W e ’ v e known him since he was a puppy. He’ll be 16 on New Year’s Day. “We got a Labradoodle — part Labrador retriever and part poodle,” my sister, Audrey, told me on the phone years and years ago. “It’s a boy dog, and we haven’t named him yet, but we are thinking of the name Doodle. Y’all come over and meet him.”
We jumped into the car and drove to meet the new member of my sister’s family. He was adorable, as puppies always are. Our niece and nephew had already fallen in love with him. Soon after, we all loved Doodle Dog.
He went to dog school and, of course, he was the star student of his class. He became a certified therapy dog, and my sister and my nephew often escorted him to the library to help young readers build up their confidence to read aloud to him. Doodle would sit on the floor with the children with his paws crossed, like a fine Southern gentleman — so patient with them. The kids loved him. He retired from work years ago.
He’s been my sister’s loyal walking companion for years — watching over her while she treks miles and miles of hiking trails in a nearby park. He’d jump in her convertible, and they’d take off to the trailhead. Now she drives a bright yellow Jeep. She carries a doggie ramp and helps him get in and out of the vehicle. But he still finds joy in these outings.
For the last several years, we’ve avoided saying my sister’s husband’s name in Doodle’s presence, because Bill is one of his favorite people in the entire world, and the mere mention of his name causes Doodle to search the entire house for his master. He goes into a bit of a panic like he is sniffing out a bomb in a war zone and won’t stop for several minutes. We spell Bill’s name — B-I-L-L — but we don’t utter Bill’s name when he isn’t home.
Puppies grow into dogs, and dogs grow into old dogs. It’s hard to watch a dog you love grow slow and stiff. It’s difficult to see their once-shiny coats turn pale and white and their eyes get glossy with blindness. It’s sad when they sleep so soundly that you stare at their bodies for several seconds praying that you see their lungs expand and fall. My husband and I have loved and cared for several aging canines, so we know the mourning pet owners experience before he or she crosses the Rainbow Bridge.
“Can you watch Doodle while we go to Caddy Lake State Park in Texas for a week in November?” my sister asked me a few weeks ago.
“Sure,” I said. “Doodle is always welcome at our house.”
And so for the last week, we’ve hosted and pampered their old dog at our house. We’ve taken him on walks in the woods and given him special treats and scratched his belly and ears a bunch. We’ve shown him kindness and told him what a good boy he is. We’ve wrapped his medications in honey ham and hand fed the pills to him. These are the things you do when you love an old dog.
He rewarded us with a few rare outbursts of frisky behavior on cool evenings in our front yard — sudden surges of energy that especially pleased our Golden Retriever. We caught some of their play time on video and sent it to my sister.
In his twilight now, Doodle and other old dogs teach us a great deal of patience. They also show us that love knows no boundaries of time, age or ability. Each gray, wiry hair tells a story of loyalty and devotion — of an unwavering companionship that has weathered the tests of time.
“Your people are coming home today,” I just told him, and I’m pretty sure I saw him smile — as dogs do sometimes.
I’m glad that I have people I love in my life, and I’m glad that I have loved a few dogs along the way, too. It has been a privilege. I’ve always been a “dog person.” In the end, caring for a senior dog in his or her last days is an affectionate ode to the beauty of life’s shared journey and a reminder that love endures long after an old dog’s paws have ceased to tread this earth. But for now, Doodle is still treading.