My Aging Lab: Watching Buddy Fade is a Heart-Breaking Journey

My Aging Lab: Watching Buddy Fade is a Heart-Breaking Journey
by Tori J. McCormick
Associate editor of Delta Waterfowl magazine.

Tori J. McCormick's Friend for Life - Buddy the Black Lab
Tori J. McCormick's Friend for Life - Buddy the Black Lab

Bismarck, ND – -( It’s after midnight on a Tuesday, and my black Lab is sleeping the sleep of the dead. He’s stretched out on his designer doggie bed, his breathing getting heavier and deeper, his stomach expanding and contracting like an accordion.

If past is prologue, Buddy will slip ever deeper into his patented nightly slumber, a sublimely unconscious trek to dreamland. Before long, he’ll be yipping to the heavens and pawing the air like he’s shadow-boxing.

Sometimes his dream sequence crescendos, with his jowls catching air and slapping staccato-like against his gums. The result: a truly endearing rat-a-tat-tat resonance that’s tripped my funny bone more times than I can recount and never gets old. Perhaps you know the drill.

Buddy is my first dog, and his presence in my life has given me more joy, and taught me more about unconditional love and selflessness, than any other relationship in my life. I could not have a better friend or companion—he far transcends the ridiculous moniker “gun” dog. But when I think of him of late; when I see him ambling slower and slower, limping regularly from arthritis, my stomach turns into a tempest of fear and worry.

His time is short.

I know this because I know my dog; because, over the last 11 years, we’ve developed—and honed—a mode of communication that rarely gets lost in translation.

It’s more than the whitish-gray that long ago sprouted under his chin and has now migrated relentlessly to his neck, chest, belly, legs, tail, above his eyes and between his pads—his stunning spit-shined charcoal appearance pilfered by age.

It’s more than his waning appetite, an epic contrast to even a few months ago when he’d eat his dog food and your aged rib-eye in record time. It’s more than his lost athleticism, once omnipresent and truly impressive, that’s now as fleeting as a teenage romance.

It’s more than his waning tolerance for cold weather, despite his thick coat and inner thermostat that for more than a decade ran hotter than a Texas summer. It’s more than his hearing, which has, almost mysteriously, gone missing in the last six months.

It’s what’s in his eyes—that window into the soul—that tells me that his time is getting short. I see fear, I see trepidation and I see an animal that is increasingly bone-weary and resigned. I see a dog whose capacities are withering away, a dog whose legs are little more than stilts attached to his body, a dog whose hips are as stiff and rigid as steel posts welded into a right angle.

It’s hard not to be fatalist when the evidence is so plainly visible. I’m reminded everyday that my beautiful animal is, physically, on a slow, irreversible decline—his body falling prey to that invisible hobgoblin called age. It’s heart-breaking to watch.

I find myself torn between two competing impulses—doing what’s best for my venerable dog while trying to beat back my own selfish desires. I want Buddy around as long as possible—truth is, I can’t begin to reconcile my life without him—but not at the expense of his dignity and quality of life.  If at some point his pain becomes unmanageable, I’ll have to say goodbye and do the right thing.

But how? I’m not sure I’ll have the stomach for it, to exercise so much power over someone I love so much. After 11 years of doting on his every need, taking his life, however altruistically, seems like high treason, a betrayal of our relationship; a betrayal of the covenant between dog and man. I never anticipated I’d have to play God, and I don’t like the feeling.

When Buddy was a puppy, it seemed unimaginable that he’d ever get old. He was a pulsing bundle of black fur, all sinew and muscle after only a few months, and his energy level could fill the grid of the state of California.

In those maddening puppy years, Energizer Buddy developed a naughty streak that drove me to sanity’s edge, my toes occasionally curling over it. He became Dennis the Menace with four paws, sharp teeth and a tail in constant rotation—a lethal weapon that once buckled my uncle to the floor after it hit him squarely in, shall we say, the family infrastructure.

“It’s okay, Buddy,” I said, as my uncle howled like a baby. “He’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Good boy.”

Energizer Buddy also liked to eat—and food was but an appetizer. He had a taste for everything, even my coffee and end tables, which he depreciated so badly with his razor-sharp molars that I couldn’t give it away at a garage sale. Buddy seemed to live by the credo that if growing old is mandatory, growing up is not.

Still, Buddy’s early mischievous streak shouldn’t be misconstrued as lifelong disobedience. Buddy matured, and when he did, he became a skilled and disciplined hunter. He’s far from field-trial polished, but he was—is—superb in the duck blind, especially when we’re hunting alone. The daunting retrieves he’s made over the years are countless, which, frankly, says more about his top-drawer pedigree than my tenuous standing as a dog trainer. So by my standards, however biased, Buddy is perfect—all business in the field, all sweetness and love out of it.

Observing Buddy’s decline in recent months, I have sought perspective and wisdom and found very little. In our Oprahfied culture drowning in self-help, scant reference material exists on killing your dog when you (or nature) deem the time is right. I find no joy in the irony.

Still, I have found enlightenment and comfort in the words of others.  “No one can have the part of me I give to my dogs, a gift as safe as loving a child; a part of me I guard carefully because it bears on my sanity, writes Guy de la Valdene in For a Handful of Feathers. “My dogs forgive the anger in me, the arrogance in me, the brute in me. They forgive everything I do before I forgive myself.”

Forever forgiving, Buddy has learned to live with my imperfections and, along the way, has taught me how to realize the better angels of my nature. I may have trained him to be a “gun” dog, but he has taught me something I hope I never forget: how to love, and how to be loved in return.

Tori J. McCormick is associate editor of Delta Waterfowl magazine. For more information:

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