(originally posted by Jim to Hawksbill Cabin blog, June 15, 2009)
It was a rare weekend not heading out to the Hawksbill Cabin, with me just getting back from being on business in San Antonio, and Mary headed up to NJ to visit some cousins preparing to relocate to Germany. Besides getting nine holes of golf in, and catching up on some reading (I’m currently reading Michael Perry’s Coop), I’ve been spending some quality time with Sofie and Gracie.
The girls were recently groomed. Because of the trauma bath time imparts, I haven’t given Gracie a bath in more than five years. We have a service that comes around twice a year in a converted RV, called “Bubble Buddies,” that actually specializes in older dogs, like our two. Gracie, the Border Collie, is 14 and a half; Sofie, the Chow mix we found as a stray in the DuPont Circle area of DC, is older than that. In fact, it has been about 13 years since Sofie joined our pack.
They don’t really get dirty and smelly like younger dogs anymore, so the twice a year schedule works out well for us. They actually seem to like it when the groomer hooks up the leash and leads them into the van – it’s an amazing difference from the “flat Gracie” routine I would experience when I tried to get her into the bathroom. Who knew a dog could actually expand to cover so much square footage, so that she couldn’t fit through a door?
When the groomer leaves, the dogs have been bathed and trimmed, and their nails are clipped. They get a special bandana, and they seem to like the extra attention we give them afterwards.
With Mary out of town, Sofie and Gracie have been hanging close by, mainly snoozing away as dogs at their age do. But at times, I still see glimpses of the old personalities. Sofie is mainly motivated by her tummy (or other bodily functions), so she is up and by my side any time I pass through the kitchen. Gracie has mainly been content to lie on the floor nearby, as she is now while I write this, but when I speak to her I can see the eyes darting around the room in search of a tennis ball or other toy.
Sofie is living proof that treating dogs the way you want them to behave makes them great pets. She’s smart, she has a great vocabulary, and with her, we’ve been through a lot. Almost 10 years ago she blew out a disk in her back, a fatal injury for dogs if they don’t receive medical attention. We got immediate emergency surgery for her (we had pet health insurance that helped). To this day, Mary and I both swear that the vet treating Sofie could operate on us; too, he was so well qualified and had such a great manner with his patients.
When our regular vet first met Sofie, she looked at her teeth and the Chow posture and said, “I like this dog. She has good hybrid vigor.” That inspired us to have Sofie’s DNA checked out: the Chow is definitely there, not just because of the purple tongue, but it gets hazy after that. The most significant other breed represented is Poodle. Who would have guessed?
Beyond the parentage, we get a glimpse of her life before she joined us whenever we meet an “intact” male dog on a walk. Even at the advanced dog age of at least 15 (person) years old, these encounters involve a lot of squealing, spinning around, and boxing the male dog. She seems to know what she is doing, but the male dogs are left puzzled by all this, standing there perplexed, worriedly checking with their masters about whether this (spayed) old lady is going to hurt them or not. She probably had a litter of fuzzy little Chow mix puppies somewhere along the way, (and she has probably outlived them.)
Sofie has slowed down some, but she is still in great health and full of good spirits. Her sister, Gracie, on the other hand, is not in the best of health. Still, she is doing well, in good spirits, and holding her own for now. Having been diagnosed in January with final stage canine renal failure, she is on a full regimen of prescriptions, and she gets a half liter of subcutaneously administered IV fluids every other day. She has lost most of her hearing, although she can hear a loud whistle, or one of her vocabulary words, when spoken directly to her in a loud voice.
Border Collies are widely considered one of the most intelligent dog breeds, and they were very popular around the time of Gracie’s birth, which was when the movie “Babe” came out. Our relatives had taken Gracie, but seemed to be finding the four-month old pup to be a whole lot of dog, so we offered to adopt her. Or maybe she adopted us, as I do remember the first weekend we met I spent eight or nine hours learning that border collies (1) love to fetch; (2) have incredible stamina, even at the age of four-months; and (3) upon first meeting a new human, have a wily ability to keep the human busy paying attention to them. Even now, despite her health and age, whenever we have visitors, there is a big production that we call the “Border Collie Parade of Toys. “
A few years ago, there was a story about a German border collie, named Rico, who knew the names of something like 200 dog toys. There is a Wikipedia article about Rico here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rico_(Border_Collie). Rico could retrieve articles he’d never seen before, and that he did not know the name of, using a deductive reasoning approach called “canine fast mapping.” There is a second Wikipedia article about a border collie named Betsy who is said to know 340 words, and I like to think that Gracie has a vocabulary around that size.
Sometime during the first year we had her, we took Gracie out for a ride in the Shenandoah Valley. While Mary and I had a picnic on the lawn at North Mountain Vineyard, we played fetch with Gracie. Later, she napped while we drove with the windows down the Old Valley Pike to Shenandoah Vineyard. There were sheep farms in the area, and the scent of the pastures eventually woke her up, at first just enough to raise her nose to the lowered window to sniff.
Slowly, the Border Collie genes took over, and she stood up in the back seat to have a look. When she finally figured out that there were animals over there in the pastures, she let out a long “Aooo-ooo-ooo” and watched the sheep carefully as we drove by.
We’ve had these girls a long time, but it had been a while since I have had to chance to sit with them at home, without the stress (for them) of the drive out to the cabin, and just enjoy them for what they have become as “senior” dogs. I know we may not have much time left with each other, especially compared to the time we’ve had together. But the character of their company is rich with experience and warmth, and there seems to be an innate understanding of all thoughts – verbal and nonverbal – between us as we hang out in the house. And this weekend, that’s been as good a time as I could have asked for.