Getting a puppy, the comic Louis C.K. observed, is a “countdown to sorrow.” Inscribed in the act of welcoming this adorable fur ball into your home is the moment of its death a decade or so hence. Grief over a pet can equal or exceed that of a human family member, studies show. This is canine neoteny’s cruel flip side: Yes, your dog gets to be an emotional adolescent into ripe old age. But when he dies, it will feel like losing a child.
The gerontologist Kenneth Doka has called the death of a pet “disenfranchised grief.” It’s a loss whose significance others don’t recognize. You’re not supposed to sit shivah for your schnauzer. You post a sad Facebook update and go back to work, as I did. When I came home in the evening and opened the front door, I was struck by the strange new stillness — the foreign silence of a household without a dog. It was as if a machine that had been humming in the background for a long time had suddenly been switched off.
In this absence, I have enough life lessons for a thousand dogoirs. I learned that it’s impossible to determine precisely when another being’s life is too compromised to go on, and that a long and enviable health span can’t save a good dog from a bad death. Maybe even a good death is pretty bad. Life is worth it; its absence is unfathomable. Sorry, buddy.
And now that I’m no longer young, and he’s dead, I’ll do my best to follow the path Foghat blazed into my life’s last half. This is sound medical advice, as neuroscientist Head says: “Everything you do for a dog to help them age well, you should do with them.”
So eat the best food you can afford. Go for a walk, even if it’s raining. Take a lot of naps. Keep your teeth clean and your breath fresh, so that the people you lick will not flinch. And when someone you love walks in through the door, even if it happens five times a day, go totally insane with joy.