A Few (Ironclad!) Guidelines for Speaking to My Senior Basset Hound

To inquire about my pet’s mortality is akin to approaching someone sitting on a bench with their granny and saying, “What’s the lifespan of this old gal?”

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Basset hound in parkPhoto: Janet MacLeod

The secret all dog owners know

“Hi, old timer!” said the man in the park. He had bent down to pat my dog, who is an exceptionally handsome basset hound named Jed.

“Hey, buddy,” the man murmured happily, as he clamped his meaty hands on either side of my dog’s head and wiggled his soft, floppy ears. Jed sighed with contentment. Finally, the man looked up to address me. “So how long do these guys live?”

I shouldn’t have been surprised, and yet I always am. This question is brought up almost daily and it never fails to rankle. Usually it comes from a well-meaning person who admires canines but clearly doesn’t own one. People who have dogs would never ask such a thing. To inquire about my pet’s mortality is akin to approaching someone sitting on a bench with their granny and saying, “What’s the lifespan of this old gal?”

Of course I think about how old Jed is. I think about it all the time. The thought is a small, dark cloud hovering over my head, and I am constantly pushing it away.

Jed is 13 years old and he’s going grey. He walks quite slowly, which isn’t unusual for bassets, except that it’s a little leisurely even for him. Also, he’s almost completely deaf. When I call him, he can’t always hear it—or he may be ignoring me to smell a daisy instead. This, too, isn’t that remarkable. Among willful hounds, answering to one’s name is a bit of a novelty.

Jed came into our lives when he was four years old as part of a package deal that included two cats. Jim, my partner, and I had seen his photo on an adoption website, had fallen in love with his freckled snout and decided we should meet. The caption under his picture described a “small” basset hound (he’s not) who doesn’t shed (he does) and his two beloved cats (they hate each other) who must all stay together.

Jim and I almost got knocked over by the 60-pound dog who greeted us at the animals’ former home. Jed came skidding over to Jim, gazed up at him with soulful brown eyes and arched one caramel-coloured brow. Then he wiped his slobber on my pant leg, barked loudly and chased a screeching cat down the hall. Slightly shell-shocked, we agreed to become the new foster family for this crew of creatures. But once they were under our roof, we knew that Jed (and the cats) wouldn’t be leaving.

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Basset hound in bedPhoto: Janet MacLeod

Short dog, large antics

As first-time pet owners, we did have some adjustments to make. The hound, in particular, was a challenge. For a short dog, Jed is capable of large antics. We soon learned that he will eat birthday cupcakes (with or without candles) and that he will leap into a swimming pool (even though he cannot swim). Jed will set his own pace for our walks, going from saunter to jet-speed at the sight of a pigeon. While his clip has slowed these days, he’s still pretty bouncy, incredibly cute and easily the most popular member of our family.

Unfortunately, the place he holds in our hearts isn’t obvious to everyone. “So,” continued the man in the park, relentlessly, “he’s pretty old, huh?”

“No, you’re pretty old!” is what I wanted to say. But I didn’t. I bit my tongue in the same way I do when faced with similarly insensitive comments. Things like, “Looks like his days are numbered” or “Do you think you’re going to have to carry him home?”

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Basset hound in parkPhoto: Janet MacLeod

Ask a rude question, expect a false answer

To be fair, not everybody is so inconsiderate. Some people, realizing they’re in the presence of an exceptional dog, will compliment his fine physique, his perky gait or his shiny coat. His bark, I might add, is also quite impressive. Then they will say how wonderfully he is doing “for an old guy” and how we must be doing something right.

Darn tootin’ we are! When we bought our current home in 2013, we did so specifically because it’s only one level. Bassets, for those who don’t know, are shaped like giant hot dogs, and going up and down stairs is hard on their spines. We would never allow Jed to be separated from us by a staircase. His bed is beside ours, and that’s where we want him.

Initially, he chose to sleep between us. We know this is bad behaviour, so to encourage him to behave even more badly, we put a bench at the end of the bed to help him up. A few years later we added a second, lower bench to make the climb even easier. But now he’s decided we’re crowding him and he sleeps in his own bed, located at the foot of our own.

The point is, we are a family and it’s rude to ask people how long their family members are going to live.

So I lie. When people say that my dog looks really old, I opt for deception. Last week, I told someone that Jed was prematurely grey. I informed another passerby that my dog was 27 in people years. A third nosy individual was advised that bassets have an exceptionally long life span. The truth is they don’t, but if I were to think about a life without my sweet friend I would start to cry.

Recently, when yet another stranger said my dog looked old, I wanted to punch him in the head. Instead, I just nodded and said that basset hounds always look that way and they always dawdle at their leisure. Then the man asked how long Jed was going to live.

“Forever!” I replied, as though the answer was obvious. And we slowly walked away.

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© 2018, Janet MacLeod. From The Globe and Mail (January 29, 2018). theglobeandmail.com

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada