Old Dog
By Jeane Knapp

May/June 1999

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A little boy on a bike swerved to a stop on the sidewalk in front of our house. “How old is that dog, anyway?” he asked.

It was one of the first warm days of spring, and I was raking the yard. Hector was with me, an old golden retriever, more white than golden, lying quietly on a tattered red bath mat I’d put down to keep the chill from his bones. When Hector was younger, yard work was one long session of chase and fetch for him. He would drop his tennis ball in front of the rake to get my attention—or even in front of the lawn mower—and tremble with eagerness until I threw it.

“He’ll be 16 next month,” I told the boy.

“Gee, that’s 140 in dog years!” the boy exclaimed. He put his bike down and went over to pat Hector. No budding mathematician, but maybe a budding veterinarian. Hector licked his hand.

Nowadays, when I’m upstairs, Hector wants to come up, too. He calls for me with a strange, urgent “woof!” I go downstairs to get him, and though I can’t carry him—he weighs 80 pounds—I’ve worked out a system of getting behind him and putting my hands on his hips to steady him. Then he bravely climbs: eight steps, first landing, pause; two steps, second landing, stop, rest. After awhile, maybe one minute, maybe 10, he woofs again, and we tackle the last six steps. At the top, safely near me, he curls up beside my desk and sleeps.

Coming down is harder. I get below on the landing and coax, and with my hands I slow his descent.

He was born in Michigan, and we got him on July 4, 1981. His parents had fancy names—Old Bahle of Sutton’s Bay and Katherine III. We got him for companionship, not for show or breeding, and named him Hector partly for the fun of saying that we’ve had him “since Hector was a pup.”

On the long, hot trip back to Milwaukee, we stopped at a rest area near Chicago, and I carried the puppy into the air-conditioned entryway to wait while my husband got gas. A little boy stopped short and, enchanted, kissed him on the nose.

At night I kept Hector shut downstairs in the pantry until he was housebroken. Finally, one evening at bedtime, I carried him up the stairs (at 20 pounds, no problem), followed by the cat, who clearly disapproved of the invasion of her territory. I put Hector on the rug beside the bed; patted the cat, who had taken her accustomed place on the bed; and went to brush my teeth. I came back to find Hector on the bed, panting companionably at the horrified cat. I explained, as gently as I could, that a dog’s place is on the floor beside the bed. He has spent every night since in that same spot.

Hector’s muzzle is white, his eyes are cloudy, and he can no longer hear a tennis ball bounce or even hands clap behind his back. When he wakes from a sound sleep, he jerks his head, disoriented, and looks and sniffs until he finds me. I wave my hand and call to him, and he sighs and puts his head down again.

Although he never got to splash through a marsh to retrieve birds, the way his ancestors did, he ran hundreds upon hundreds of miles on a leash, until his hind legs failed and I had to run alone. He retrieved tennis balls instead of birds, and took pride in picking up three at a time and bringing them back to me. His duties were relatively light. He did not have a family of growing children to look after, as did his predecessor, Molly, but he looked after me with all his heart and seldom let me out of his sight.

He has taught me kindness. When he wants so desperately to be near me, how can I do anything but help him along, a step at a time? He has taught me devotion, and now I’m the one who worries when he is out of sight. He has taught me patience, to slow to his pace and lead him through a world grown bewildering. And he has renewed my compassion, for his struggles to comprehend and to cope echo the struggles of my friend, my brother, my mother-in-law, as their lives drew to an end.

Jeane Knapp lives in Cedarburg, WI. She is a longtime member of the Unitarian Church North in Mequon.

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