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Of dogs and people

A lifetime watching the aging of pets provides their owner with some insights on life and death.

February 15, 2009|Mark Steinberg | Mark Steinberg is a retired partner at O'Melveny & Myers and served in the State and Justice departments during the Clinton administration.

The dachshund arrived when I was 6. A cousin's dog had given birth to a litter of five, and our relative was determined that every one of them would stay in the family. She appeared unannounced at our kitchen door one morning carrying a female puppy, a doggy bed, biscuits, a chewable rat and smug optimism. She stepped into the kitchen, put the puppy on the floor to roam free, folded her arms and waited.

The dog recognized immediately that there was only one Decider in our house, my mother, and she targeted her routine at that one-person audience. First, she did the puppy "boing boing" thing, jumping up and down because she'd found the most lovable, sensitive human being on Earth. Then she threw herself at my mother's feet and licked her toes. As a finale, she walked over to the doggie bed, flopped down and went to sleep.

By sunset, the puppy had been named Lisa and listed first on my mother's "preferred organ recipient" card.

At the time of Lisa's arrival, I'd given no thought to the question of dog longevity. It was about two years later that someone explained to me that one human year equals seven dog years. It was a shock. I'd believed that I was Lisa's older brother. But I now had to live with the fact that my 2-year-old dog was six years my senior.

I did not take this new information to its logical conclusion, however. It didn't occur to me that Lisa wouldn't live as long as I would. I thought she'd simply be a gazillion years old when I died, and that she'd just start looking more and more like my Aunt Minnie.

By the time I was 9, I had an inkling of the truth. Dogs of friends, dogs of relatives, dogs of people in the neighborhood were vanishing, and I had begun to notice that a predictable series of events preceded the disappearances. First, the dogs stopped going "boing boing." Then they began stumbling when they walked. Then their muzzles went gray. And then they were gone.

Still, my denial was strong. When Lisa's "boing boing" went, I figured she had simply come to regard such behavior as puppyish and beneath her. When she stumbled, I assumed she'd been thinking about something else, something important. When the gray came, I ignored it.

Ultimately, we had to face the question of whether we were keeping Lisa alive for ourselves or because she still had a good life. She was 91 when we finally answered that question.

In 1966, when I was 21, I married Marjorie, a lovely, wise woman with an absolute, unconditional love of all things canine.

Over the next 30 years, we entertained (and said goodbye to) seven dogs. There were shelties, a golden retriever, a German shepherd and a mutt. There were smart ones, less smart ones, greedy ones, picky ones, close companions and indifferent co-tenants.

In 1999, when I was 54, we brought our current dogs, two border collies, into our home. The pedigreed of the two, Bergers, carried himself like Prince Philip and assumed a roughly equivalent air with us, the staff. The other dog, J.J., was the product of some combination of close relatives who lived in the doggy equivalent of a trailer park. She was friendly in the way someone seeking early parole might be friendly.

We four have lived in relative harmony these nine years. It occurred to me on a recent walk, however, that the dogs and I are approaching the finish line in tandem. I am 63, and they are somewhere in the same vicinity.

Since this epiphany, I've begun to see my relationship with the dogs in a different light, as a sort of competition. And I suspect they do too. As the maladies associated with my age multiply -- back trouble, leg trouble, sleeping trouble, other trouble -- I've noticed the dogs watching me closely. And it seems to me they are smiling at every manifestation of my problems. Likewise, I've been watching them. And although I of course don't take pleasure in their aches, pains and flatulence (which they themselves seem to regard with pleasure), I do notice. It's hard not to feel that we are vying, dry nose to wet nose, to win the first prize, the only prize, in "Last (Whatever) Standing."

We could, I suppose, declare a temporary stand-down, a pause that tacitly acknowledges the slope isn't yet all that slippery. After all, Stump, the Sussex spaniel recently named best-in-show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, is 70 dog-years old. If Stump is still in his prime, surely we can hold together as a cohort for a few more years, ready at a moment's notice to tear open a bag of Cheez-its, then head to the toilet for a round of drinks.

But the dogs have made it crystal clear that they have no interest in a truce and no intention of conceding defeat. In fact, they appear to have undertaken a hostile, life-lengthening training regime. For every step I take on one of our walks, they take four. For every power nap I take, they sleep for four days.

The dogs have begun to worry, I suspect, that I'm going to stack the deck, that I'll pull the plug on one or both of them prematurely. But I do not kill any living thing without due process. I am, after all, a lawyer.

I will fight this last battle honorably, and, should Providence decree that I precede my beloved companions to the hereafter, I will know as I breathe my last that I have run the race well. I also will take to my grave the knowledge of where the treats are hidden and that I've paid the groomer to show up on Thursday.

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