My 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.
She 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.
She’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.
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.
There 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.
Each 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.