A Dog’s Life

Chapel Hill News logoJuly 29, 2008

It’s 4 a.m. and I’m suddenly awake. I listen. There it is again. I recognize the sound — that whisper of a “woof” coming from somewhere. Downstairs?

I head out to the living room and hear it, close by — “woof.”

“Are you stuck, honey?” I ask.

It’s Daphne, our 14-year-old golden retriever, her hind legs out straight on the wood floor, making her look like a seated donkey. She can’t pull herself up so she woofs. Sometimes she’s at the back door, needing to go out; others she plants her four shaky legs in the yard or on the kitchen tile and just stands there, woofing.

This behavior surprises us since Daphne has never been a vocal animal. All her life she has barked only at dogs walking by outside. “Hello,” she seems to be saying. “Come on in.” She has never barked at strangers. They’re welcome too.

Her no-barking policy is one of her good qualities. Of all the dogs I’ve owned or known, Daphne is the most — how to put this –dimensional.

She never comes in from the yard unless she damn well feels like it. Now she’s old and slow enough that we can grab her. She only stopped attacking her leash when she lost interest in the game. She has never liked dog food — always demanding we spice up whatever’s in her bowl with hamburger or tidbits from the family dinner. She adores bagels. She can be docile and sweet one minute — snuggling with one of the cats — the next she has nosed open the door and is taking off into the woods or down the street, a wolfish glint in her eye.

“Catch me if you can,” she’s saying, “and you can’t.”

Or couldn’t, until now.

She went to dog school twice. “I’m not saying she passed either time,” the instructor said. “Let’s put it this way. She completed the course twice.”

She adores being a junkyard dog out back, lying in the dirt, her head on a rock, mosquitoes circling; once coaxed inside she’s in your bed, drooling on the soft down pillows.

It’s dawn now. I couldn’t get back to sleep after her woof wake-up call. As I write, Daphne lies at my feet.

“Hey girl!” I call out. “Want to go for a walk?”

She doesn’t budge; she’s deaf, her breathing seems shallow, intermittent.

A walk for our old girl is more like a drunken-sailor swagger into the woods, her hind legs sometimes collapsing under her. Or she wipes out completely, face in the path. But I pull her up, dust her, and she’s off, hobbling, out in front, leader of the pack … on a good day.

And she’s in a good spell, right now.

A vet who makes home visits came last week. Daphne was incontinent, spiritless, barely moving. We thought maybe it was time. But she rallied for the vet — got up on her own, then submitted on his feet for a belly rub (another of her charms). She smiled at him, eyes squinty. The vet prescribed an anti-inflammatory that seems to be helping, for the moment.

“Not yet,” we decided, and the vet agreed.

Soon, if she lasts, we will probably be making that final decision — when she’s unhappy, in pain. Already she has way outlived her life expectancy of 10 years. And she’s had a super life: woods running, ocean swimming, dog, cat and human friends, chicken skin, indulgent owners.

When it’s time, the vet will come and euthanize her — in her favorite spot out back. I have an older friend who is inoperably ill and dying. He tells me he wishes he could dress up in a dog suit and let the vet come.

“I’m serious,” he says. And he is.

I look down at Daphne. Her paws flicker, nose quivers. She’s dreaming — she has escaped us and is chasing a deer through the woods.

It really is a dog’s life.