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by Christy Caballero

In quiet moments I find myself pausing, just to look at Kodie. The telltale white of age defines his muzzle more clearly each day. Sleep has edged its way in as the number one priority.  Sometimes, when he sleeps so very soundly, I can't look away until I see the familiar rise and fall of his great chest, until I reassure myself that he is, in fact, breathing.

All things considered, Kodie has matured gracefully.  Being classed by his size as a giant breed goes hand in hand with aging faster than small dogs.  Some giant breeds show their age in as few as seven years.  Kodie recently turned twelve.

At Valley Veterinary Clinic, he's a legend.  They've seen him through ills and injuries over the years.  He's had at least his share of "bumps in the road" but he's handled them all with a pleasant attitude and patience.  Last month, on the fringes of healing up from his cruciate ligament surgery, he became ill, fretful, painful.  The clinic politely squeezed him into their busy Saturday schedule.  Poor Kodie barely had a five o'clock shadow on his last surgical shave area. 

During his exam and treatment, I mentioned that Monday would be his twelfth birthday.  Clearly Kodie had carved his own place in the hearts of his friends at the clinic.  Almost before I could say "thank you," Monday's schedule was arranged.  Kodie would come back for a recheck and a birthday bath, courtesy of his clinic pals.  When a new assistant helped me take Kodie to the car, she kept saying how special he is, how kind and sweet to work with.
That's Kodie all right.
He was more comfortable over the weekend, and Monday's recheck gave a good prognosis.  When I went to pick Kodie up after his birthday bath, I couldn't believe my eyes.  He was led into the lobby wearing two new bandannas around his neck - one bright teal with cowboy boots, and the other a red and white Science Diet bandanna, with adhesive tape messages taped all over it.
"Way to go Kodie", "Happy B-Day", "We Love You, Kodie," and on and on.  I didn't know whether to cry or giggle when two cards and a birthday box came out of hiding.  The cards were filled with affectionate words.  The box was filled with favorite dog treats and plenty of things to keep Kodie smelling fresh at home -- fragrant mousse, waterless shampoo, even spray cologne (Kennel No. 5).

More patients came into the lobby, so it was time to head for home and let everybody get back to business.  On the way to the car, memories jockeyed for position.  I realized it isn't typical for a canine to always be escorted from clinic to car by two or more people.  It isn't typical for a dog to spark so many phone calls from vets and support staff, just checking on the old guy.  It isn't typical for a huge dog to be so kind in the midst of his own sickness or pain.  But then, Kodie isn't typical.

What do we do when our loving pets face the last leg of the race?  We do all we can to help them finish well, of course.  We take time to read the unspoken needs of the friends we've come to know so well.  We give the simple reassurance of a loving touch when the old boy seems confused for no reason.

We groom them faithfully, but more gently, as age brings muscle wasting, and the arthritic bones aren't so well padded.  We learn to slow down for their sake, as they enjoy the scent of the wind, or track a visitors trail across their yard.

We expect to be inconvenienced, and aren't angry when it happens.  We watch for pain and treat it, watch for changes in vision and hearing and do what we can to help preserve those precious senses for as long as possible. We take care of their teeth, and make sure their food is a manageable texture for them.  We remind them of the need for a potty walk when they seem to forget.

We remember the little rewards.  We scratch the graying ears and tummy, and go for car rides together.  When the pet we love has an unexplained need for comfort, we give it freely.  When infirmities bring a sense of vulnerability, we become our old guardian's protector.

We watch their deepest slumbers, when dreams take them running across long-forgotten fields, and we remember those fields too.  When they cannot stand alone, we lift them.  When their steps are uncertain, we steady them.
And if their health fails, it falls to us to make the choice that will gently put them to rest.  But until that is absolutely necessary, we pause to let the autumn sun warm our old friend's bones.  And we realize autumn is not a bad time of year at all.

Old age is not a disease, or a reason to give up.  It is a stage of life that brings its own changes.  Autumn can be a beautiful time of harvest.  And .... sometimes .... the harvest is love.

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