Life in a Dog Pack: Old Age

When you live in a dog pack, eventually, if you are very lucky, you will experience life with an old dog. Tally, at 15 years four months, is the oldest dog it has been our good fortune to share our lives with.

Living with a geriatric dog means that every day is a new adventure. Not only are there the regular routine activities of meals, potty breaks, and medications, we try to remain sensitive to Tally’s limitations, adapting to them as new challenges arise, so that we can ensure that she is as happy and comfortable as we can keep her.

We’ve placed cheap runners and area rugs strategically so that Tally can move about without being forced to navigate bare wood floors. As she’s gotten weaker over the years her ability to manage bare floors has diminished and we’ve changed to take that into account.

Tally no longer sleeps with us. She gave up climbing stairs several years ago and since then we’ve left her on her own recognizance on the first floor. Generally, she’s just fine there—she’s always preferred her own company—but, occasionally, we’ll hear a yelp and rush downstairs to find she’s trapped herself beneath a chair, slipped off the rugs we’ve placed for her convenience and safety, or walked into a corner and is too befuddled to make her way out without assistance.

On rare occasions she’s had nighttime “accidents”. That’s just the cost of doing business. She’s always very embarrassed about it.

Walks have become increasingly rare. She wants to walk and sometimes demands a walk but we understand that she really doesn’t have as much ability to handle a long walk as she thinks she does. I’m not prepared to carry a tired fifty pound dog home in my arms so we limit her walks to three or four blocks, sometimes just a block depending on how she feels that particular day.

She wants to play ball but, sadly, her vision is failing so, if you throw the ball more than a few feet away from her, she won’t be able to find it. My wife is better at playing ball with Tally these days than I am.

Every night we have the same ritual. I’ll let her out the back door for her final nightly elimination and she won’t come back in until I’ve chased her one slow circumnavigation around our backyard, then helped her up the two stairs into the house. The joy in her eyes during these low speed chases is a delight to see. I’ve taken to calling her “the White Bronco”.

Last night we had something of a scare. When she rose from a nap she began a series of odd, hopping bounds. She wouldn’t stop. It was quite alarming.

We moved the other dogs elsewhere in the house and let her outside. She continued the hopping. My wife thought it was some sort of neurological malfunction. I thought she’d awoken with a stitch in her leg and, like an athlete with a leg cramp, was trying to run it out. She was unable to put weight on her left foreleg but wasn’t strong enough to maintain her balance and stand in one place. Hence the odd, forward-moving, hopping bound.

After a while she stopped and, although she was still hobbling a bit, she was behaving much more normally. I gave her an extra half Rimadyl before we went to sleep and this morning she’s shown no signs of a return to her previous condition.

It was, however, a reminder that Tally won’t be with us a great deal longer and we must savor every moment we have with her. We are resolved that Tally will enjoy her life as long as she lives. So far, so good.

The other dogs show Tally considerable deference, each in their own way. Will is extremely fond of her. Nola gives her a wide berth (although she’s not above stealing some of Tally’s food when she has the chance—stolen food always tastes better). Smidge, with typical Australian Shepherd temperament, is worried about her. She herds her, blocks her from moving into spaces she thinks are too dangerous for her (Smidge and Tally have different views on this subject), and sleeps curled up with her. It’s like having her own personal sheep.

I don’t know how our pack dynamics will change when Tally is no longer with us. It’s not something I look forward to. Although she’s always been highly independent, she and Jenny made us into a pack. Tally taught us all to howl.

6 comments… add one
  • Ann Julien

    O Tally Roo
    O Tally Roo
    Your howling ways delight me!
    Not only when no stairs you’ll climb
    But also when your eyes meet mine.
    O Tally Roo
    O Tally Roo
    You’re queen of all who sight you. Love you, girl!

  • Ben Wolf

    Most dog guardians never understand how close their relationship with their dog could be. If you keep them close, include them in activities, give them responsibilities and make them feel needed and productive, you create a real pack and the friendships that result are enormously rewarding. We’ve evolved together over a period of 35,000 years and it’s safe to say dogs and humans belong with each other.

  • I believe that our two species have co-evolved: we have affected their evolution and they have affected ours.

  • sam

    “I believe that our two species have co-evolved: we have affected their evolution and they have affected ours.”

    I told this story once before here. I was out running one morning, and as I turned this corner, this quite large German Shepard ran up beside me. I was a bit taken aback by him — he was big. But I kept running and he kept right up with me. I don’t really recall how far we ran together, but it was a good distance, then he peeled off and went back the way we’d come. I thought then, and I still think now, that was pretty neat.

  • It stands to reason that human beings’ paths and those of dogs would cross. We’re both cursorial hunters who hunt in packs. We occupy roughly the same ecological niche.

    Running when something else is running is in your GSD friend’s nature. Dogs, however, are even more pack-oriented than we are and once he’d run for a while he recognized he was getting too far from home and needed to return to his pack.

    Dogs’ primary drives, pack orientation and prey orientation, differ from breed to breed. GSDs, like other herding and working breed dogs, have both a strong prey drive and a strong pack drive.

  • Ben Wolf

    I’ve noticed the differences in priorities from the dogs I’ve had over the years. My current pal absolutely refuses to let me out of his sight. Never seen a dog so focused on family before but being together is his energy source.

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