For a fleeting instant, Leshi looked mildly surprised at her undignified pose like a beetle on its back. Then our old dog tried struggling to her feet while I tore through the tangle of deadwood to prevent her from doing just that, cursing loudly all the way.
Here it was, one of my nightmares: the old dog about to injure herself off-trail, away from the cabin. How do you carry a sixty-five pound dog home?
She lay on her back on a steep hill, head pointing downwards, her withered arthritic hind legs crossed amid a thicket of branches. It was all my fault. We only walk her now on the most obstacle-free routes because she mainly moves around on a combination of sheer will power and her front quarters, her knees a stiff and sore mess of old torn cartilage and the muscles almost wasted away. Jumping over logs is not an option any more but some days, she forgets that.
When she had veered off the trail to investigate a tantalizing smell, I let her do so, happy that she found something of interest and because there was nothing in the way. But then she started moving downhill, blissfully unaware of my hand-clapping and yells because she hardly hears a thing anymore, and maybe ignorant of the tangle of branches in her way since her eyesight has grown so dim. She slipped and fell, her back and almost useless hind legs twisted in a frightening way.
I managed to get there just in time before she wrenched herself on her chest and was able to pull her so that at least her hind legs were not twisted and she wasn’t pointing downhill with her head anymore. Leshi tried frantically to get up and by breaking some of the dead wood that was in the way, I made space to heave her into the upright position.
Embarrassed about her accident, she wanted to gallop straight back to the trail, right through a maze of fallen logs and saplings. When I grabbed her quickly to guide her along a more obstacle-free course, high-pitched whimpering ensued. In all the years she’s lived with us without ever getting hit or maltreated, grabbing her by the ruff has never failed to bring about this pitiful response: maybe some bad memories of her first owner.
Leading the crying dog back to the trail while mouthing into her ear that it was OK and that she was a good dog in the hope that she could hear, gratefulness flooded me that she was not injured. At the same time I felt exasperated yet again at the particular difficulties posed by doggie geriatrics in the bush.
The terrain is such that we cannot spare her the obvious difficulty of climbing steep hills. How much easier it would be with road access, where you could load the dog into a car and exercise her in a flat or more gently sloped area.
We’re doing trail maintenance exclusively for the old dog now, sawing away any knee-busting fallen trees and trampling down the snow. The bare plywood floor in the cabin is tricky too: when Leshi wants to get up, it’s hard for her to get enough traction to pull herself up. I’m starting to think that carpet or tacked down blankets would be a good thing but we have neither on hand, nor a vacuum cleaner to liberate dirt, sawdust and dog hair from such things. But the smart old dog has started lying down against the walls or furniture, I noticed, where her weak hind end will scoot to a stop when she gets up.
On bad days, when even that doesn’t work, I roll her over and give her a boost up. Once up and moving though, she still feels frisky enough some days for a bunny-hop gallop around the cabin, banning those dark thoughts that maybe it’s time …
There is something deeply touching about old animals, a new level of trust and dependency in the relationship that wasn’t quite there before, and also much to admire in their matter-of-fact way of dealing with handicaps and illness. You learn to interpret even more of their language and are able to give back some of the unconditional love and loyalty.
When I look at Leshi, I still see the brave and boneheaded bear dog in there, my doggie GPS that never failed me once in the woods. So if I have to bail her out of some tumbles she takes now, that’s OK. I just really hope she will tumble more carefully.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon
River south of Whitehorse.