We have a dog. He is getting older and with his aging comes changes. Baxter has always been a little different compared to our other dogs.
Our previous canine companions were attention hogs. The first dog, a terrier mix, was a committed face licker and was most definitely a people person. He always just wanted to be exactly where we were, preferably on us, especially if it meant he could be on both of us at the same time. Our second dog bud was a little more standoffish initially – he had clearly been an outside dog and had not been treated well before us, but it didn’t take him long to decide that he, despite the fact that he weighed in at over 100 pounds, was in fact a lap dog. It was only when I got into my 8th month of a twin pregnancy that Gus had to give up having his head and torso on me. I had no lap for his giant cow head anymore.
Baxter came to us as a five year old rescue. He was trusting from the beginning, but from his extremely matted and overgrown hair and allergic flea-bitten skin to his lack of interest in physical affection that our other dogs loved, it was pretty clear that his care had been spotty. He was never hostile, has never growled (even if you messed with his food), but he just didn’t seem to enjoy our attention the way our other pals did.
It has been a slow process for Baxter, but he has become a dog who LOVES physical attention. He went from a dog who would walk away while we were petting him to a dog who will lean on you so hard while you’re petting him that it can knock you over if you’re not firmly planted (he’s kind of big). He’s been hanging out in that space in a committed way for about two years and we’ve been relishing it.
And recently things have begun to change again. Baxter hasn’t been joining us on the couch as often. He is more hesitant to jump up on the bed, even if it’s storming (which is the only time that behavior is encouraged as he really is sort of pony-sized). He doesn’t seem to enjoy his walks for such a long time anymore. He’s aging. He’s getting a little uncomfortable. I see the pain in his hind end when he stands up.
I’ve seen those changes and have changed my own behavior in ways that make things easier for him, but I didn’t think of everything. I didn’t add it all up and find ways to give him that physical contact even though he is not as interested in getting up WITH me anymore. I didn’t catch on until he began walking up to me and making a request when I am on the couch (in my usual position). I always invite him to assume his previously usual position next to me. Sometimes he takes me up on it, but oftentimes he just puts his face in my lap.
He does this when he returns from bus stop drop off with my seminarian. I am usually already on my laptop, doing a little writing, preparing for my day, working. In our previous arrangement, this was fine. He would get up on the couch next to me. I would type and occasionally rub his head while it was on my lap. I would multi-task and we would be together.
It is far more difficult to multi-task when he just puts his big old head on my keyboard. And I didn’t see what was happening. I didn’t see that this was what he could do right now. I didn’t see that this was the opportunity for both of us to have the connection that we’ve had these past few years. I gave him a little rub and then encouraged him to lie down.
This morning I caught myself. Just as I was about to ask him to lie down, I stopped and wondered how long he wanted me to rub his head, how much longer it would “take” for him to be the one to end the moment. I closed my laptop. I put both of my hands on his big sweet head and I just dug in to love in that moment. I did all of the things I know he likes best. I scratched right behind his ears. I rubbed his lower jaw. I rubbed his ears. He leaned into it as he does. It was wonderful. His pleasure was palpable, and I felt him relax. After what couldn’t have been more than three minutes, Baxter had enough. He backed up, found his new spot on the floor and lay down with a big sigh.
Everything changes so fast. So often I don’t see it as it progresses. And then I hit a moment where the changes become more obvious. And when I’m paying attention I see that. But even then I don’t always have the presence to give that change the extra moment that is sometimes required to figure out how to proceed with love. But what I know, thanks to my super zen teacher dog, is that more often than not figuring out how to proceed with love really only takes a pause, a breath, just one more minute. And if I can give that change the moment it deserves, I get to experience all of the richness, all of the love, and all of the connection that this life has to offer.