Ode to a Senior Dog

I’m trying not to pre-grieve my vibrant, joyous, mischievous Otto of the past. I’m making every effort to just be here now with my beloved senior dog.

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Not one but two friends said goodbye to their beloved senior dogs in the past week. I read their tributes to their beautiful dogs and looked through all the photos of the good times they had together, and wiped copious tears away. These deaths make me hyperconscious of the limited time that I have left with my senior dog, Otto.

If he makes it to November, he’ll be 15 years old. His back legs are getting weaker, and though he can still jump into my car (it’s low, and he jumps onto the floor of the back seat, then climbs onto the seat), he sometimes catches a toe when he goes up the two stairs leading to our back deck and then two more that lead to the kitchen door and his back end collapses for a moment. I try not to fuss when I help him up; he always looks embarrassed when this happens.

He doesn’t trot much anymore; his gaits include a fairly gimpy walk and a sort of swinging lope that he uses as a replacement for his formerly jaunty trot – but he also still roars at the sight of any United States postal vehicles and races to and then down the fence line to chase said vehicles out of sight. He can’t resist! But he pays a price for this after the adrenaline wears off; he retires to his sandbox and naps deeply in the cool sand afterward.

He has always been good about being groomed, but he loves being brushed now – even with a Furminator, which I have to use to try to get rid of his still-shedding thick winter coat. But I have to be careful as I brush his sides and flanks, as he has countless egg-shaped lipomas of various sizes now. They don’t cause any pain, but it can’t be good to put any sort of pressure on them!

For almost a year now, he exhibits signs of dementia at night. He pants and paces and seems confused and anxious. A few months ago, at the suggestion of his team of vets, in addition to his arthritis med and gabapentin, we tried a prescription medicine for dementia. Within days, he had fountaining diarrhea, and we had to stop the dementia medicine. Following that, even though I bathed his nether end again and again, he started over-grooming the underside of his tail, where the liquid poop had gotten on it. He caused a nasty little lick granuloma, which required shaving the underside of his tail several times before it finally healed up, weeks later. I know it’s silly and not important, but it makes me so sad to see the skinny section of his now threadbare tail, which is usually a glorious flag, curving up and gently waving high in good spirits.

Until this past year, he’s always had nice breath and clean teeth. He was well past middle age when he needed his first dental, and he’s had several since then – but now, no vet wants to put him under anesthesia for a thorough dental, so his teeth are getting a little cruddy and his breath isn’t as fresh as it used to be. Fortunately, he’s good about tolerating brushing. We’re trying to hold the line!

dogs sitting for treats
Otto doesn’t bother with “sit for treats” anymore; he knows he gets them no matter what. ©Whole Dog Journal

He’s gotten ridiculous about food, hungrily and openly begging for whatever treats he thinks someone might give him, and lurking in the kitchen when we’re cooking. He no longer bothers to “sit” or “down” on cue, but stands, tail wagging and open-mouthed in anticipation when I’m giving cues to the other dogs. He knows he gets treats whenever the other dogs get treats, no “work” is required anymore.

But turn about is fair play; the other dogs have learned his medication schedule. Any time I get the can of wet food out of the refrigerator, they will jump up out of a deep sleep or game of tug to come and sit politely. They know that after I hide Otto’s meds in a “meatball” of pâté and he has taken the meatball from my hand, I will feed them a tiny bit of the tasty food as well.

I thank goodness that 7-month-old Boone doesn’t have high exercise needs. When Woody was his age, I used to have to take daily (sometimes twice daily) long, off-leash walks in our local wildlife area in order to keep him from jumping out of his skin. If we take Otto along, we can’t go very far before he’s tired – and I can’t bear his sad, uncomprehending stare if he doesn’t get to leave the house with me and the other dogs. I try to make it up to Boone with more play on the lawn and more hide-and-seek around the property. Happily, like many “youngest children,” he’s great about entertaining himself by chewing and tugging on our grandson’s swing (we have to make a new seat!) and playing tug all by himself with the leather leash we use to retrieve our grandson’s zip line (watch him do it here!).

It will be wonderful to get a good, full night’s sleep again someday, and to take long, guilt-free hikes with Woody and Boone – but I’m not in a rush. I keep trying to memorize the sweet hayfield aroma of Otto’s thick ruff and the feel of the one silky patch of hair he has on the very top of his head, right between his distinctive half-folded, tufted ears. Though my friends’ tributes to their beloved dogs make my heart hurt, I’m trying not to pre-grieve my vibrant, joyous, mischievous Otto of the past. I’m making every effort to just be here now with my beloved dog, one slightly stinky breath at a time.

67 COMMENTS

  1. I just lost my Little Girl Lili in November. I still cry about that loss. She lets us know when she was ready to go. It never makes it easier!! You hit a nerve when you said how difficult it was to leave her when i needed to take Mac on his daily walks. Heartbreaking to look at that precious face!!

  2. Your blog made me tear up today….it also made me laugh, so I thank you for that! I had to put my beloved Sammy down on June 29th—-his breathing had become very labored and he was refusing even people food. He was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma on April 29th and the specialist gave him one month to live, so at least he beat that timeframe. Sammy was a sweet, energetic border collie mix that I adopted and he was definitely my “heart” dog. He thought he was “Mr. Security” and would let me know if someone was on “his sidewalk/driveway”; he also loved to run figure 8s in the backyard. I also watched his health deteriorate, but his spirit was strong until the end. In his own way, he let me know he was ready to go as well. He would have been 17 years old in October. I try not to cry often as I know he would want me to be happy, but I miss him terribly!!! I thank the Lord for my other dog, Callie, as the house would be very depressing without her! She will be 8+ years old in August. Thanks again for your blogs, they hit home and make me mostly laugh and sometimes cry.

  3. Thank you. We had Simba, long haired chihuahua. Sweet and spicy boy who loved walking until it was too difficult but he tried until he refused to join us. Yet on his last day,he went wish us for a last walk and trot. I miss hi, so.

  4. I have an old dog too, and this hurt my heart.
    I knew this summer was going to be very difficult for him, so I bought him a cooling vest.
    He’ 12 and 1/2 and there are times he acts like a puppy. He smiles and is a clown and I will be distraught when he leaves.
    Please, can you have at least one article each month on senior dog issues!

  5. Lovely tribute to a wonderful dog. I have experienced all the joys and sorrows that you expressed with many of our dogs (I lost two when exploratory surgery found some issues that were not able to be fixed and we opted to let them go on the table). The last dog we lost was our beloved Greyhound. So many of the things you wrote were things that happened with him. Some of it brought tears to my eyes, and some of it brought a smile to my face.
    Thank you for sharing.

  6. As happens so often, Nancy, your column left me both smiling and tearful. Joey is 12 now and has severe arthritis (which I treat with carprofen & Adequan) in his hips…and like Otto, sometimes his back legs–one or the other–will give out under him. But remarkably, he still makes his 2- to 2-1/2 mile walks with no problem, even tho his pace is a bit slower. I try not to think about the swiftly-approaching future, and do my best to simply enjoy every shining moment of these last years.

  7. I heard a wonderful story–I don’t remember from where–about a family that had just lost their senior dog. The young (human) child said to the (human) mother, “Don’t cry. If the reason we’re here on Earth is so that we can learn how to be good enough to go to heaven, well, dogs just don’t need that long to figure it out.”

  8. Ohhhhhh, been there…….and will be again. We do do this knowingly, for some lucky of us many times in a lifetime. But, ohhhhh, each, every time.. so hoping to beat the clock, prove its hands all wrong.
    Keep loving, appreciating each moment…even as the puppy, crazy times pass farther into history. Love to you and Otto….and to every loved pet friend we have. For now and for always….

  9. I’ve loved all your posts about Otto over the years and we’ve all come to know and love him like you do Nancy. I’ll keep him in my thoughts everyday for now. We all love our animals so much and while I don’t have a senior dog at the moment, this post made me reminisce on all the amazing ones we’ve raised & adored in the past.

    Otto & Nancy – Have a good day today!

  10. Nancy I feel your pain. It’s a very hard process to watch.
    Try Vetri-Science Perio Support for his teeth. $20 on Amazon. Just sprinkle on his food. It’s all natural, and works. I swear by it. Keeps teeth clean.

  11. Beautifully written and captures so much of what we go through with our beloved older four-legged family members. I lost my Jasper, whose tail too used to be like Otto’s and then thinned out, in 2019 and his last months were very precious time we had together. Otto, you’re a champion and deserve every cookie and all the love you can get from your wonderful mum! 😍

  12. Nancy. Going through the same with my two border collies, Penny and Kia. Kia is in good shape and 6 months younger than Penny. Penny is frail but game. I would like to suggest a good osteopath for Otto. I think those of us who live with other species rely tooo much on vets who are not training in rehab etc. I found a veterinary osteopath in March who made all the difference to Penny. Just try it – won’t hurt, might help.

    • I lost both of my dogs in the last 8 months! My whole family is heartbroken and we know what it feels like to be in your position. We had to have our pug euthanized this past October, his back hips were shot, couldn’t do the steps to get in or out of the house anymore, plus he was losing his sight and hearing. We believe that dementia was setting in as well. He couldn’t get comfortable and paced the floors all night long. Our other dog was a puggle & Shih-Tzu mix. We just lost him over Memorial Day weekend, he had a seizure issue, and he developed a heart murmur over the last year or so. His heart just gave out at home where he was surrounded by our family. They were both about 12 to 13 years old, and we miss them tremendously. They were both good boys!

  13. We are on that trajectory with our soon to b 15 yo. She has hip displasia, so long walks are no longer on the agenda. We hope she “falls into” a calming sleep on her own, as our last 3 dogs did … but we will do what is right. She will tell us when …

  14. Your Otto is a precious old man. Much of your post was very familiar to me. I have an 18 year old who I adopted at age 12.5 from our local shelter. His back end is quite weak and he moves slowly UNLESS he sees a chance to get outside alone. Then I swear he moves at the speed of light. The next few days he’ll moan and groan but he seems to think it is worth it. We use a lifting harness to give him extra support getting up and walking. Once his hips and back end started to trouble him I quit requiring him to sit unless it is a safety issue.

    He still enjoys car rides, porch napping, good, and especially treats. I try to give him the best day he can have every day. It is hard but I try to live in the moment as he does.

    I always enjoy your articles and love to hear about your Otto, Woody, Boone, and others along the way.

    Give Otto an extra hug from his senior “brother” Ayers and me. Hugs to you as well along this journey.

  15. I know so well those countless nights without sleep. I just lost my beautiful boy Ziggy 2 months ago. He was a Great Dane. This was a hard loss for me because his aunt who I just lost a year prior at 12 years old and another beautiful female dane 6 month prior to that at 9 years old all of old age. I experienced all the same things your dog Otto went through with the exception of with one of my girls lost all control of her back legs and we had to use a harness. She could not hold her bowels or urine. She was so embarrassed and we would always try to make her as comfortable as possible. Ziggy the male ended up being a hard case for me. He stopped eating and I had to take him in for IV fluids and then feed him with a syringe. In the last 3weeks of his life were the most devastating because he was fighting but just could not manage? We now have Holly a 1 1/2 year old Great Dane that Ziggy accepted right away when we brought her into our home as a puppy. We now are about to bring in another puppy to introduce to Holly and know she will accept this puppy with the same great response a Ziggy did with Holly.

  16. This made me laugh and cry. We lost our Lab in March. The treat thing cracked me up. We have 2 other dogs who sit and wait patiently but Stella did not because she knew she would get them anyway! We have another Lab who is now 12.5 and I am starting to worry about him now. I think he may have dementia as he will look at me and cry and then just stand there. Have you ever tried CBD oil or chews? I have not but may look into that. Thanks for the article. We all have to go thru this. The worst part of owning an animal is the end.

  17. Dear Nancy, I read all your posts. I always enjoy them but this one really hit home. I can’t believe Otto is 15 already! I always adopt seniors(currently have a 16 yr old chi & 12 yr old funny mix) it’s hard watching them move slower but you’re right, we must enjoy the time that they’re here with us. Enjoy that sandbox, Otto!

  18. Such important words, living in the moment. My now 13.5 yo Aussie has made it though several near misses in the last two years. I spent thousands to keep him with always keeping in mind his quality of life. Lately he has slowed dramatically, but always makes it to the barn and back. My 6yo has to make due with rough housing on his schedule, but she knows whe. He’s reached his limit and I never make him stop. The hardest part now is lack of sleep when I lay in bed at night listening for the sound of his breathing, reaching for him if I don’t hear it. Reading posts from friends on FB is difficult, knowing my days with him are now numbered. But till then, I will love every day left.

  19. I have been through the same problems, sadnesses as you and all the other writers. I lost three dogs in the past year. My 12yo shih tzu, Buckwheat, had pancreatic cancer. When the symptoms showed he went quickly. He came to me from another room and died in my lap. Maggie had lung cancer and was 13 when she left me. Ginger died of renal failure at 14. Charlie, at 13, is still with me. I knew when I had four dogs around the same age that I would lose them close together. I have added 9yo Zoe, a shih tzu, to my home. The pain is great but the love is worth every bit of it. I miss all the dogs I have lost over the years. But I love the ones I am with. Nancy, thank you for this blog and all your blogs. As another comment noted, I too remember when Otto was a puppy. How time goes by.

  20. I always read and appreciate your columns about life with all of your dogs. Your ode to Otto is especially impactful for me because we have focused our rescue efforts on older big dogs for some time now. While their passing is inevitable, like you we concentrate on enjoying them while we have them. And giving them the best possible life….and the best possible death. We help them complete their circle of life with dignity and minimal pain or suffering. We grieve. And we rescue another one. Because there are always good dogs looking for good homes. And focusing our attention on our new rescue helps all of us. Thank you for sharing your very relatable experience.

  21. Our beloved Mac, a miniature pinscher, crossed the bridge two years ago. It was 18 months before we got another dog. We didn’t want to “replace” him! Poor little Izzy (mini bernedoodle) has big shoes to fill, though. She’s totally different than Mac was, and that’s good. There will never be another Mac.
    We are enjoying training Izzy and at nine months, she’s starting to settle down a bit. I’m almost 70 now, so settling down is kind of important to me. I can’t keep up with her shenanigans! When I take her for walks, I still feel Mac’s gentle breath on my ankle and still see the depth of love in the pool of chocolate that was his eyes. But I also see the laugh and joié de vivre in Izzy’s dancing ones. They would have liked each other. Someday, they will.

    • I love your description of his eyes as chocolate pools. My service dog, Narnia, is a Golden Ŕetriever with deep brown eyes that shine with her sweet soul. We celebrated her 10th birthday two weeks ago. With each passing year I wonder how long she’ll be with me, and, at 70, which one of us will cross the bridge first. She’s my angel and always will be.

  22. Oh Nancy…we must take and savor the love one day at a precious time no? My love Lali is beside me. In 2020 we were separated for far too long a time that I think took a toll on us both when I nearly died…I was and remain caregiving for my elder parents with whom we live. Dad turned 105 in May and is still active and increasingly demanding because mom who did it all is going on 100 and since last June has been in hospice care here at home. While I worked remotely in 2021, I also felt the strain between all directions and retired a bit sooner than I anticipated last December. Mom is in a hospital bed and incontinent though the hospice folks help with those issues…but a month or two ago now, my love who can get in the car and loves to go if I give her a boost up, began to have issues with steps in our split level home. She can on her home go up 5 or 6 tiled steps from the lower level to the main, but the carpeted (and open) steps from the main to the bedroom put her off for some reason. So I boost her up and we make it. She has also been having some accidents which I handle with no problem…but the eldest among us…well he has issues with waste from anyone. Does not even stay in the same room as his wife. So I am on guard dare my cutie have an accident in front of him. We had a real poo problem–not liquid but close after taking our former vet’s advice to try Cosequin. The bottle suggested 2 tablets to start. When the poo issue developed I stopped it and we still are having an issue though it appears to be improving if not slowly. To make matters worse I realized a mobile vet would be an answer and someone on NExt door got great reviews…but in spite of living within 10 minutes of us, this person had no empathy for my circumstances and refused us with the excuse of having so much business from Covid. Our vet we have a relationship with of sorts is on the other side of town and I am afraid of exposing myself to the stress I would have going to an appt as that impacts my health…my near death experience was due to a dissected aorta which they suspect was caused by stress, caregiving the elders etc. I’m afraid of who would be there for my cutie and get her home god forbid something happened to me on the other side of town. We have no family to help, and she can be a bit reactive/protective in our car…Her nails need tending to so badly, she looks neglected and she is truly not. She has a bare tail mostly as well, from biting due to itching due to a bout of fleas (our first) last fall. No one I called dealt with fleas or would require the use of such toxic materials that the house would have to be vacated for hours and with mom in a hospital bed and my not wanting any toxic stuff in our space for any of us, we resorted to vacuuming, laundering, bathing and flea traps, and between that and the winter cold we got rid of them…There yes, is a vet closer. He is an arrogant SOB who proclaimed my beloved pup who has since passed a number of years back had a brain tumor when she began having seizures. HE put all of us through hell until we found a wonderful vet. She had an insulinoma and we had much more time together. He has recently retired and sold out to a corporation which seems to be a new trend. They too were not taking on new patients…the remaining vets I had heard some decent things about…well, you know you and WDJ have taught me all about titer testing which I have done from the beginning. They would require a rabies vax and stood firm on that, and for us that was a deal breaker as you can imagine. I have never been so discouraged and angry both at the way vet medicine is these days. Our original practice was also on the other side of town, which was no issue to begin with. It was a wonderful practice for the most part. The elder founding vet eventually sold out TO BANFIELD! SO we would no longer go there. OUr vet in that practice had left prior to teach in VA and he suggested this one we currently patronize. Anyhow, I am trying to file her nails myself. She’s no more difficult than my mother LOL. Many hugs, many treats….with love and appreciation….PS…our wonderful vet we had prior, she retired when she became pregnant and had the baby who is now a graduate of Michigan and on his way to Dartmouth. She didn’t feel she could be a good vet and good mom both….I keep praying she will go back to practicing again…her friend we had seen as well and she retired. I checked in with her to see if she knew of anyone, and so far she has not found someone who meets her own standards which are pretty basic as well.

    • WOW, I must say you have been though a lot. God bless you and may the Lord continue to help you though it.
      So, I puzzled buy mini who do not think about using laser therapy to improve their dogs walking. Laser therapy is an incredible product to be used on both humans and dogs. Another alternative would be a homeopath for the arthritis.
      Nancy why haven’t you tried laser therapy on Otto? I’m just a little stunned that nobody has mentioned laser therapy. I bought my own in 2020 for two reasons. First it works really good on myself I’m a polio survivor. Second it works really good on my golden retriever who is only eight years old, but he had myasthenia gravis [MG] & mega-esophagus [ME}. He suffers from lower back in problems from time to time. So what do I do I use the laser therapy on it and it works great.

      • I was taking my senior dog for laser therapy and it seemed to be effective. But, she hated going to the vet’s office for it and she would practically have to be dragged in. I didn’t want to stress her out anymore, so we stopped going. Where do I get a laser therapy product for home use?

    • Dremel makes a tool for doing pet nails. You can train your dog with treats in small increments to tolerate having their nails filed with the