I was in floods of tears yesterday watching a video about the last day of Bretagne, the last search and rescue dog who worked in the carnage of 9/11, who died at the good old age of 16. During her career, this beautiful, gentle looking golden retriever saw through big brown eyes the best of humanity and the aftermath of the very worst. She deserves bones to rain from the sky and her eternal playtime now.
16 years is a good age. It’s a very good age but 16 years is still over in the blink of an eye. “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own…” wrote jazz producer and author Irving Townsend about those who give their hearts over to animals (animals apart from large parrots and tortoises who tend to outlive us all). Watching one of my older dogs struggle on the stairs who was driving me mad leaping onto the worktops what was surely only five minutes ago, I sometimes really, really wish I could fall in love with a tortoise.
Bretagne’s departure reminded me that it wasn’t long after the horrors of 9/11 that the pace of my life suddenly accelerated. Before then, six months used to seem like an awful long time to wait for a holiday. Winters seemed to drag on forever; a decade was a sizeable chunk of history. For various reasons, my life changed a great deal in the months following the obscene act of inhumanity that brought down the Twin Towers that Tuesday morning. While the war that followed raged in the desert, I became a 30-year-old orphan, which was a wake-up call to do that thing I’d been putting off for three decades and grow up.
I said a sad goodbye to one dog well before her time and happily welcomed another and in the middle of all this mysteriously the pace of my life started to speed up so much that the 14 years since then feels little more than three or four. Suddenly I’m counting in Dog Years.
Dog Years are much shorter than human years. By how much depends on how long a life is anticipated for the dog, depending on his size, how much we’ve messed up their breed by seeking certain features or everyone wanting a piece of the same show-winning specimen. That’s the practical explanation. The other explanation is that Dog Years are shorter because they don’t waste half as much time worrying about things that really don’t matter as we do. Or, even, that dogs spend a lot more of their time resting.
Dog Years are more fun, passionate, fulfilled and committed than human ones. What’s the adage, “live like someone left the gate open”? Unfortunately, we’re the ones who have sleepless nights about the gate being left open and 10 minutes of unplanned dog freedom translates to about 30 years (30 stressful, horrendous, heart attack inducing years) in human time.
Dogs don’t count time themselves. Or at least I don’t think they do. They are just as happy to see you after a five minute shower or a five hour spell at work. Or five years from what the Internet shows you of reunions with homecoming service personnel and their dogs. “Have you missed me?” I always ask on my return but I don’t think they have.
They are just happy to see me because to them I mean food, snuggles, leadership, trips to the forest and, for some reason, they seem to like hanging out with me even when none of the former applies. They are just happy because that’s what dogs are most of the time unless something specific is making them unhappy; unlike us, where mostly it’s the other way around. That’s our real tragedy. We can learn from this and stop wasting the time we have. We can embrace Dog Years instead of mourning in anticipation and apply them to our own (hopefully) much longer lives. We can stop quantifying and start looking for quality.
Dog Years fly past tragically quick but they are awesome too and through our tears and our anxiety about tears invariably to come, we shouldn’t ever let go of that awesomeness. Watching Bretagne have a guard of honour for her last visit to the vet made me hug my dogs hard (uncomfortably hard, according to Raven; “Don’t squish me, Crazy Human Friend”). I cried on their confused little heads because I was sad for Bretagne and her owner but mostly because I was sad for me, mine and our own temporary lives. But you know what? They are not wasting precious moments counting down the years and I’m going to try my hardest not to either.
Mel Hannam will be writing a regular blog for SnowPaw Store over the coming months. Mel has a small kennel of Siberian Huskies, Mystic Charoite Racing, and races dry land throughout the winter with most of the UK organisations.