…to keep in the same place.–Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
On a gorgeous summer morning several years ago my now-ex and I sat at a small sidewalk café in downtown Knoxville, our family’s Shiloh Shepherd Teddy Blue resting comfortably under the table. (A Shiloh, in case you wondered, is a giant breed with ties to the German Shepherd Dog, but with genetic material from other European herding dogs also; on the small side for his breed, Teddy tipped the scales a whoppng 140 pounds.) Teddy always attracted tons of attention when my family and I had him with us in public, but on this day one passerby in particular lingered to chat while she rubbed his belly. Turned out she was a vet, and our conversation ultimately found its way to a discussion about hip issues in big dogs, and also lifespan. Yes, she lamented, we haven’t yet figured out how to keep them alive.
I hate that about big dogs—knowing I am lucky if I get a decade with my canine friend—but I love just about everything else about them. Shepherds in particular speak to me because of their enormous cognitive vocabulary, amazing recall, intense loyalty, sense of humor, intelligence in general, and also the beauty of the breed: they are handsome creatures. But they are also prone to hip dysplasia, particularly the American GSD whose breeders have been known to select for the sloping hips that are sought after in Schutzund. It is stylized, but potentially painful and ultimately crippling for the dog. Shilohs are not an AKC-recognized breed and the registry maintains its own standards for temperament and other aspects of the dog, including hip health. They are also wildly expensive dogs, and well beyond my reach for the time being. And that is a whole lot of dog for one girl to handle alone.
Clarence-the-canine has been a pretty perfect GSD fit for me since our paths crossed a couple of years ago. This week he turns four, we think. Although details of his past are sketchy, what we do know about him (and when I say we, I refer to myself and the rescue organization who brought him to me after his surrender to a local shelter in Knoxville, Tennessee) is that he was ill-suited for his first human home, that he does not get along with tiny dog breeds or cats because of his “strong predatory instinct,” and that his suitability to be around young kids is questionable—he in fact has shown himself untrustworthy around them in the two years he has lived with me. I am keenly aware of this and therefore maintain tight control of him when we are in public, which is rarely. But he has allowed Handsome Chef Boyfriend to occupy a comfortable place in the pack; in fact, he probably views him as the alpha, if I am being honest (dang it). And he has gotten along fine with every other dog we’ve encountered save one foolhardy off-leash Golden Retriever who charged us while we were running. He has also been the perfect workout buddy. But I know nothing of his breeding, nor of his hip health.
Sadly I had to hang up my running shoes in September after an off-and-on foot injury finally spoke up and said, No more. At least for now. For the past couple of years I have been able to push through the pain, but my livelihood as a classical ballet instructor depends on my ability to get up and move in front of scores of kids almost every single day; I can’t do this in an orthopedic boot or on crutches. Clarence has been a trooper while we wait it out; and because circumstances necessitate my working two jobs now, I am gone ten hours at a stretch on some days, leaving us little time to do much more than, er, take care of business outside. The funny thing is that since I have backed off my old running habits, my body actually feels worse in some ways.
This has me thinking about my canine friend, who lately has shown signs, perhaps, of hip issues. I am trying to talk myself out of this, and am aware I may possibly be reading into his movement things that are not there. Because of my ballet pedigree I am more body aware than average, and this extends to other species. Is he more wobbly of late? Is he having more difficulty jumping onto my (admittedly very high) bed? He is not wincing nor giving any other palpable indications of discomfort. Still, there is something about his gait that seems out of synch. Or does it? I am not sure.
Clarence recently proved that he can be trusted off-leash when we are at home, on this gorgeous piece of land that is nearly two hundred acres in scope. He is given opportunities almost every day to really open up and run in the field I call the front yard; this is a joyous thing to witness. He often grabs sticks and tosses them into the air; when there are no sticks, he settles for leaves. This, I think, is unbridled doggie happiness. He was happy as a runner, too, but that is a more restrained flavor of of contentment. HCB and I have observed him closely on these off-leash occasions for any signs of compromise, and there is none—he is fast as lightning, ears pinned back, limbs stretched long, turning on a dime, fleet of foot. But today when I picked him up to get him into the shower for his bath (because he dug in his heels and refused to come on his own—even for a nice piece of cheddar), he seemed so lightweight. He has always been a lean guy, and that is better than the alternative. And he looks great right now. But it dawned on me that he has probably lost some muscle density. And I hate that.
I am watchful and aware. Two of my closest friends and I once agreed that we would not allow each other to focus on our aches and pains during the ageing process because it is tiresome and boring for everyone. And who wants to be a bore? I have my uncomplaining canine friend to help keep me honest. Good dog, Clarence; we will be watchful. And we will run again.