I have been lucky enough to interview psychology
professor, neuropsychological researcher and dog lover Dr.
Stanley Coren twice. The subject of our first chat was
how to age proof your dog. At the time of that
interview Buddy, my Labrador was only three years old. He was
a baby. Physically a solidly built dog, mentally he was very much a
puppy, and there was not a single strand of grey in his glorious,
shiny, black fur.
But still I knew that the day would come when his fur would fade, and
as Dr Coren pointed out, his senses might diminish, so I paid
attention, and learned a lot about how I could plan ahead, and how I
could make Buddy's road to old age as pleasant and pain free as
possible. Dr Coren advised using signs as well as verbal commands, so
that if your dog's hearing did decrease, you would still be able to
communicate with him. This made sense to me, and we already
incorporated some signs into our training, as dogs rely on visual cues
more than verbal, but one thing he said stuck in my mind, and has
stayed with me.
If you don't use signs, and your dog does go deaf, you might never be
able to tell him he's a good dog again.
That thought horrified me. Buddy is a good dog - he's a fantastic dog -
and I want to be able to tell him that throughout his life. So every
time I told him he was a good dog, and every time I gave him a treat or
toy as reward, I put my thumb up to him. This reassuring signal came in
very useful in distance control work, where I could tell him he was
doing well without being near enough to speak to him. That was
particularly useful when we participated in the Kennel Club's Safe and
Sound Team display at Crufts, and Buddy had to perform quite long
sit/down stays. I could crouch at the edge of the arena, giving him the
stay hand signal and the good boy signal, instructing and praising him.
So over the years we have kept up our hand signals, and since
that interview, Buddy has indeed lost a lot of his hearing. I didn't
realise until recently just how deaf he has become. Little things had
impinged upon me, like that fact that he didn't race into the kitchen
when he heard the rustle of a cheese wrapper. Lately, when I've
returned home, I've been able to make it all the way into the lounge
before he realises I'm there. In fact, on one or two occasions he was
sound asleep, and I had to check he was still breathing, my own heart
beating fast as I feared the worst.
He has stopped barking through the windows as passers by, but I put
this down to the fact that Star, who was always the better watch dog,
is no longer around to tip him off. And we don't get that
many passers by anyway. And Buddy's probably mellowing - not that he
could ever have been called sharp! - with age. And besides, who wants a
noisy barking dog?
You see, I make any excuse to avoid the inescapable truth. Buddy is
getting older. We're all getting older, but of course he is ageing
faster than me, and that's not a comforting thought. But this week, he
slept peacefully through the shrill ring of the doorbell which
announced he postman's arrival. And there it was - I couldn't escape or
ignore such a clear reminder - even if nobody was giving me helpful
hand signals - my dog is thirteen years old, and he is
So I look back and thank goodness that Dr Coren shared his insight with
me, and gave me invaluable advice on how to help my dog age. Thanks to
him, I can still communicate with Buddy. I can tell him just about
anything as long as he is looking at me. Best of all, I can tell him
that he is a good boy, and he is a very good boy.
Thankfully, Buddy is still sprightly and in good shape, and I am making
his passage into old age as smooth and content as is in my
power. If only someone could make it pain free for me too. But I think
that is beyond even the brilliant Dr Coren.
Look after yourselves and your dogs.