Animals Teach Us How to Age

Filed in The Writing Life by on May 22, 2016 • views: 1823

Morrigan kellyMy black German Shepherd will be thirteen years old in July.

The AKC says the average lifespan for this breed is 10–12 years. So I feel like I’m on borrowed time.

Her name is Morrigan, and I’ve had her since she was a puppy. I got her from a breeder in Texas, and I’ll never forget when I picked her up from the airport. I looked inside the carrier and saw those caramel eyes looking back with the amazing ears standing up straight and tall and my heart melted.

Morrigan PuppyShe was so beautiful. I’d expected that, having examined pictures of her parents and grandparents and other relatives for weeks before committing to her purchase. What I didn’t expect was the kind look in her eyes. That was what let me know I’d made a good decision—and that I’d lucked out.

She was a smart dog from the start. I had to devise puzzles to keep her occupied. I’d hide a treat inside a milk jug and she’d work it with her teeth until she could get the lid off. Then she’d play with it, nosing it around and manipulating it with her paws until she managed to get the treat to fall out. It never took her more than a day to figure out any of my puzzles.

She kept me on my toes.

A Lifetime of Adventures

We’ve had a lot of fun adventures together over the years. This picture was taken on the Oregon coast, one of the few times I was able to take her with me to the beach. She loved it, of course, as all dogs do, wearing that permanent smile the whole day as we trucked miles and miles through the sand.


She’s gone hiking with me in the mountains of Idaho and Wyoming, traveled numerous times back and forth to Colorado, and stayed in hotels all over the country, always the perfect lady, the easiest travel companion one could ever have. She’s shared my French fries and popcorn and potato chips, and gone on frequent trips to the local dairy for ice cream, enjoying her own scoop of vanilla in a Styrofoam cup.

Morrigan Chew CloseShe’s gotten me compliments at the vet’s office (she’s so beautiful), the groomer’s (she’s so sweet!), and the park (she’s gorgeous! what kind of dog?), and done her job of warning off any strangers coming to the door. And she’s patiently learned all the silly tricks I’ve taught her, like how to say yes and no, shake hands, roll over, and cover her nose with her paw, as if something smells bad.

That’s the one my mom likes best. A simple hand motion and Morrigan looks like boy, somebody needs to leave the room, like, now.

Animals Get Aches & Pains, Too

She hurt her knee when she was about nine years old, a torn ACL, much like the athletes will get. I’m not sure how she did it, as she came in from the back yard limping—I suspect she may have misstepped into one of the holes she’d dug going after a vole—but I remember the surgery and how nasty the stitches looked. I felt so badly for her!

She recovered really well, but now she has arthritis in that knee, and lately it’s gotten so stiff that she drags the leg when she walks. It just doesn’t bend as easily as it used to, and she has to kind of hitch her hip to bring it along.

She does this just fine—you’d hardly notice, watching her, except for the little lilt to her gait—but it doesn’t get the leg all the way off the ground, which puts the top of her foot at risk.

Morrigan Kelly 2

That’s not a problem on the grass, but I’ve had trouble walking her on the road. The first time I realized how bad the arthritis had gotten was when we returned back home and I found blood on her foot. She’d never slowed down, never showed a sign of discomfort. Fortunately it was only a surface wound and healed within a couple of days.

One might think she would have been cautious to go walking with me again, but no. She was just as excited the next day. Animals are so forgiving, and so willing. It humbles me every time.

Since then, I’ve tried booties and tape and first aid wrap, but none of them have worked—they all fall off within less than a quarter mile.

My next attempt is going to be a hip-high medical boot (called the “Medipaw”) that I have to get at the vet’s, but until then, we’re still taking our regular walks—Morrigan just sticks to the grassy area on the side of the road.

We’re Running Out of Time

Seems you can’t have a German Shepherd—or any big dog, really—without having to deal with arthritis in the hips and back.

In addition to the formerly injured knee, Morrigan has arthritis in her spine, and has for a few years now. The vet showed me the x-ray of how the body had built up new bone between two vetebrae to help stabilize them. Amazing!

This explained the ups and downs we’ve gone through. She’s had periods when she wasn’t able to go up stairs at all without crying out because of the pain in her back, only to rebound a few months later and climb just fine.

Morrigan back yardThere have been times along the way when I gritted my teeth, afraid we were nearing the end, only to find a few weeks later that my old girl was back to her puppy-like self, dancing in circles and eager to go.

Today, she often gets one back leg tangled up in the other, because it just won’t work right for her, and she falls. This is more frequent late at night, when she’s on her way inside for bed, and on rainy days, when the weather seems to aggravate her arthritis.

Still, if I pull out the leash, it doesn’t matter—she’s ready to go. And most days she fools me into thinking none of this is an issue, as she goes right along (and I walk fast) for 1.5 miles or more before showing signs of fatigue.

I’ve been here before, though, and I know time is limited. I catch myself staring at her as we walk, amazed at how graceful she is even now, in her later years, even with her spine starting to show visible signs of age. But she’s slim and trim and in good shape—I’ve made sure of that with a healthy diet–and most people are surprised to hear how old she is.

I’m sure that good care helps, but I know why she’s still going strong.

Animals Do Aging Better Than We Do

She doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She doesn’t ruminate over any suffering she endures. She doesn’t look in the mirror and bemoan the signs of aging that are showing up on her body.

She doesn’t complain about the things she can’t do anymore, like stand up on her back legs. (She used to do this on command, the “walking bear” trick.) When I have to leave for a few days, she knows, and gives me “that look,” and it takes her a few days to act normal again after I get back, but she doesn’t hold it against me, or go on about how no one really cares anymore, now that she’s gotten older.

She never stops trying. Even on her bad days, when she’s hurting, she still wants to go with me for a walk. If she drags on the way back because she’s hurting, she still wags her tail when we arrive, happy for the time we’ve spent together.

She doesn’t seek out some corner of the world where she can wither away in comfort, or crab about the younger dogs in town, though she will give them a scare if they come too close.

MorrKelleyC4Each day is a new day to her, a chance to have fun, and she looks forward to it. If I go out in the yard she still picks up her old tug toy and brings it to me to play, even though I don’t pull very hard, as I worry it will strain her back legs. She puts her all into the game, wrenching her head back and forth and pulling, her lips up exposing her teeth, until I let go, letting her win, and she trots away victorious, only to bring the toy back again for another round.

I watch and learn every day, but I’m watching a master. I try to remember to be grateful for the little things, to not complain about aches and pains, to take disappointments in stride and forget about them as soon as possible, and above all, to maintain my enthusiasm for life, without thought of tomorrow, or what may be.

But I’m human, and that’s a failing. I worry about the future, about the day when she just won’t be able to walk anymore. I worry about adapting to life without her, about how it will feel to lose a friend you’ve had for 13 (or hopefully 14 or 15) years.

She reminds me to cross that bridge when we get there. Today, we have things to do and time to spend, games to play and walks to take, and hey, there’s ice cream waiting at the local dairy.

Let’s go.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Frances Duroux says:

    Fantastic story. Brought tears to my eyes. Animals truly are amazing. Hope she continues to smile and wag her tail for many more years!

  2. Gillian says:

    Morrigan is stunningly beautiful! I’d love to know more about your puzzles!

    I’m a GSD mom, too. My 1st (Bud) had back surgery at age 3 and ACL surgeries on both back knees by the time he was 6. He reached 13 before his back gave out again, and he could no longer walk.

    My 2nd–Gentle Ben– came to me as a senior rescue and started going lame with spinal stenosis 3 years later. My holistic vet did wonders with acupuncture in his final year. Fortunately, the progressive paralysis was not painful, but when he could no longer keep his balance or hold his bowels, I had to say goodbye on April 13th–along with my almost-15-yr-old Aussie-Husky (Maile) whose cancer came back after 3-and-a-half years in remission. Yes, they went together. Paw-to-paw.

    It has been devastating to lose them, especially at the same time. But I wanted to share how those last few months I was forced to live in the present moment, for their sake. (I realize this is something you already know.) Initially, I would see something in one of them that made me realize their time was soon coming to an end, and I would start crying, which upset them. Over and over again, I had to remind myself to put aside my sadness about the future and put a smile on my face while I enjoyed every second with them. I remember thinking, “Oh, I get it now–THIS is what I have been trying to learn for decades–to live in the moment, not in the past regrets or in the future worries. And here are my two wonderful dogs who are teaching me to focus on loving on them NOW while they are here, instead of grieving the loss that is yet to come.”

    I still cry because I miss them so much. But after 5 weeks of grieving, I was lucky to stumble upon GSD #3 — a gorgeous young rescue GSD named Leonardo (Leo) who was with a rescue group at at Pet Expo. He is about 1 year old, had been picked up off the streets with injuries that indicate being hit by a car. But he is full of energy and needs challenges, which is why I’m curious about your puzzles. :-)

    Bless you with many more happy days with Morrigan!

    • Colleen says:

      Hi, Gillian! Oh thank you—I sure think so! Poor Bud—I thought one ACL was bad enough! It’s so hard to lose them. I don’t even want to think about it! Amazing the bonds they can form with each other, like with Ben and Maile. Yes, I’m with you—I try not to upset Morrigan with my sad feelings when they come. They are so sensitive to our moods! Yes, it is a lesson so hard to learn, isn’t it? What you say is so true. We can only enjoy the time we have, and it’s never enough.

      I’m so glad you have Leo! He sounds like a real blessing. It’s hard to remember now all the ways I tried to keep Morrigan busy when she was a pup. I mentioned putting the treats in the empty milk jug. I got her one of those Kong balls too that you can put treats in, but it was really hard to chew on and she didn’t like that one as much, but maybe Leo would? I did find that she seemed to enjoy the homemade ones better. Anything I could put a treat in she would work at for however long it took to get it out!

      Thanks for sharing your story—it’s nice to connect with others who love their animals, especially our amazing German shepherds. :O)

  3. Gillian says:

    Colleen, I just read your newsletter this morning (August 16) about Morrigan. I am so very sorry you lost her last week. I know how much it hurts. Sending you love and support to heal your grieving heart.

    • Colleen says:

      Oh thank you so much, Gillian. It’s not easy, that’s for sure, and so nice to have support from friends. She’ll be hugely missed. :O)