10 February 2010


On New Year’s Day, the dog believed to be the oldest in the U.S.—perhaps even the whole world—celebrated his twenty-second birthday. By one formula, that makes him 101 in human years. Uno, a cocker spaniel in Sherman Oaks, California, may even have several more years in him, but he’s already outlived the conventional age-limit for dogs, usually figured at about 16 years.

On 24 December last year, the Times published a column about another “four-legged elder,” Otto, a brown Lab who was just about to turn 11 (human equivalent: 75). All this has put me in mind of my last dog, the successor to Sobaka (see “Sobaka: A Memoir,” 31 July 2009), a little Jack Russell terrier mix I named Thespis. (Thespis is the mythological first actor of the Greek drama.) Like ‘Baka, Thespis was adopted as an adult from a private kennel in New York City; I brought him home one winter afternoon in 1990, about six months after I returned from a year’s teaching upstate and 2½ years after ‘Baka died. It had taken me a year to decide I was ready to take a new dog into my life, by which time I was in the temporary stint in Oneonta; when I got home, it took me six months to find the right companion. (Aside from any personal requirements, my parents in Washington had moved into an apartment building with rules about dog size—and my mom had some ideas of her own. Since I brought my dog with me when I visited, I had to make some effort to meet their criteria, too, if I could.)

At any rate, I did finally settle on this little mutt, the only male of five siblings who’d been rescued from a pit bull breeding and training kennel. (I never confirmed this, but I imagined that these and other small dogs were the targets for attack training or fighting for the pit bulls.) I’d been calling the shelters to ask if they had any small dogs for adoption, and I kept hearing the same answer: No one’s bringing in small dogs. Finally the Humane Society replied that they had this Jack Russell mix, but I didn’t even know what a Jack Russell was at the time. Well, I went up to East 59th Street near the Queensboro Bridge and the Manhattan terminal for the Roosevelt Island Tram to check out this prospect, and I found a cute, if funny-looking, brown-and-white dog of about 20 pounds—about five or ten pounds heavier than my parents’ condo permitted. I figured my pet wouldn’t be a resident dog, though, so I could fudge the criteria some, especially since the limit was really set so owners could carry their dogs through the building’s lobby, in the passenger elevators, and on the residence floors, and I could easily carry this little fellow.

The Humane Society allows prospective adopters to take the dogs for a walk in the neighborhood, so out we went. The dog’s kennel name was Alpha—Alphie, for short—because he was the first of the five siblings. The others were Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon (called Eppie, the only one of Alpha’s sisters I ever met). As we walked east on 59th Street, past a small park—really nothing more than a wide sidewalk with some benches along the abutment for the bridge—Alphie strained at the leash towards a pair of HS volunteers who were exercising other kennel residents—but he paid absolutely no attention to me. I was just an inconvenience: some guy holding him back from running across the street to greet his friends. In fact, Alpha ignored me pretty much through the whole walk, but even so, when we got back to the HS shelter, I decided this was a shot I’d better take since I’d been looking for so long with no other prospects—unlike my choice of Sobaka, whom I immediately fell for as soon as I saw him.

The adoption people at HS sketched out his background very briefly—the rescue and all—and showed me that Alphie had a slightly deformed mouth. (His lower jaw was shorter than his upper, which protruded like a severe overbite, but it wasn’t noticeable unless you pulled his lips open to look). They told me he was about two years old, but afterwards when I took him for his pre-adoption check-up at the vet clinic downstairs, the medical records indicated he was about three, so there was a discrepancy about Alphie’s actual age. (When I registered my new pet, I put down his birth year as 1988, but I always knew he could be as much as a year older than that.) Like most shelters, HS had a guarantee period during which a prospective adopter can bring a pet back if the match doesn’t work out. (I had been ‘Baka’s second adopter; the first family to take him couldn’t keep him when he turned out not to be very good with small children.) I wasn’t very confident that this would work out, but I decided to take a chance anyway because I was being so unsuccessful otherwise.

So Alpha and I walked home from 59th and 2nd to 16th and 5th, and I tried to make friends with him along the way. When I had brought ‘Baka home the same way, we were great friends by the time we reached Madison Square (which, I recall, is where I settled on his new name), but Alphie wasn’t being very companionable. This choice was looking less and less likely. We got home and I introduced my guest to his bowl, his bed, and some toys. These last were mostly old socks I’d knotted into a big ball at the foot and then turned inside out. Sobaka had never played with toys, so I didn’t have any around. To my delight, Alpha took to these makeshift playthings avidly. Anyway, I let the dog explore the apartment on his own and went to sit in my bedroom and read. Soon, the dog came in and pretty unceremoniously climbed up into my lap. I guess he decided that with no other humans around, I was all there was—and that was fine under the circumstances. He abandoned his reserve, and that was it for me—I lost all my reservations about my new companion. We were okay—and I renamed him Thespis.

No sooner did Thespis start getting used to his new digs than he began displaying some of his habitual, and frequently very funny, behavior. Some, I decided, was derived from his Jack Russell heritage, like the way he played with his new sock chews. (He turned out to love these so much that I just kept making them as I wore out socks and Thespie chewed up the older ones.) He used to throw the sock toys in the air and chase after them. It was so funny to see him get confused when the toy landed on top of a piece of furniture instead of the floor where he expected it. He'd run over to where it should have landed and look all around, apparently wondering how the thing could have disappeared that way. Then I'd retrieve the toy for him and he'd be off tossing it up again immediately. It was also funny to see him pounce on the thing, grab it in his mouth, and shake it while he growled ferociously. Very macho for a little guy. I found out later that that's exactly how Jack Russells kill their prey when they hunt small rodents—what they were bred for. Turns out Thespis was play-hunting instinctively.

Other conduct was what dog shrinks apparently consider compulsive behavior. He chased his tail, spinning on his own axis three or four times, then he’d stop and look up at me with what looked like a doggy smile as if to say, ‘See what I can do? Aren’t I just a hoot?’ (I’m convinced that dogs know.) I’d always crack up. Thesp was also extremely agile—he could almost always evade me if he saw me coming to pick him up, something he didn't like. (I did it anyway!) He used to delight in running through the apartment at full speed, dashing around the furniture as if it were a canine obstacle course. He made a circuit around the living room, weaving in and out of the furniture, and then ran into the bedroom, went to the far side of the bed and dove under it, came out the other side, and ran back into the living room, where he started the route over. He did maybe two or three laps at a time, and he did the whole routine daily or more when he was an adolescent. I stopped whatever I was doing and just watched in amazement—he never once hit or even jostled a piece of furniture—and just howled with laughter at the whole escapade. I also always wondered how he got under the bed that way until one day I happened to be standing at the foot of it when he did his thing. I dropped down instantly and watched him propel himself under the bed. I had always pictured him literally sliding on his belly, like a baseball player coming into home plate. It turns out he dropped down into a ground-level crouch and sort of doggy-paddled himself along with his legs—at quite a clip, mind you—as he slid on his tummy. What a sight!

Finally, there was behavior that I suspected was related to his past at the pit bull breeder’s. Thespie had small scars and nicks on his face and ears that suggested some rough treatment, perhaps from the pit bulls or perhaps from the other dogs left to roam the kennel, and I imagined that he hadn’t had an easy time before he was rescued. Thespie wasn’t an aggressive dog, so I don’t think he’d have fought back; he probably just protected himself and kept out of harm’s way if he could. So when he grabbed mouthfuls of kibble from his bowl in the kitchen and came out into the middle of the living room and dropped it on the floor to eat piece by piece, I just assumed that was the way he’d made sure to have some food for himself without having to fight over the bowl. Another possibility was that he just didn’t want to eat alone, so he came where the people were. In either case, when he finished the mouthful he brought out, he’d go get another and repeat the process. Eventually, he just ate at his bowl.

Little by little, Thespis abandoned all these habits, though it took years in some cases. One behavior he never quit, though—at least not until he got really old. Thespis had his own definition of how much attention was sufficient. ‘Baka had been content to wait quietly, chewing on one of his "bones," until I decided it was time to play. But Thesp was a real attention-whore. When he decided he'd been left alone long enough, he came and poked me with his nose. If I was sitting at my desk, he’d stick his nose through the arm support of my chair until I quit working or reading or whatever and petted him. If I didn't respond quickly enough, he’d lay his chin on my knee and look up at me. That always worked! And heaven forbid I should stop! Very demanding. (Notwithstanding a sore arm, I never resisted, either.)

Like Sobaka before him, Thespie turned out to be a great pet. Oh, both dogs had their foibles, some of which were even serious. (‘Baka, for instance, was violently aggressive with other animals. I could never walk him without a leash and I had to have him specially trained to make his aggression manageable when he was around other dogs.) But for the most part, they were terrific companions. They were markedly different from one another in several ways, though, diametrically opposite, in fact. Aside from appearances—‘Baka was pretty, dark-colored, long- and wavy-haired, somewhat big (35 pounds); Thespie was funny-looking, short- and straight-haired, light-colored, smallish (ultimately 25 pounds: he gained weight after the kennel)—and their difference in attention-seeking needs, their personalities were contrasting. ‘Baka was relatively calm (except that problem with other animals); Thespie was hyper (a Jack Russell trait). Sobaka didn’t play with toys, though he’d chew on a rawhide or nylon bone for hours; Thespis loved to toss around almost anything he could grasp in his mouth, especially those old, knotted socks. ‘Baka hated riding in cars (and even got carsick enough to need medication) and had to be lifted up into one if we went for a drive; Thespis loved to get into cars, even a stranger’s if he happened to be passing by one when the door opened. ‘Baka wasn't much for playing by himself, but he was great at playing with me—catch, tug-o’-war, wrestling; Thespis wasn't much good at playing with me, though he was terrific at playing on his own. Neither dog, however, was especially demonstrative—they weren’t lickers, though Thesp would sometimes lick the back of my hand—but they were both devoted to me. And they both hated to be left behind, either at home alone, where they moped near the door until I came back (they used to bark then, too, for a few months after I got them), or outside a store when I couldn’t take them in with me. (I never left them on the sidewalk unless I couldn’t avoid it and knew I’d be in and out fast. Otherwise, I’d save that errand for another time.) Until they each got too infirm to walk long distances comfortably, we used to take really long walks all around lower Manhattan—down into SoHo or even TriBeCa, deep into the West or East Village, or over into the far west of Chelsea.

Thespie didn’t like crowds or loud noises (like a metal garage door opening or closing right near him). Still, we’d go off for jaunts on decent days, sometimes walking through the Greenmarket at Union Square (where he’d scuttle under the vendors’ tables whenever I stopped to look over some produce or baked goods), circle back through the park, go off into the East Village—maybe down to Astor Place or over to Tompkins Square—and then meander back home. Whenever we turned back toward home, no matter how far away we were or in what part of town, he’d start to pull at his leash. He knew we were on our way back somehow and always reacted this way. I had had to find a different kind of attachment for his leash because he never figured out that pulling so hard against the leash was choking him. This contraption, called a Halti, went around his snout and the lead attached under his chin. When he tugged, it would pull his head up and he’d stop yanking so hard. (It’s the same principle as pulling the reins of a horse.) Ultimately he learned not to pull at the leash, but people on the street saw the straps around his nose and thought he was wearing a muzzle and sometimes asked if he bit or was unfriendly. In reality, of course, he was the timidest dog on the street, I suspect. Strangers frightened him and he’d try to hide behind me, winding the leash around my legs, to get away from anyone who tried to make friends with him on the sidewalk until he got much older and mellowed a little. Eventually he’d let little kids pet him without running around behind me, but only if I crouched down next to him and put my hand on him somewhere to reassure him it was all right. Even so, I could see his eyes widen and feel him tense up, ready to bolt if things didn’t go right in his estimation. Right afterwards, of course, I’d give Thespie a good rub somewhere like the top of his head or under his chin, or I’d scratch his belly, and praise him so he’d understand he did a good thing. I don’t know if he really believed me; I suspect he may have been indulging me.

When my father was in a nursing home and we used to spend all day with him, I brought Thespis because it was too long to leave him. He had no training as a therapy dog, but the staff, who encouraged me to bring him whenever I came, very much welcomed him. The other patients made a great fuss over him when I brought him into the ward, even though all he did was hang out. My father used to respond to him, too, before Dad got too sick—but he’d been a dog person all his life and he knew Thespis from before the nursing home. When Dad moved to the hospice where he died, we’d spend all day there, too, so Thespie went along as well. He was welcome there, too, and one time when I had to step out of Dad's room—the staff was changing his bed or his pajamas or something—one of the nurses asked if I’d take Thespis over to another patient's room. It turned out to be a young man who was dying from AIDS or one of the AIDS-related illnesses, and Thespis got up on his bed and the guy petted him and played with him until the young man got too tired. The patient’s friend made a point of finding me later and thanking me for bringing Thespie. I know that Thespis, and Sobaka before him, always used to make me feel better, almost no matter what. On a rough day, even the anticipation of finding Thespis waiting for me would buck me up on the way home from the subway or bus.

About two or three years before his death, Thespie began to deteriorate. I noticed a white patch in his right eye which turned out to be a cataract. It had already blinded him in the one eye and the other eye would soon follow, but the doctor was also worried about glaucoma and put him on medication to reduce the pressure in his eyeballs. In the end, I had to have his eyes destroyed chemically to avoid removing them, but his sight was gone by then. Little by little, Thespis started into a physical decline which took away most of the good parts of his life, though I was assured that he wasn’t in pain. He just wasn’t having any fun. Except for his eyes and a touch of arthritis, he was in good health so far. I wondered sometimes, however, if I was keeping him around when I shouldn't, but everyone I talked to, including his vets, said that he wasn’t in pain or discomfort, so there was no reason to consider putting him down yet. Thespie, of course, didn't know he had no life; he just thought that was the way things were supposed to be. At his age, though, things could change on a dime. Eventually, they did change, of course.

In 2003, Thespis gave me a terrible scare. I woke up the Sunday morning before Memorial Day and found that he'd peed and crapped on the rug he slept on. I thought it was just an "accident"—which he had from time to time anyway (incontinence was beginning to rear its head)—until I saw that he was lying in part of the pee—something he'd never do. (He was also under a table, which wasn’t a habit of his, either.) I cleaned up a little and then went to take him right out, and I discovered he couldn't stand up! I also saw that his eyes were all bugged out, way more than at the height of his glaucoma (his eye pressure had returned to nearly normal as a result of the ablation), and then I saw that his head was bobbing around like Stevie Wonder when he sings. I got really scared—I thought Thespis' eyes had swollen so they were pressing on his brain. I scooped him up and grabbed a cab to the Animal Medical Center. We got there at about 9:45 in the morning and a doctor saw him immediately to assess him, but then we were left alone in the examining room for hours. I sat there petting, stroking, and talking to Thespie, fearing the worst—until I noticed that all his symptoms were disappearing. By the time the doctor came back, Thespie looked perfectly normal, and he even walked from the exam room. The vet said his eye pressure was normal now, and that the episode may have been caused by a tumor, but he didn't know without an MRI or CAT scan.

The doctor wanted me to see another vet the next day (which was the holiday), but Thespis' regular eye doctor wouldn't be available, and the other clinic would be closed until morning, so I'd have to go on spec and hope the specialist there could see him. I didn't like those options, and I decided to wait till I could speak to our regular ophthalmologist, so I called her and left an urgent message and e-mailed her the details of the episode. She called me on Tuesday and said the episode was probably something that sometimes happens with older dogs and wasn't necessarily symptomatic of anything—and that all of what the emergency doctor saw had been normal for Thespis; they weren't changes or deteriorations. (Some of his symptoms, like the peeing/pooping, may have been the result of fear and my ministrations during the hours we were alone may have been the reason they all subsided.) She agreed that he didn't need to see some third doctor and that his next scheduled appointment with her would be fine. She really put my mind at ease—I was wondering if I had made a bad decision and was jeopardizing Thespis' life. He was perfectly normal afterwards—for a superannuated puppy, that is—though I still watched him every time he moved (or didn't move) and checked to see that he was breathing when he was asleep.

I kept envisioning Sobaka stumbling around like Lee Marvin's drunken horse in Cat Ballou, and then collapsing. I saw myself rushing him off the AMC at 3 in the morning when I knew he was done, and having him euthanized. All this was going through my mind for days until I heard back from Thespis' regular doctor. I knew Thespis was at the end of his life, and that at 15 or 16 he’d really outlived most dogs, but he seemed okay for the most part, and I didn't see the purpose in putting him down just because he was no longer convenient or fun. As long as he wasn’t in pain or anything—and his doctor assured me he was okay on that score—I wanted to keep him around for a while longer.

A year or so later, Thespis had gotten really old. Along with his blindness, he'd become a crotchety old man. He wasn’t really incontinent yet, but he no longer had the waiting power he used to so I had to take him out every four or five hours. That meant he couldn't make it through the night without a walk. So I took him out at about 3 or 4, and when I woke up sometime in the early morning I took him out again then lay down for another hour or so. I’d had to give up going out to eat before theater or spending the whole day in the library because it meant leaving Thespie too long, but I figured I owed him. In December 2002, the New York Times published an article on superannuated pets. The article focused on dogs, and the "old" ones it described were 13 to 15. Thespis was already 14 or 15 when that article came out, a sort of canine Methuselah—older than the oldest animal in the article. (Uno, the dog now considered the oldest in the U.S., would have been about Thespie’s age, between 69 and 73 in human terms.)

By the following year, those seizures had become noticeably more frequent, weeks rather than months apart. He wouldn't have many more days left. I planned the usual trip to Washington for the end of 2005.

Then, just after Christmas, I had to say goodbye to Thespis. I said I was never sure how old Thespis was, but I know he was my companion for about 15 years. The effects of his advanced age, somewhere between 17 and 18 (81 to 85 for people), finally became too much for me to feel he could go on without discomfort. I was more than willing to manage most of the infirmities with which he was plagued—arthritis, blindness, incontinence—but one thing ultimately became too hard to put him though any longer—the seizures. For a long time, they had been brief and seldom, and he seemed to recover from them immediately. But starting the week before Christmas, he began having these attacks frequently, one night even several in a row. I thought this might be an aberration, but when he had three attacks and then four during two brief walks and he seemed unable or unwilling to walk after they subsided, I realized he was at the stage where he must be in distress and I couldn't hold on to him into the New Year. He died quietly with my mother and me petting him gently as he went to sleep.

Even after many weeks and even months, I still missed him and wondered what I would do with the things he’d left behind. I also still caught myself thinking, ‘I have to take Thespis out now’; then realized that I didn't. He’d often been my principal excuse to get out of the apartment, especially on a lousy day. I had to readjust many of the tasks I performed for 15 years as an adjunct to walking him—getting my paper in the morning, dropping letters in the corner box, picking up my mail in the afternoon, stopping by the ATM at night for the week’s cash, and other quotidian chores I always took care of on the way out or back with Thespis. Even now, after four years, I sometimes forget to get my mail and my newspaper can sit on my doormat into the afternoon because I don’t go out first thing to walk the dog anymore. The routine that he’d generated over a decade-and-a-half no longer had an anchor and it just dissipated.

Lots of people compare having a dog with having a child. Despite obvious parallels, of course, the situations are very different in many ways. One difference is that a child eventually grows up and becomes independent of the parents. Gradually, the relationship changes. A dog always remains dependent on its human companion. In a way, it was as if I’d had a toddler in my house for 15 years. And then he was gone.

1 comment:

  1. In the New York Times of 25 March, the owner of Otto, the 11-year-old Lab I mention above, announced that he'd died earlier this month in California, where he lived with her family and two other, younger dogs. My condolences to M.S.: I know pretty much how you felt in the days following Otto's death.

    ~Rick (former companion of Sobaka and Thespis)