Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Old Dog Lessons

For the re-awakening of my blog after a long siesta, I've chosen to pull a story from my third published collection, "The Battle Cry of the Siamese Kitten" (ECW Press 2022). I chose this one specifically because it features Orbit, our Shetland sheepdog who suddenly passed away at the end of last year. I'm trying to find ways to honour his memory and mark his impact on my life. Since I'm a writer, what better way than to write about him.

Old Dog Lessons

The title is misleading. The dog giving the lessons, Orbit, is not “old”. Naturally, he is showing some signs of aging, but that is of course a constant process, right from birth. We all only stop aging when we die. As I write this, he is eight and a half years old - “middle-aged”, let’s say. I won’t think of him as old until he’s in the double digits, which is only a year and a half away. But let’s not dwell on that. For now, he’s still middle-aged, but “Middle Aged Dog Lessons” doesn’t have the same ring.

            As an aside, this is a good time to address a top ten question asked of vets: “How old is my dog in people years?” There used to be an easy way to answer this, but unfortunately it was wrong. We used to simply multiply by seven, and presto, there was your answer. A ten-year-old dog was 70, which sort of almost maybe made sense back when most dogs were lucky to see their teens. But that rare 20-year-old Chihuahua was 140! Amazing. Even more amazing was the routine fact of puppies going into the equivalent of puberty at 6 months of age, or 3 and a half human years! Imagine your toddler’s voice cracking and a wispy moustache appearing on his upper lip. Or needing a training bra and feminine hygiene products. But we cheerfully ignored these quirks of the “seven times” math for decades. Now we know better. Now we do something much more complicated. Are you ready? Here’s the formula:

            At 1 a dog is 15 in human years.

            At 2 a dog is 24 in human years.

            After that, add 5 human years for every dog year for most dogs, but add 4 for very            small dogs, and 6 for giant breeds.

            Got it?

            (Incidentally, if you’re doing the cat age math, the formula is the same, with cats equating to small dogs.)

            So, by this formula, eight-and-a-half-year-old Orbit is 24 + ((8.5 – 2) x 5) = 56.5. That 20-year-old Chihuahua is now 24 + ((20 - 2) x 4) = 96. And sadly, a 12-year-old Newfoundlander is already 24 + ((12 – 2) x 6) = 84. By the way, I hope all those nesting brackets haven’t given any of you math anxiety flashbacks. If you prefer, the charts are easy to find on the internet.

            But Orbit is, like I said, middle aged. In fact, at 56.5, he’s only a year older than I am right now. He passed me late last fall sometime.


Consider the foregoing a bonus story. It was not what I intended to write about. I intended to write about what Orbit is teaching me as he ages.

            I’m not a nickname kind of guy. A small number of people - none of them family or close friends - call me “Phil”, but that’s a contraction, not a nickname. One classmate back in veterinary school tried “Flip” on for size, but that didn’t stick. However, when I worked for Dr. Bruce Murphy over several summers while in university, he started calling me “Flying Phil” and that became widespread among the graduate students in his endocrinology lab.

            Bruce had noticed a fundamental truth about me. I am quick. I walk quickly, I talk quickly, and I eat quickly. I consciously try to slow the latter two down because I know that they are not good things. The walking quickly is mostly positive, unless I’m walking with my family and annoying them by constantly surging ahead, but the talking and eating are problems. Yet, despite knowing this, and despite decades now of trying to slow down, my default is still to be quick. I’ve made my peace with who I am, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to keep trying.

            Orbit is helping now. He’s still an energetic dog and can easily keep pace with me, when he wants to, but since becoming middle-aged, increasingly he doesn’t want to. When I say, “Do you want to go for a walk Orbit?”, he hears, “Do you want to go for a sniff Orbit?” In common with most dogs, he’s always been an enthusiastic sniffer, but in the last couple years this has apparently turned into his life’s primary mission. Whereas a simple tug on the leash used to be enough to stop him from sniffing and get him walking again, now I have to yank hard, and drag him. Literally. He puts on the brakes by bracing his legs and leaning away from me, and he adopts what I can only describe as a stubborn facial expression. As I haul, the collar rides up against the back of his head, pushing the fur forward, and he locks his legs in position. I’m bigger and stronger, so I win, but at a cost. Orbit is disgruntled. People stare. I feel judged. I want Orbit to enjoy his sniffing, but, damn it, even more so, I just want to go!

            Then slowly I started giving in more frequently, and this became a feedback loop because he saw this as an opening. So, he tried stopping even more, and I gave in even more, to the point that some of our walks now consist mostly of meandering and sniffing. None of this high velocity arrow-straight ambulation. For a smell connoisseur, it must be like powerwalking through the Louvre. Sure, you’re getting exercise, but you’re missing all the best stuff! When I have a busy day, this is as painful as getting in the slowest check-out line at the grocery store. Mindfulness gurus will tell you to actively seek these situations out. It’s easy to be mindful at the beach or during an interesting movie, but for true practice, pick something that would normally frustrate you and make you impatient. So they say. Orbit turns out to be a mindfulness master. Most animals are. I am trying to learn from him. While he slows down to smell the pee, I’m trying to slow down and smell the roses (mostly metaphorical, especially during the winter). As an aside, I originally planned to title this story, “Slow Down and Smell the Pee”, but I didn’t want people to skip it.

            Now, when I want to walk quickly with Orbit, because I still prefer that and because he still can keep up, I pick routes that take us across as many open fields as possible. He still finds the occasional apparently well perfumed blade of grass that requires deep sniffing, but otherwise we’re able to go straight and fast and far, neither of us old in any way.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Dr. Schott, I have very much enjoyed each of your Accidental Veterinarian series books. Thank you. I'm sorry to hear of Orbit's passing. We lost our beloved middle-aged dog Nelson , a Lab/Golden mix, due to cancer. So, I know your sadness.