Friday, April 18, 2014

A black Lab's golden years

When I’m 91 I’ll probably lie on my side and bark at the sky.  Or the human equivalent of that – I’ll sit on the porch and sing, “We’re off to see the Wizard!”

Our dog Beauregard is 91.  He looks it.  He has lumps and bumps where he should be smooth.  He’s grizzled – white-face on black Lab.  He passed the distinguished gray stage and slid into geezer sometime in the last couple of years.  His lips are saggy and his eyes look a little milky.

He has a hitch in his get-along.  The elbow on his left front leg is out-of-whack.  It swings wide causing him to walk like Grampappie Amos.  He takes medication for his arthritis. 

And he has begun barking at the sky.  And the north side of the house.  And his reflection in the sliding doors.  In the middle of the day.  For no discernable reason.

It’s not the bark of his days as the family guardian.  Not the throaty ‘Who goes there?’ that warned any approaching shadow to steer clear of his people.  He had a good bluff. 

He always let us know if a Styrofoam cup was rolling down the alley, or if an arrogant cat sat atop the fence and stared.

Now we’re unsure why he barks. 

I remember a scene from “The Lady and the Tramp,” that old Disney movie about a sheltered uptown Cocker Spaniel who falls for a streetwise downtown Mutt. 

In that movie, when something goes wrong in their neighborhood, the dogs call out using their own social network, barking and howling, sharing the news, spreading the alarm or sometimes just gossiping.  Their pronouncements ring out over the fences and the clothes lines and echo across town into the night air.

That’s all true for Beau except he doesn’t have any real news.  Maybe he’s reliving the pheasant hunt of 2009.  That was a good year for those wily birds.  He could flush ‘em!  Oh!  No one could rout a ring neck like Beau in his day!

He still wants us to throw the thing for him, but he’s only good for three or four rounds before he declares the game over and heads for the feed bag. 

Not so long ago he had more enthusiasm and vigor than we could plumb.  Now, we throw the thing half the distance and he just creeps up on it.  He seems to prefer the appearance of the game to the game itself.  Or maybe, in his mind, he’s sprinting.

I think sometimes he forgets that I’m home.  Maybe that’s when his mind starts to wander and his lips and paws begin to twitch.  Like Walter Mitty, he enters an imaginary world full of duck hunts and wrestling matches with our son.

He seems to know when I’m thinking of having a nap, because whenever I get situated across the bed with the pillow tucked just right, that’s when he tunes up and begins his baleful song:  “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen!”

When I get up to see what he’s talking about, there he is, on his side in the middle of the back yard, head stretched skyward, his doggy mouth forming a big ‘O,’ singin’ the blues.

Sometimes I go to the window and bark back at him.  “Beau!”  He’s startled and jumps to his feet.  “Wha?  What was that?  Woof!”

I feel a little ashamed for scaring him, but when I leave the window, he starts barking again.  There’s almost a pattern to it, a canine Morse Code:  Woof!  Woof woof woof!  Woof woof!  And then repeat.  Woof!  Woof woof woof…

I go out to remind him he’s not alone and to commune with him a little.  While I’m out, he makes his rounds like a building superintendent, sniffing each corner of the yard with authority, making note of every mutt that passed this way.

I’ve taken to giving him a snack during our check-in visit.   He wolfs it down and forgets he ate it.  Just like when he was a pup.

It’s not such a bad life.

When I go back inside, he finds his spot and restarts the quiz.  Can you name that tune in five notes?

I should be so lucky.