Grace Notes: An old dog

He spent the first year of his life tied up in a feed lot; his young owners had no time for him and he wasn’t allowed in the house. When Kathy, from Border Collie Rescue, ended up with him, she thought he’d be one of the best cattle dogs she’d ever have – after all, he’d spent his young months in the crowded quarters with many, many cows.

Turns out he wasn’t interested in cows or sheep or herding of any kind. The way Kathy put it: “He just wants to sit and put his head on my knee.”

I knew border collies. I found my first at the pound. She was a gifted, oh-so-gentle, dog, impeccably trained. She would weave her way through an Old Town crowd without ever breaking from my heel. She looked to me for permission before she did anything, and once given, she sprang gleefully into action. She became a registered therapy dog and connected with dementia patients in a way that astounded even seasoned nursing-home staff. She died at 9, too young, of liver disease.

My second was a jumping bean, a firecracker, a tipsy-eared, quick-eyed bundle of jump, run, smart, fret, and high maintenance and joy. She too was adopted; she too died before she met full, true, old age.

When others inquired about a border collie for their family, I said the sweet dogs were best suited for work of some kind: running sheep as they were born to do, or living with a young, single, marathon runner who had the time, energy and muscles to keep up. I’d warn them that without careful, skilled training, it would herd their children, chase flies around their living room, worry a footpath obsessively around the yard, and chase almost anything, even over a cliff if you weren’t careful.

Now that we had two young boys, I knew we needed something like an aging golden retriever, a couch potato, a gentle playmate. But, I couldn’t shake the description of the feed-lot dog: “He just wants to sit and put his head on your knee.”

So we traveled to Kathy’s ranch. After watching Toby carefully, after introducing him to the boys, after watching him move slow-by-choice, with discernment and consideration, the black-and-white lion of a dog came home with us for a trial stay.

I knew he’d been oddly damaged by his early months. He’d never been in a house, never climbed stairs, had no idea what to think of a low floating balloon, or a soccer ball, or a doorbell. But that night he sprawled on his side, in front of our TV, with a 3-year-old boy in red footie pajamas, settled into the curve between his front and back legs and a 4-year-old boy spooned around his broad back. The boys wriggled during commercials, pushed their ears against his fur to hear his heartbeat, discussed his white teeth, pointing. The dog was slow by instinct to the children’s fast, calm to their excitement, sigh and watchful to their zoom.

That was 13 years ago. Toby is old now. Wonderfully old, old with purpose and patience and dignity.

This morning, I let him outside and watched him put his nose down into the snow. He used to roll and roll, raucously. Now, he tilts his head sideways and lets his body simply drop down heavily. He twists his head one direction and his hips another, makes a half roll, almost to his back, then lolls, pink belly up and exposed, before he heaves himself onto his side. He rests many minutes, looking out over his prairie, before he brings his front legs up a paw at a time and slowly hauls his hips to follow.

He sleeps deeply – for hours at a time – and we step around or over him. For the first time in his life he doesn’t have to react to movement. He’s tired. He’s deaf. From time to time he startles suddenly awake and looks to one of us for clarification; we assure him, tell him “good boy” or “all’s well.” He believes us, sniffs the air still to be dog-sure, then sleeps again, content to be for now, with us, growing old.

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