Some Gene therapy for dog lovers: A touching ode to the old

Here’s more evidence that Gene Weingarten is not only one of our greatest humorists, but an essayist of great depth and skill as well. His meditation on old dogs is, by turns, witty, irreverant, loving, and deeply moving. It hits especially close to home for all of us who have ever had an old dog as part of the family. The piece was published in 2008, but I was recently reminded of it when a friend told me about the loss of one of her beloved dogs.

We have Apollo, adopted nearly ten years ago, and now a loyal part of the household. He is the brother my son never had. He is a scooper-upper of food scraps from the floor extraordinaire. His mild and loving temperament is admired near and far. People passing him on the sidewalk stop and say things like, “What a beautiful dog!” He seldom barks, never bites, and always, always has plenty of tail-wagging and warm nuzzling to offer friends, family and strangers alike. He always, always cleans his plate, and is happy to clean anyone else’s plate as well. And every morning, rain or sleet or shine, he is bouncing by the side door, ready to take me for my morning constitutional.

But Apollo is getting on in years, and we wonder how much longer he will grace us with his dignified and cheerful company. And so we treasure the time he has given us, and welcome every wag of his tail. Here is how Gene sets us off on one of his last walks with his old dog, Harry.

Not long before his death, Harry and I headed out for a walk that proved eventful. He was nearly 13, old for a big dog. Walks were no longer the slap-happy Iditarodsof his youth, frenzies of purposeless pulling in which we would cast madly off in all directions, fighting for command. Nor were they the exuberant archaeological expeditions of his middle years, when every other tree or hydrant or blade of grass held tantalizing secrets about his neighbors. In his old age, Harry had transformed his walk into a simple process of elimination — a dutiful, utilitarian, head-down trudge. When finished, he would shuffle home to his ratty old bed, which graced our living room because Harry could no longer ascend the stairs. On these walks, Harry seemed oblivious to his surroundings, absorbed in the arduous responsibility of placing foot before foot before foot before foot. But this time, on the edge of a small urban park, he stopped to watch something. A man was throwing a Frisbee to his dog. The dog, about Harry’s size, was tracking the flight expertly, as Harry had once done, anticipating hooks and slices by watching the pitch and roll and yaw of the disc, as Harry had done, then catching it with a joyful, punctuating leap, as Harry had once done, too.

Harry sat. For 10 minutes, he watched the fling and catch, fling and catch, his face contented, his eyes alight, his tail a-twitch. Our walk home was almost jaunty.

I have learned a lot from Apollo. One of my most enduring lessons was the way dogs can open up a direct channel to the hearts of humans. The eyes of toddlers would brighten as they belted out a “woof, woof!” cheerily from their strollers upon catching sight of Apollo. Older children petted and hugged him tight on their first meeting, as if they’d known him forever. Adults would break out into a smile, much more willing to greet a man and his dog than just a man walking by himself. And me? I dread the day I get up in the morning and I will have to take my constitutional alone.