People frequently tell me there's no way they could ever raise a service puppy, because it would be too hard to give them up. Each person knows what they are able to bear, so I completely understand the sentiment behind that statement. Having raised both service and pet dogs, though, I find it much easier to lose a dog to life than the inevitable alternative.
Ruby is my sweetheart. But Kiva is my soulmate. We met Kiva when she was six weeks old, took her home at eight weeks, and then, since her sixth birthday, I've had a kind of odd relationship with her aging process. I think that no matter how much we celebrate with cake and presents, no one really enjoys watching those canine birthdays rack up, because we unfortunately get so few of them. But I've come to love each birthday as a celebration of what she's had rather than a worry about what she'd have left.
When Kiva got cancer at six years old, I never thought I'd see her reach seven or eight. She did. And then she hit nine. Nine is the number I always really hated thinking about in a dog; to me, it's the age that signifies the official beginning of what a friend calls, "the worry years." But she had survived cancer and hit nine and I felt jubilant.
Ten? I was triumphant. Eleven, ecstatic. Twelve was the birthday where I absolutely rejoiced. She had lived six years past her sixth year. I had been given the remarkable gift of a second lifetime with her.
Now that Kiva is thirteen years old, it's the extra cherry on top of the cherry on top. As she so patiently taught me (while I agonized over her cancer diagnosis and she exhiliratingly lived her life despite it): "Dude. Put down the tissue box and enjoy each day." And I really do. But there are some realities about my old—and I can't tell you how grateful I am to be able to use that word, that she made it to old!—dog that I've recently had to face. The most challenging is what her veterinarians believe is a degenerative spinal disorder. It's been gradual but steady and it's difficult to watch the back half of your dog in terminal disagreement with her front half.
She's still eager, curious, and playful, though. And hungry. For chicken and cheese and life. We've changed her activities to match her capabilities, but we've never altered the fun. Old dogs still love fun as much as pups do! So maybe it's two short walks a day rather than one longer one. No more strenuous mountain hikes, but lots of good, brisk swims. She still wants to play catch, but I put her in a "down" and toss her soft line drives now, keeping all those paws safely on the ground.
And we've kept our tradition of shaking off the summertime blues with a roll in the snow. Last July, we took Ruby and Kiva to St. Mary's Glacier here in Colorado. It was a bit of a walk up to the snowfield, but at that time, Kiva could handle it.
This year, we took a weekend road trip up to the Snowy Range in Wyoming instead. We enjoyed easy access to crystal lakes, cool green meadows bursting with wildflowers, and frosty snowfields. Wyoming is delicious this time of year!
And not just for senior dogs. Here's Kiva's over-the-hill mom...well, trying to make it over the hill. Yep, that's me wiping out and about to land smack on my butt as gracefully as possible.
A great time was had by all. As long as Kiva still wants to have fun, we'll find it for her. It's just become time to discover it in different places and ways.
I want to thank two wonderful people who are helping me navigate the challenges of Kiva's senior years. Their advice and friendship have been invaluable to me.
Jenny Kachnic is service pup William's mom. Besides sharing the joy of her service puppy with me, she cares for my Kiva with gentle massages and is very knowledgeable about the issues and challenges facing dogs (and their owners) during the senior years. Her upcoming book, Your Dog's Golden Years, will contain chapters from 18 canine professionals with information and options to help senior dogs live longer, happier lives.
Chandra Conway writes the blog, Daley's Dog Years, a great resource for advice on senior dog health, and information on the topic of canine degenerative spinal issues. I'm grateful to Chandra for her warm encouragement and for sharing the knowledge she gained during her search for treatment and therapies for her chocolate Lab, Daley.
For information on how to help improve the lives of homeless senior dogs, please visit The Grey Muzzle Organization.