My stepdaddy, in the latter years of his life, could be charming when he wanted to be, but he didn't often see the need to turn on the charm. Butch is the same way. Daddy complained a lot, and Butch has adopted a shrill whine as his means of communicating when he wants a treat or when he wants me to let him outside or inside. If Daddy thought Mother's cooking was a little too salty, he was sure to tell her about it. If the treat I give Butch isn't the kind he had in mind when he begged for it, he spits it out, whines some more, and waits for me to try again. Now, don't misunderstand me: I loved Daddy, and I love Butch dearly, but both of them fit clearly into the category of "grumpy, old men."
Like Daddy, Butch sleeps a lot now that he's older. If I were to guess that he sleeps 20 hours a day, I wouldn't be far off. He gets up for mealtimes (his and mine) and when he needs to go outside. He usually gets up when we have company, and when that happens, he acts like his sweet, old self for a little while. It's rare that he stays awake much more than an hour at a time.
The whining began near the end of last year, back when Kadi was so sick. For every trip Kadi took to the vet, Butch took another one. I thought then that the whining meant something was hurting him. We checked out his ears, because ear infections have plagued him since he was a pup. We checked out his arthritic hind legs and began medicating him in case they were the problem. We checked his behind, where his anal-gland surgery had left him with some residual problems. Even though no new health issues were discovered, everything that could be medicated was medicated, just in case. Still he whined.
As Kadi became sicker and sicker, I began to read everything I could find about how to know when it was time to euthanize a dog. Almost every one of those articles stated that the dog's quality of life should be the determining factor. That threw me for a loop. Kadi was obviously sicker than Butch, but she was also happier than he was. Until her very last days, she was pleasant and engaged. Butch, on the other hand, had begun to isolate himself in the bedroom and to whine through many of his waking hours. What kind of life is that? I didn't know which dog I would lose first, and the thought of having to put down both of them at or near the same time was horrifying to me.
In Kadi's final week it became clear that her illness had reduced her quality of life to an unacceptable level, and seeing her that way helped me to see a clear distinction between her health and Butch's. I knew then what I had to do.
In the days after Kadi's death, I concentrated on Butch and started Googling "why does my dog whine?" I expected to find information about hidden medical conditions that might be troublesome to an animal. What I found instead were training techniques. It hadn't occurred to me until then that Butch's whining might be a behavioral issue. I realized then that I had been rewarding his bad behavior by fussing over him when he whined.
So, I made some changes in my own behavior. Butch's whining hasn't stopped, but it has decreased to a point that no longer drives me insane. I also changed my expectations once I connected the dots between Butch's whining and Daddy's complaining. That helped me to understand better where Butch's attitude is coming from. He's old and he's tired. He's achy sometimes.
It's been six years since Butch lost his eyesight, and in the past year or two he's gone almost completely deaf. He can hear the phone ring, and if I speak loudly, right in his ear, he seems to hear that. He gets disoriented more frequently, but he thinks he knows more than he does, and he thinks he knows more than I do. He thinks he knows exactly where he is and what he needs to do to get from Point A to Point B, but he's often wrong about that. If he's about to walk smack into a wall and I grab onto his collar to steer him in the right direction, he digs his heels in and refuses to budge until I let go. Then he walks into the wall, corrects his course, and sets out again, often in a different wrong direction. Sometimes he bumps into every piece of furniture between the bedroom and the back door rather than let me guide him. He usually bumps them gently, though, as if he expects them to be there and "test bumps" to be sure. The only way he will let me lead him is if I put him on the leash, but even then, if he doesn't want to go (outside, for instance), he digs in his heels and stands his ground.
Riding in the car, something Butch has always hated, has become almost impossible to get him to do. I needed to take him to the vet last week for another ear check, and he wrestled me so long that I had to stop trying at one point and call the vet's office to let them know we'd be late. He's heavy enough that it's difficult for me to pick him up, but even after I managed to do that and get him on the backseat, he jumped out before I could extract my arm and shut the door. Do you know how dangerous it is for a blind dog to jump out of a car onto a concrete driveway? I finally lured him into the car by sprinkling the seat with his favorite treats. He refused to eat them, but they distracted him long enough for me to get the door closed.
Fortunately, Butch's sense of smell is still strong. He can sniff me out anywhere in the house and is quick to do so when he wants something. Then, when he finds me, he whines. If I'm at the computer, he uses his nose to bump my hand off the mouse. Usually when he seeks me out it's because he wants a treat. He still tries to con me by asking to go out and back in several times in a matter of minutes. He gets a treat the first time he comes in, and I'm willing to let him go out the second time just in case he forgot to do part of his business while he was out there the first time. He gets a little treat the second time he comes in, too. But that's all. I've learned to be firm when he asks the third time, to stand between him and the door and make him back away so he knows the jig is up.
Butch used to spend whole evenings on the sofa beside me with his head in my lap. Now he's too stiff-legged to get on the sofa by himself and too hard-headed to let anyone help him. If I try to pick him up, he panics and fights me. My own bad knees make it difficult for me to get on the floor to give him the doggy massages he used to love, but I try to give him as much stroking and petting as I can when he's awake and erect. Sometimes he'll lie down in front of my chair, where I can rub his belly with my feet and enjoy the kind of sweet moments we used to take for granted. Last night he ate his supper, then stood right next to me for half an hour, not whining, while I ate mine. I suspect it was the scent of the chicken on my plate that kept him there, but I enjoyed his company regardless. Still later, instead of retreating to his bed, Butch followed me to the computer and napped on the floor beside me. I feel so honored when the interaction between us is his idea instead of mine.
As Butch's personality has changed, so has his physical appearance. Both of his ears used to fold over, but for the last few years the right one has always stood up straight. There's a little bump in the middle of his forehead that we think might be a cyst formed around a bone chip, possibly from one of his harder head bumps. It's never seemed to bother him, and the vet doesn't think it's anything to worry about. His left eye socket bulges with fluid that stretches the skin tight, fluid from a gland that has apparently reactivated itself in the years since his surgery. The vet who did the eye surgery told us ahead of time that that could happen someday, and the vet who treats Butch now agrees with me that draining the fluid for aesthetic reasons could unnecessarily open the door for infections. The swollen area is ugly, but it doesn't cause Butch any pain. He doesn't mind at all when it's touched or rubbed.
Butch has several new skin tags, including the big, black, mole-like one on top of his head. Last year one of his top front teeth began to turn grey and receded behind the other teeth. Last week I noticed that the tooth was no longer there. It, too, may have been a casualty of one too many bumps.
Butch is heavier than he's ever been, though I can still feel his ribs, so I'm not worried about him. It seems to me that his pleasures are few at this time of his life, and while I'm willing to cut back on his food and treats a little bit for health reasons, I'm not inclined to cut back so much that he notices.
These days, when I think about the quality of Butch's life, I know it isn't an easy one, but I think he's okay for now. He's had more than one dog's share of troubles and has faced his struggles with a lot of courage and character. His life isn't as interesting as it used to be, nor is his body as strong and resilient as it once was. I think he has reason to complain about his current state of affairs. And, remembering how long Daddy lived as a grumpy, old man, I believe Butch will be okay for a while longer. He's making an effort to live with the hand that's been dealt him. If he's a little disgrunted about it sometimes, maybe he has a right to be.
(First published at Velvet Sacks on July 13, 2011.)