Old is the new Young
Like most dog owners, we had never considered getting an older dog, but I was listening to a radio chat show one afternoon and a volunteer came on from DAWG and talked about a dog that they had in the kennels for three years. He was in his twilight years and they were just wanting someone to give him a few months of peace and luxury. I was about 22 years old and newly married. Cell phones were not yet the norm, so I jumped in the car and went to meet Duke without telling my husband. As you all know, going to a shelter isn’t always pleasant and you want to either run away or take them all home with you.
Duke was in the end pen. He wasn’t the most handsome boy I had ever met and he clearly was very old. I gave the volunteer a brave smile and said, “Right, let’s get him in the car then.” She looked quite shocked for a moment and then got things moving fast so that I wouldn’t have time to change my mind. Duke growled at us both when we tried to coax him into the car and he was a big boy, so I just braved it and lifted his bottom in and shut the door before he could get even more cross.
Dealing with the Duke
So there we sat, I was driving and he sat upright on the passenger’s seat. We were like two awkward strangers who kept glancing at each other. About halfway home from Hout Bay to Noordhoek on Chapman’s Peak, he let out a huge sigh and put his head on my lap. I drove home with tears rolling down my cheeks; he was so trusting of me even after being abandoned for so long.
Hubby was slightly taken aback at the enormous black and greying Labrador x Ridgeback x goodness-knows-what that was now at home and refusing to go into the house or eat any food. We decided to leave the back door open and go to bed – maybe he needed time. At about 2 a.m. we heard the food bowl scraping on the floor and the gentle plodding of paws on the wooden floors, followed by someone getting up onto the couch, followed by another big sigh. Duke was home.
Let the adopting begin...
Duke started a long line of rescues, all older and with their own sad background stories and happy years with us, but during Duke’s remaining three years we spoilt ourselves to an eight-week-old black Labrador puppy, Fagan, who was Duke’s protégée and who went on to be with us for 19 years.
Fagan was the constant, the one who often looked at the latest rehoming and then at us as if to say: “I thought we agreed – no Terriers?” Or: “Wow, as long as you are grooming that...!” Yet he was gentle and kind to them all; he ignored their occasional idiosyncrasies and insecurities.
Quite a few friends and family started seeing the benefits of having older dogs – no chewing and house training and they were calm and loving. In fact, my mother has a 14-year-old Wolf x who came to her at 10 years of age, and the two of them have one of the closest bonds I have ever seen between a dog and a human. They are both platinum blondes and my mother says they are growing old gracefully together.
We got to a stage, 18 years later, where we had loved and lost 19 older dogs, but Fagan the constant was still with us. Fagan was now 18, Bubble was 20, Archie (Newfoundland) was 11, and Wallace was 16 – and then it all went wrong. We lost Fagan in his sleep, for which I am forever grateful; Bubble went a week later; Archie suddenly passed on from cancer two months later; and then Wallace, two months after that. For the first time in 19 years we had one dog, my daughter’s Cairn Terrorist x Yorkie.
A time for healing
We were in shock – it was too many too fast, and Fagan had been with us for nearly as long as we had been married and I couldn’t get over it. The house was deathly quiet and clean – and so boring. There was no queuing for toast in the morning and jostling for the best seat in the car, and we felt so vulnerable. We couldn’t face getting more dogs, we just felt so heartbroken, flattened and so deeply sad.
Two Saturdays after losing Wallace, we woke up with intruders in the house, in our room. There was a reason we felt insecure – we were vulnerable and the criminal elements in the area knew we had lost our dogs. The police came and the first thing they said to us was, “Where have all your dogs gone? Everyone knows you have dogs!”
So circumstances dictated that we had to start again. We phoned a good friend who has a doggy day care and asked if she knew of any dogs around that needed homes rapidly, as I was in such a state I doubted I was going to sleep until we had a few dogs back on the bed. She had a couple of golden oldies, Amy at ten years who had simply been dumped at her kennel and never collected, and Legend, a nine-year-old Rottweiler who had been beaten with a spade. Louise had heard his shocking story and gone down to remove him with her usual fearless tenacity.
Making our house a home again
I was so reserved about the dogs, while at the same time in shock from the break-in the previous night, that I was feeling wary about how I would feel towards these dogs. We sat in Louise’s lounge and she let them in. I don’t wish to sound over-emotional and ridiculous, but the feeling of overwhelming happiness and calm that came over me was astounding. We took them home there and then and the house felt like home again.
And so we start again... Amy, Legend, Scooby (another oldie rescued from the SPCA), and my mother’s old lady, Petrushka, all live happily together on one plot. I miss all my dogs that have passed on and I still look over to where Fagan used to monopolise the couch and wish he were still here to assess the
latest crew, but my heart is healed with the instant boundless love of our two new golden oldies. Our house is alive with jostling and bone chewing, swimming and car rides, muddy paws and a fair amount of passing wind (from the older dogs, not the humans!). And then I was also greatly surprised and touched when my family booked a four-week-old Labrador puppy, black and chunky, for us all to fuss over too.
I have to remember the words of my favourite author, James Herriot: “If you love dogs, have dogs, and if your heart is big enough, have a lot of dogs, and when they pass, remember them fondly – and then get more dogs and love them.”