Your dogs are of the age, is what the vet had said.
13 and 14, is what she’d meant.
Bernie arrived first, a contraband puppy we’d snuck into our L.A. studio apartment across from the pier. When Ken and I signed the lease months before, our building manager sits us down in her sunny, poolside office.
Newlyweds, yeah? she asks, peering at us over the lid of her Venti.
She goes over the rules – no painting without permission, no rec room access after 12pm, no street parking on Tuesday mornings. We nod expectantly, sit up straight. Attempt to look responsible, dependable. Our pen hovers over dotted lines. One last thing, she says. I don’t do dogs.
Eleven months later, we’d fallen hard for Bernie – so small, so quiet, so perfectly content to nap atop the stacked papers in my inbox at work. Before long, I found myself sneaking him into my backpack, trudging up to our third floor apartment stairs, welcoming him home.
He’s basically a cat, I remember saying to Ken. Cats are OK, right?
For weeks, it’s this: stealthy backpack, secret trips to the dog park. Walks before the sunrise, three blocks away at least. Careful to take the stairs opposite the rental office.
And then, on a warm Saturday morning, we pack cardboard boxes and move a bed frame into our first home. Ken keeps Bernie at the new house while I stay at the apartment to vacuum, clean countertops, defrost the fridge.
When our building manager stops by to pick up the keys, she offers a final walk-through and thanks me for being good renter. Never had break up one of them marriage fights, she says.
I laugh, thank her for taking a chance on a couple of newlyweds. I sign the last of the paperwork and hand her the keys as she locks the door behind us both. We head down the hallway; she toward her office, me toward the stairs.
By the way, she looks at me with a wink. Real cute dog.
George came next, legal and beloved.
On a Sunday afternoon errand for dog bones, Ken and I stumble upon a pet fair in the parking lot. An adoption coordinator waves us over (Newlyweds, yeah?) – introduces us to a litter of soft-coated Wheaton terriers dropped off in a cardboard box after their tails were docked too short. No use for me, I can’t have ’em as showdogs anymore, the breeder had told her.
The adoption agency had rehabilitated the pups, and in typical L.A. fashion, named them after luxury designers. Which would you like to see, the coordinator asks: Chanel, Prada, Gucci, Marni or Georgio?
But we only have eyes for Georgio, a blonde pup with dark brows, an albino spot on his nose. He is perfect, and three hours later, he is ours.
The running joke in our household is that George is my dog, and Bernie is Ken’s. George is a dog dog, that familiar dopey blend of happy and ease. Perfectly content to sniff out windows, pummel onto laps, curl up into a question mark, love you forever. He’s a dreamboat.
Bernie is something else entirely, finnicky and high-maintenance, an odd mix of needy and spiteful. Filled to the brim with character. Once, years ago, he stole my car keys and hid them in the kitchen pantry. I search and search, late for a meeting, opening and closing cupboards, flipping cushions for thirty minutes before I plop down onto the floor to call Ken, teary and exhausted, hoping he’ll be home soon with the spare.
Moments later, Bernie saunters over to the pantry, fishes out the keys from behind the broom, drops them right into my lap. Truce, his eyes say.
We’ve been trucing ever since.
And so, when my vet tells me that our dogs are of the age, when she begins spotting tumors, when she prescribes us handfuls of anti-inflammatories, I can think only of how these small pups have grown up.
How we’ve grown up alongside of them.
My mother-in-law’s best friend has a policy I love: she refuses to feed her dog anything she wouldn’t eat herself. They split hamburger and sweet potatoes for dinner. Breakfast is eggs, bacon. Chopped salad for lunch, perhaps a side of fruit. I’ll have what she’s having, I imagine the dog saying, and I smile every time I think of it.
And while I’m not yet ready to throw a prime rib to the dogs, I do love the idea of offering them a close second: fresh, whole ingredients, gently cooked without preservatives, kept refrigerated where meats belong.
For us, this looks a lot like Freshpet: from-the-fridge pet food with US-raised meat and nutrient-dense, steam-cooked ingredients – always prepped according to FDA / USDA standards. After all, in our own bodies, Ken and I make our greatest strides toward wellness through food.
Why anything less for the dogs?
The aging of a pet is difficult, if only for the memories that age alongside of them. Trips to the farmer’s market with Bernie riding in the bike basket, his ears flapping wild with glee. George catapulting himself from the diving board, splashing into a cold pool, swimming laps for hours before falling asleep on a sunny patch of lawn.
How many balls have they caught? How many walks in the park? How many times has Bernie stolen Bee’s socks, the two declaring truces of their own?
But mostly: how many more?
A few weeks ago, I finished Abigail Thomas’ book, A Three Dog Life, highlighting a particular passage that echoes my own love for our four-legged family:
“Forget career, forget the future, forget existential worries, just get yourselves a couple of dogs, and everything will be all right.”
(We’ll all toast to that.)