Editor's Note:

By Tom Shroder
Sunday, October 5, 2008

My dog terrifies me:

When I wake up to her rolling at the foot of my bed, feet in the air like four hairy question marks asking, "Rub my belly?" When I return from getting the paper to find her waiting at the top of the steps, her chin resting on her forepaws. When she gallops in from the porch to greet me at the end of the day, dancing her joy. When she plops down after dinner, switching her tail impatiently, big brown eyes riveted on mine, alert for any movement toward the leash. When she barks at me, indignantly, plaintively, if I take too long to get up. When she leaps to hug and kiss me in gratitude as soon as I step toward the door. When she prances through the neighborhood, waving the white tip of her tail like a jaunty flag, alive to every scent on the breeze, every rustle in the leaves.

She terrifies me at those times, and all others, because she is 9, and already slipping into old age. That slippage occurs far too quickly in humans, for sure, but for dogs, it's an avalanche. I looked up both lineages that made her the mutt she is, Lab and foxhound, and discovered the same, stark life expectancy -- 10 to 12 years.

Have I mentioned that she's 9?

Sally (she came from the shelter as a puppy with that name) was supposed to be a pet for my children, but dogs choose to whom they belong, and from the instant she stepped from the crate, she became -- deeply, unquestionably and irrevocably -- my dog. My last association with a dog had been in childhood. I had no idea how nuanced the communication could be between man and hound, how profound the attachment.

I realize that the only certainty about any close relationship is that it will end. I know we usually cope with that sad fact by choosing not to dwell on it, but the horrifying imminence of Sally's end makes it impossible for me to ignore. That she is now happy and healthy almost makes it worse. I find myself morbidly wondering how it will start. Will her lame rear leg become unusable? Will a suspicious lump appear? And I can't bear to imagine, just as I can't help doing so, the moment when a decision is required of me.

Gene Weingarten, who literally wrote the book on old dogs (an excerpt begins on Page 16), said: "Trust me, you will grieve -- really grieve -- for two weeks. And then it will get better because, in the end, she is a dog, not a person."

Maybe, but knowing what I face in my not-distant future makes it hard to appreciate Gene's wisdom. Instead, I keep hearing in my mind a familiar phrase with a new meaning: Beware of dog.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.

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