passing of the extraordinary Betty Ford, just a couple miles from here.


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