Love me for who I am today
Beautiful, strong and proud, he leaps across the field with graceful steps, able to turn on his heals in a second’s time if something fun to chase crosses his path. But slowly the gray hairs form on his muzzle and his step slows, his eyes are no longer as clear as in his youth and he no longer hears the door when it opens.
For many dogs, aging is a difficult transition from being able to take on the world to not being able to take on the steps. The fun things they used to do like going to the dog park, going for long walks on the beach, or just making it around the block or into the car become impossible. Many of the very active or herding dogs have an equally difficult time mentally accepting that they can no longer do what they see to be their job.
My own dog Jake recently went through a very difficult period which started when he reached the point of not being able to climb the stairs between the first and second story of our home. Jake had always been the protector and organizer of our family, following everyone around, many times backwards bumping into walls as he went, so that he would not have to take his eyes off of us. He even made it a job trying to herd our four cats, which as any of you with cats know is clearly impossible.
He became extremely anxious about his limitations and would walk around panting nervously until he fell over with exhaustion. This was very difficult because his anxiety was not only very uncomfortable for him but also for us, especially when there was little we could do about it. We quickly got into a pattern of Jake becoming extremely anxious, us leaving the room because he was so anxious, and him becoming more anxious because he wasn’t with us. This was compounded by his anxiety causing him to lose continence and end up walking around panting and peeing as he went or pooping on the living room rug. I became convinced that not only was he losing his footing but that he was also losing his mind.
I would get so frustrated with him that I would shout,” just stay there, can’t you just sit still and relax!” Of course I was not making things any better with my frustration. Jake was not accepting his condition and I certainly wasn’t either. This just made him more agitated because I was upset with him in addition to him not being able to do his job. And he had always tried so hard to be a good dog. Having a career working with older dogs you would think I would have realized right away that we were both stuck in a very bad pattern but it is always harder to see the things that are closest to home.
Gradually as a family we realized that there was a large problem with acceptance and the first thing to do was accept Jake for where he was at. We also made some changes to our home and routines to improve things. We changed our schedules so that we were able to let him out at the same times every day to poop and pee. One very important change was to put up a gate between our two floors so that Jake could not go up or down the stairs on his own. In the morning we would help him down the stairs and in the evening we would help him up so he could sleep in my son’s room and do his job of protecting him. Because the gate was there he knew that we were purposely stopping him from going on the stairs and he no longer felt that he had to follow us where he could not.
We let him know that we accepted him for who he was and that we valued his job of protecting us and watching over us but that his most important job now was to keep his strength and be our companion instead of our protector. He received more pets and we tried our best to make him understand that he was loved for being Jake and that was separate from what he could or could not do. We praised him when he was calm and sitting still and took more time to sit and talk to him.
In a short period of time he because more calm and stopped following us around everywhere. After about two weeks we were able to take the gate down and he no longer went on the stairs except in the morning and the evening. Now most of the time he doesn’t even need help to get up and down the stairs the two times a day he climbs them. His continence also improved and he no longer pees or poops in the house and can make it much longer without being let out.
Of all the things we did I think the most important was to accept and love him unconditionally. I have had other clients tell me as well that when they were able to truly accept and love their animal companions in the condition that they were in, there was improvement not just for their animals both mentally and physically but also for themselves. I had one client explain to me that when she was able to accept that her dog needed to go out multiple times in the evening and realize how happy she was just to have her here in her old age that she no longer found it so difficult to get up in the middle of the night. In addition I noticed a huge improvement in her dog’s physical condition, she was much more present and less painful.
When we have friends or family who truly accept us regardless of state it makes us feel very loved and protected. We no longer have to pretend to be something we are not. I think it is no different with our animal friends. Through accepting them we are sharing our love and letting them be what they are at that moment. After all with older animals every moment we have with them is precious.
Tomorrow I will be someone different
Gray may shine through my hair
Like stars in the sky
My eyes may be cloudy
Like the far off sea
But we are together
Our hearts touch as one
I am forever your friend
You are the one I love
Photographs in this story from Jennifer Kogut