Health



March 31, 2009, 10:25 am

Life Lessons From the Family Dog

New York Times editor Dana Jennings writes every Tuesday about coping with an advanced form of prostate cancer.

INSERT DESCRIPTION Bijou, the family dog of Times editor Dana Jennings.

By Dana Jennings

Our family dog started failing a couple of months ago. Her serious health problems began at about the same time I was coping with my own — finishing my radiation and hormone therapy for prostate cancer.

Since last summer, I’ve learned that my cancer is shockingly aggressive, and the surgery, radiation and hormone treatments have left me exhausted, incontinent and with an AWOL libido. These days I’m waiting for the first tests that will tell me the status of my health.

Even so, as I face my own profound health issues, it is my dog’s poor health that is piercing me to the heart. I’m dreading that morning when I walk downstairs and … well, those of us who love dogs understand that all dog stories end the same way.

Her full name is Bijou de Minuit (Jewel of Midnight) — my wife teaches French. She is a 12-year-old black miniature poodle, and she is, literally, on her last legs. Her hind quarters fly out from beneath her, her back creaks and cracks as she walks, she limps, she’s speckled with bright red warts the size of nickels, her snore is loud and labored (like a freight train chugging up some steep grade) and she spends most of the day drowsing on her pillow-bed next to the kitchen radiator.

Bijou’s medicine chest is impressive for a 23-pound dog: A baby dose of amoxicillin for chronic urinary tract infections; prednisone and Tramadol for pain; phenobarbital for seizures; Proin for incontinence – all of it wrapped in mini-slices of pepperoni.

She is, I realize, “just” a dog. But she has, nonetheless, taught me a few lessons about life, living and illness. Despite all her troubles, Bijou is still game. She still groans to her feet to go outside, still barks at and with the neighborhood dogs, is willing to hobble around the kitchen to carouse with a rubber ball — her shrub of a tail quivering in joy.

I know now that Bijou was an important part of my therapy as I recovered from having my prostate removed. I learned that dogs, besides being pets, can also be our teachers.

Human beings constantly struggle to live in the moment. We’re either obsessing over the past (”Gee, life would’ve been different if I’d only joined the Peace Corps.”), or obsessing over the future (”Gee, I hope my 401K holds up”). We forget that life, real life, is lived right now, in this very moment.

But living in the moment is something that dogs (and cancer patients) do by their very nature. Bijou eats when she’s hungry, drinks when she’s thirsty, sleeps when she’s tired and will still gratefully curl up in whatever swatch of sunlight steals through the windows.

She’d jump up onto my sickbed last summer, nuzzle me and ask for her ears and pointy snout to be scratched. It made both of us happy as she sighed in satisfaction. And she was the subject of one of our favorite family jokes as I recuperated: “You take the dog out. I have cancer.”

In spending so much time with Bijou, I began to realize that our dogs, in their carefree dogginess, make us more human, force us to shed our narcissistic skins. Even when you have cancer, you can’t be utterly self-involved when you have a floppy-eared mutt who needs to be fed, walked and belly-scratched. And you can’t help but ponder the mysteries of creation as you gaze into the eyes of your dog, or wonder why and how we chose dogs and they chose us.

Dogs also tell us – especially when we’re sick – of our own finitude. And, partly, that’s why we cry when they die, because we also know that all human-being stories end the same way, too.

Good dogs – and most dogs are good dogs – are canine candles that briefly blaze and shine, illuminating our lives. Bijou has been here with us for the past 12 years, reminding us that simple pleasures are the ones to be treasured: a treat, a game of fetch, a nose-to-the-ground stroll in the park.

Simple pleasures. As I lazed and dozed at home last summer after surgery, there was nothing sweeter to me in this world than to hear Bijou drinking from her water dish outside my door. It was if her gentle lap-lapping ferried me to waters of healing. I’ll miss her.


From 1 to 25 of 450 Comments

1 2 3 ... 18
  1. 1. March 31, 2009 10:47 am Link

    I just lost my 13-year-old Toby this past week. Thank you for a wonderful post.

    FROM DANA J: Thank you, all of you, for sharing your dog and cancer stories. I keep getting teardrops on my keyboard.

    — Heather
  2. 2. March 31, 2009 10:48 am Link

    this was incredibly wise and moving - thank you so much. best wishes to you both, and your family.

    — Hillary Rettig / www.lifelongactivist.com
  3. 3. March 31, 2009 10:54 am Link

    Thank you for sharing this lovely story. Bijou is just adorable! !

    — MRS
  4. 4. March 31, 2009 10:58 am Link

    Mr. Jennings’ article reminded me of an email I received last week. My dogs are also growing old and this hit a soft spot. Here’s the text of the email:
    JUST A DOG
    From time to time people tell me, “Lighten up, it’s just a dog,” or, “That’s a lot of money for just a dog.” They don’t understand the distance traveled, time spent, or costs involved for “Just a dog.” Some of my proudest moments have come about with “Just a dog.” Many hours have passed with my only company being “Just a dog.” and not once have I felt slighted. Some of my saddest moments were brought about by “Just a dog.” In those days of darkness, the gentle touch of “Just a dog” provided comfort and purpose to overcome the day.
    If you, too, think it’s “Just a dog,” you will probably understand phrases like “Just a friend,” “Just a sunrise,” or “Just a promise.” “Just a dog” brings into my life the very essence of friendship, trust, and pure unbridled joy. “Just a dog” brings out the compassion and patience that makes me a better person. Because of “Just a dog” I will rise early, take long walks and look longingly into the future.
    For me and folks like me, its not “Just a dog.” It’s an embodiment of all the hopes and dreams of the future, the fond memories of the past, and the pure joy of the moment. “Just a dog” brings out what’s good in me and diverts my thoughts away from myself and the worries of the day.
    I hope that someday people can understand it’s not “Just a dog.” It’s the thing that gives me humanity and keeps me from being “Just a man or woman.”
    So the next time you hear the phrase “Just a dog,” smile, because they “Just Don’t Understand.”
    Author Unknown

    — Jacqueline Schindler
  5. 5. March 31, 2009 11:00 am Link

    Oh I hate dog stories…..crying at work is a no, no!!!

    — Brian
  6. 6. March 31, 2009 11:00 am Link

    My dog is my best friend…wise, devoted, protective, funny.

    The expression “just a dog” is a contradiction in terms.

    — PF
  7. 7. March 31, 2009 11:00 am Link

    Aw….I will be thinking of you both. I am nicer to my dog usually than myself (I figure he has no choice). But he has had some ear goop for awhile–and I internetted, bought pills, but now am going to take him to the Ninetydollarvet.
    The Vet is always a minimum of $90. I tried the med he had before for this–nothing. Will see what they say this time. Thanks for inspiring me–and Jim thanks you, too, with a big flap of his ears..

    — Star
  8. 8. March 31, 2009 11:00 am Link

    This is poignant and touching.

    I’ve loved and lost beloved dogs, whom I still cry over many years later. Dogs, and animals, touch our souls in ways humans cannot, and the void they leave is unique, as are each of them and their imprint upon us.

    For the moment, Bijou is still here with you…live in the moment with her, and don’t miss her just yet…there will be much time to do that when you’ll wish there wasn’t.

    Good luck to you both,
    Annette

    — Annette
  9. 9. March 31, 2009 11:01 am Link

    Very moved by your testimonial. Any animal brings me back to what’s real in the here and now. When I milked cows on a farm I was moved by their skittishness: these big animals, afraid! It gave me pleasure to calm and reassure them. My cats provide my emotional tune up now. A flick of the ear, a yeowl if I underfeed them by a tablespoon, the ritual of following me to the bathroom for scratchy…little things insisting that I live in the now.

    — Nina
  10. 10. March 31, 2009 11:06 am Link

    Thank you a really heartfelt story. Dogs are wonderful creatures, makes me grateful that I have Roger (my JRT).

    — AR
  11. 11. March 31, 2009 11:06 am Link

    Thank you for a beautifully written tribute. Any dog owner will relate to this. They are such a simple but powerful life force, even in the face of their own pain and suffering, and their love for us is pure and unconditional.

    — Alissa
  12. 12. March 31, 2009 11:07 am Link

    Lovely story, full of wisdom. Good luck! Hoping for y our recovery.

    — Martin Berliner
  13. 13. March 31, 2009 11:07 am Link

    I found your description of the sweet sound of Bijou lapping her water incredibly moving. I too love the sound our dog Romanovich makes as he laps his water with a deliberate serenity.

    Thank you for this beautiful story. Wishing you and your family health, healing, and joy. Bijou is gorgeous..

    — Amy Ponomarev
  14. 14. March 31, 2009 11:11 am Link

    Rocky, my Staffie, has played an even greater part in my life since my husband died after 45 years of marriage. He doesn’t have quite the capacity for argument that my Irish husband had, but he listens, knows exactly what is going on in my mind, and gives wonderful unconditional love. Viva Rocky and all our dogs!

    — Kate Turkington
  15. 15. March 31, 2009 11:12 am Link

    I lost my Raja, a eleven year old Golden Retreiver three years ago. I am yet to recover from the loss. I had to reluctantly put him to sleep due to his advanced cancer of the liver and a heart attack. Every moment I spent with him in those years were so precious. Yes, dogs live in the present moment, and humans do not. We always are brooding over the past or dreaming about the future. Living in the moment is happiness not only to us and for others close by.

    Thanks for your story.

    — Maharaj
  16. 16. March 31, 2009 11:12 am Link

    I was brought to tears by your moving commentary; I have had 3 dogs who lived to maturity, and you are never ready for their passing. All lived to 14 and one of them was so important and loved by our family, that the morning he died my two daughters and their fiancees took off from work. He waited for my birthday, got up on the bed at 5 a.m. (we still don’t know how he jumped on the bed as he was nearly paralyzed); licked me. I told my husband something is wrong with Bogie, and he took him to the vet; on his way back, the vet called and said he had passed away. When my husband parked back in our driveway I had to tell him; we hugged each other for a long time. It was really hurtful. I wish you a speedy recovery and hope you get through the dog illness as easily as possible.

    — Edie
  17. 17. March 31, 2009 11:14 am Link

    My dad recouperated with a golden/cocker mix named Bailey. When Bailey died, they got Gracie Mae, a black labradoodle, and she is now trained as a therapy dog and will shortly begin training to be among first responders to events where dogs might calm frazzled nerves.

    Dogs aren’t the only pets we can learn from and love, then miss terribly when they move on - my husband and I just lost Gus, a nine year old chocolate sable ferret adopted from a shelter.

    — Sara
  18. 18. March 31, 2009 11:14 am Link

    Over 30 plus years we have rescued and loved 59 dogs. There are currently 13 in residence. We do not take trips, play golf, boat, etc. Our recreation is our animals and they have proved invaluable.

    My husband has had 8 heart attacks, 2 triple coronary by-passes, has 5 coronary stents, had throat cancer, innumerable skin cancers and is a diabetic. He has said over the years that he cannot try to live less than our animals do. They are the encouragement he needs when taking 16 medications plus 3 kinds of insulin meds seems to be too much. Their love surrounds us every day as does their courage and fortitude. People who do not love an animal will never understand what they can do for you just by living. A warm nose, big eyes, an asking paw all help to heal the day’s trauma.

    I have an artificial hip, 2 artificial knees and just recently had 5 coronary stents in one artery. They keep me going too. We have had some with hip displyasia, arthritis and other joint problems. They never stop moving and so neither do I. I cannot try less than they do and their love is so all encompassing and rewarding.

    Love an animal, they will more than pay you back. They will help you really live your life, not just exist.

    — Emmie Lou Tucker
  19. 19. March 31, 2009 11:16 am Link

    Blessings to you both. Thank you for this post.

    — Amy
  20. 20. March 31, 2009 11:19 am Link

    There is an old saying that goes like this:
    If you want to learn how to love unconditionally, get a cat. If you want to learn how to be loved unconditionally get a dog.

    — Pat O’Malley
  21. 21. March 31, 2009 11:22 am Link

    Very thoughtful and heartwarming. I have found much comfort in the dogly tasks that you describe. My dog is a gentle giant and I truly dread the day that is inevitable. Thank you for sharing.

    — Jennifer R.
  22. 22. March 31, 2009 11:23 am Link

    I came to owning a dog reluctantly, but a couple of my more rabid, dog-advocating students convinced to take the plunge and assured me that I would never regret the decision. When our family brought Odie home from the shelter and began to include her in our daily lives, my two student advocates added a postscript: while I would never regret getting a dog, losing her would be one of the hardest things to get over. At the time, I scoffed, ‘It’s just a dog. Give me a break.”

    When Odie’s end became inevitable–three bouts of cancer and its treatment–she still was “Odilicious”–hopping into the car herself on the way to the vet. Her last act was to kiss me on the nose.

    When my students talk about happiness and their talk turns to material things, I ask them when they are happiest: I start by telling them what pure bliss was for me for eight years: after an early morning summer walk, getting a bowl of cereal, The New York Times and Odie and just sitting on the front porch–Odie and I perusing the world around us.

    Mr. Jennings, good health to you soon–and thanks for reminding us how much we can learn from our dogs.

    — sna
  23. 23. March 31, 2009 11:24 am Link

    I am listening to the snoring of my 13 year old Scottie right now, and bladder difficulties are a part of his picture. Dogs are one of the joys of life (also cats), and they make sure you get up in the morning. And even if they are deaf or a little blind, the jingle of the leash brings a moment to wonderful life, a caper, a tail wagging. Good luck. Never easy, but the story matters more than the ending.

    — mary
  24. 24. March 31, 2009 11:25 am Link

    I, too, find similar comfort in the companionship of my 16 yr-old, also failing, black lab/mutt Suzie. Because of health issues, I’ve had to move back into my parents’ house, in the home town I always wanted to escape, and Suzie, almost totally blind and deaf now, greets me every morning with unbridled delight and stays by me all day. Her lesson in unconditional love is always welcome and humbling.

    Thank you for your words and may your deep healing continue.

    — Greta
  25. 25. March 31, 2009 11:25 am Link

    Thanks for sharing your story. I was nodding in agreement with what your wrote as I have an aging dog of my own. Coincidentally I was born in the “year of the dog” if you follow eastern astrology. While on a trip to Thailand I found myself in a Buddhist temple that was a “snake” temple, dedicated to that years animal. When I asked my guide where I could find a “dog” temple, she said rather matter of fact, “Oh, there is no dog temple. They are all in heaven.”

    — Jenn
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