The Glory and Heartbreak of the Old Dog

Is a new pup a gift or a betrayal of your good old friend?

In her prime, never mind a few gray hairs.

We are waltzing around the idea of getting another dog. It’s a delicate thing. We thought our dog was eight years old — or maybe we wanted her to be eight years old, which isn’t exactly like being a puppy, but feels like the solid if slightly overripe prime of life, when the dog and you know each other’s habits inside out, and you walk together when you want, and if you’re feeling lazy, the dog is happy to just hang out and pretend you both did some exercise and are now enjoying its pleasant aftermath.

But we were lying to ourselves. She’s eleven. That’s a far cry from eight for a dog, really, and there are mornings these days when she wants to sleep in, and afternoons when she wants to sleep in, and she has started eyeing stairs with reluctance. On occasion, she’s creaky and slow to unhinge her hips when she gets up. There is nothing crueler than the fact human and animal lifespans are so out of synch. I would have been happy to have one dog for my entire life, absolutely content. Variety is very appealing in certain aspects of existence, but dogs? Nah. One lifelong dog would have suited me just fine.

So now that the truth of our dog’s age has been exposed (it was our vet who did the dirty deed), we can see the faint and awful outlines of the approaching end of her life. Not tomorrow, of course, because she is — knock on wood — generally healthy, and maybe well past tomorrow, but we’d be fools not to take note. Our previous dog died very suddenly when he was nine. It was out of the blue, while we were out of town, and came with absolutely no warning. He was youngish enough that we hadn’t even begun the doomsday thinking that begins as soon as you shift your dog to senior food: What will we do when he’s gone?

I’m toying with the idea of overlap. A new pup will be good company, right? And its puppyish, ping-ponging energy will turn back the clock for the old dog, almost like a vitamin infusion. Right? I stroke my dog’s gorgeous old head and tell myself that, and then I have the horrible pang of wondering if she’ll see it for what it is. Like a king taking on a second, younger wife. A spare for when she departs this world. Which it would be, of course. When our other dog died we were flattened, bereft. The time between that and when we got another dog was as sad as anything. I know our dog shopping now is a precaution against experiencing again that dogless, bleak, in-between time.

I follow a bunch of Instagram accounts of dog rescues. Each night I check in on them, pinning my heart to one or two, then stealing a glance at my old dog and wondering whether she would thank us or feel betrayed. I wish I knew.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own book club (join me!)

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