Category Archives: Old Dogs

Saying Goodbye to Jenny, a Beloved Border Collie

My dog Jenny came to the end of the line last week. She was over 15, deaf, and scarcely able to move, but never lost her dignity in any respect; she was a model of how to grow old with grace. Like every good Border collie she was always on the job, even as she gave in to the tides of age, still keeping constant  look out over her people. When she couldn’t move, she barked to be  moved into a position where she could survey her charges.  Towards the end one friend, a Buddhist nun, came to say goodbye. Bending over Jenny, she said in a matter-of-fact way, “Goodbye, Jenny. Come back good.” We know she will.

Later a neighbor stopped by to leave a copy of Eugene O’Neill’s famous homage to his dog Blemie, “The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog.”  Jenny, I know, would have liked these sentiments. So in her honor, I will quote a bit of it:

…I ask my Master and Mistress to remember me always, but not to grieve for me too long. In my life I have tried to be a comfort to them in time of sorrow, and a reason for added joy in their happiness…I feel life is taunting me with having over-lingered my welcome. It is time I said good-bye, before I become too sick a burden on myself and on those who love me. It will be sorrow to leave them, but not a sorrow to die. Dogs do not fear death as men do. We accept it as part of life, not as something alien and terrible which destroys life…

One last request I earnestly make. I have heard my Mistress say, “When Blemie dies we must never have another dog. I love him so much I could never love another one.” Now I would ask her, for love of me, to have another. It would be a poor tribute to my memory never to have a dog again. What I would like to feel is that, having once had me in the family, now she cannot live without a dog! I have never had a narrow jealous spirit. I have always held that most dogs are good (and one cat, the black one I have permitted to share the living room rug during the evenings, whose affection I have tolerated in a kindly spirit, and in rare sentimental moods, even reciprocated a trifle)…

One last word of farewell, Dear Master and Mistress. Whenever you visit my grave, say to yourselves with regret but also with happiness in your hearts at the remembrance of my long happy life with you: “Here lies one who loved us and whom we loved.” No matter how deep my sleep I shall hear you, and not all the power of death can keep my spirit from wagging a grateful tail.

Old Dogs, New Gifts

Clyde, age 8

Readers of Unsilent Generation know that I have a soft spot for old dogs, including but not limited to my own 15-year-old, Jenny. Every old dog deserves a safe home, a warm spot to lie in, and plenty of love and attention–in other words, pretty much the same things that old people need. But old dogs who end up homeless have an even harder time than other dogs, since they are often passed over for adoption; in some shelters, they are euthanized as soon as they arrive unless someone intervenes. 

Dina, age 7

 While there are hundreds of animal welfare organizations and rescue groups around the country, only a handful of groups have devoted themselves specifically to the needs of older dogs. As far as I can tell, all of them are staffed entirely by volunteers and survive on a shoestring, depending on small donations from ordinary people. If you love old dogs, too, you might want to keep this in mind if you’re planning on making some charitable contributions before the end of the year. 

MacGregor, age 13

One group is the Sanctuary for Senior Dogs in Ohio, which rescues old dogs from shelters, finds adoptive homes, and keeps the ones they can’t place. They also train therapy dogs that visit old people. Last year a friend gave me their annual calendar, called Graying Muzzles: A Celebration of Old Dogs, with a canine geezer for every month of the year. These make great holiday gifts and support the Sanctuary’s work. (You can also enter your old dog in their photo contest for next year.) Or you can sponsor one of their permanent residents, like the ones pictured in this post, or just make a donation


Other old dogs around the country who need adoption or foster homes, and organizations that rescue and support aging dogs, can be found at the Senior Dogs Project, which serves as a kind of information clearinghouse on old dogs. 

“Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” –Pearl S. Buck 

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” –Mahatma Gandhi 

Old Dogs Smarter Than Young Children (and Politicians)


OK, actually this story is actually about all dogs, not just old dogs. But it was too good not to pass on to my readers, so I made the stretch to put it in my Old Dogs Series.

The web site LiveScience reports on recent findings by Stanley Coren, a Canadian academic who has conducted extensive research into canine intelligence.  Coren says that the average dog compares favorably with a human two-year old in language abilities. Smart breeds rate even better: They can understand about 250 words, similar to a 2.5-year-old human. (Border Collies like my own old dog scored highest, as usual.) Dogs fare even better in math, showing abilities similar to a four-year-old, according to Coren. And in terms of emotional development, they rate more like human teens (which may or may not be a compliment, depending on what you think of teenagers).

“The social life of dogs is much more complex, much more like human teenagers at that stage, interested in who is moving up in the pack and who is sleeping with who and that sort of thing,” Coren told LiveScience….

Dogs also show some basic emotions, such as happiness, anger and disgust. But more complex emotions, such as guilt, are not in a dog’s toolbox. (What humans once thought was guilt was found to be doggy fear, Coren noted.)

And while dogs know whether they’re being treated fairly, they don’t grasp the concept of equity. Coren recalls a study in which dogs get a treat for “giving a paw.”

When one dog gets a treat and the other doesn’t, the unrewarded dog stops performing the trick and avoids making eye contact with the trainer. But if one dog, say, gets rewarded with a juicy steak while the other snags a measly piece of bread, on average the dogs don’t care about the inequality of the treats.

If that’s the criteria, I’d say humans are just a dumb as dogs on this particular subject. Why else would so many working-class and middle-class people vote against tax hikes for the rich? Why else would they oppose health care reform so that the insurance and drug companies can keep up their profits? 

So does this mean that in addition to being just as smart as toddlers, dogs are just as smart as Republicans–and some Democrats, too? (Again, you may or may not think this is a compliment–I know what I think.)

My dog Jenny: Smarter than Max Baucus?

My dog Jenny: Smarter than Max Baucus?

A Tribute to Old Dogs


After seeing my previous posts about old dogs, a friend alerted me to a book released last year called Old Dogs Are the Best Dogs, with text by the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten and wonderful photographs by Michael Williamson. Click on the book cover to watch a slide show:


An excerpt from Weingarten’s text, about his own old dog Harry, appeared in the Post when the book was published. It helps explain, I think, why old dogs can be especially precious to older people, as we face our own aging and mortality. Makes you think that it might not be a bad thing, after all, to die like a dog. 

It’s no big deal to love a dog; they make it so easy for you. They find you brilliant, even if you are a witling. You fascinate them, even if you are as dull as a butter knife. They are fond of you, even if you are a genocidal maniac. Hitler loved his dogs, and they loved him….

But it is not until a dog gets old that his most important virtues ripen and coalesce. Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, odd of habit, hard of hearing, pimply, wheezy, lazy and lumpy. But to anyone who has ever known an old dog, these flaws are of little consequence. Old dogs are vulnerable. They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. They are without artifice. They are funny in new and unexpected ways. But, above all, they seem at peace.

Kafka wrote that the meaning of life is that it ends. He meant that our lives are shaped and shaded by the existential terror of knowing that all is finite….Among animals, only humans are said to be self-aware enough to comprehend the passage of time and the grim truth of mortality. How then, to explain old Harry at the edge of that park, gray and lame, just days from the end, experiencing what can only be called wistfulness and nostalgia? I have lived with eight dogs, watched six of them grow old and infirm with grace and dignity, and die with what seemed to be acceptance. I have seen old dogs grieve at the loss of their friends. I have come to believe that as they age, dogs comprehend the passage of time, and, if not the inevitability of death, certainly the relentlessness of the onset of their frailties. They understand that what’s gone is gone.

What dogs do not have is an abstract sense of fear, or a feeling of injustice or entitlement. They do not see themselves, as we do, as tragic heroes, battling ceaselessly against the merciless onslaught of time. Unlike us, old dogs lack the audacity to mythologize their lives. You’ve got to love them for that.





Fudge. Photographs copyright 2008 by Michael Williamson from Old Dogs Are the Best Dogs by Gene Weingarten.

Fudge. Photographs copyright Michael Williamson from Old Dogs Are the Best Dogs.

Old Dogs 2: Indy


imageIndy is a 15-year-old Brooklyn mutt who can be sweet, canny, or fierce, depending upon what the situation demands. She belongs to Leonora Wiener, and lives across the street from Prospect Park, where dogs rule every day from 9 pm to 9 am.

Unlike a lot of city dogs, Indy is never alone, because she also has a second home,  where she hangs out with Isaac and Raina Doughty. A couple of years ago, when she was eleven, Raina wrote a poem about Indy that won first place in a contest sponsored by the New York Humane Society. It captures how zealously Indy defends both her homes.

Indy, hey, Indy, its 4:00
the mailman’s coming down the block

crouch, dash, jump
you land on the purple chair
and every single hair
is standing on your back
you are now ready to attack
the mailbox opens, the mailbox creaks
your jaws open, you try to speak

you say,this  is my house, my place,
I’m as vicious as a shark

but all that comes out is bark, bark, bark!

Old Dogs 1: Jenny


I’ve always intended that Unsilent Generation would include in its subject matter old animals as well as old people. And one of the posts that’s gotten the most all-time hits is “An Old Dog for the Obamas,” in which I urged the First Family to get a mature canine for the White House, rather than a puppy. It didn’t happen, of course, but it showed me how many people out there love their old dogs, and old dogs in general.

That includes me. My dog, Jenny, is a 14-year-old tricolor Border collie. When she was young she ran like the wind, mile after mile, always in front and to the side where she could lead and watch over her people. That was her job and she never quit. She is deaf now and relies on hand signals, has to hop skip up stairs because the muscles in her back legs are gone. Sometimes she’ll fall, but she gets right up and continues on as if nothing happened. She has been the best companion anyone could ever want.



 There are older Border collies up for adoption at Glen Highland Farm Border Collie Rescue–scroll down to “Six Years and Up.” They do great rescue work with dogs of all ages, and also run “Camp Border Collie” for inner city kids–and they can always use donations.

An Old Dog for the Obamas?

The last thing the new First Family needs is more advice on what kind of dog they should get. But since I’m on the subject of old pets today, I’ll make my plea for them to adopt not a puppy, but an old dog.

Among its “Top Ten Reasons to Adopt an Older Dog,” the Senior Dogs Project  includes such advantages as “What you see is what you get: Unlike puppies, older dogs have grown into their shape and personality.” This would be important for the Obamas, who need a dog with certain attributes–one who’s calm, good with kids, and won’t bite journalists, as Bush’s Scottish terrier Barney was known to do.

Honey, age 10

Honey, age 10

Should they decide to adopt a senior dog in the D.C. area, Homeward Trails Animal Rescue in Arlington is one of several local shelters that has a selection of aging beauties like this one.

This is the first in a weekly feature that will include portraits of old dogs (starting with mine, of course), as well as advice on caring for old dogs, opportunities to adopt old dogs, and anything else that fits the subject. Readers who want to contribute are welcome to email me.

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