black lab mix dog

My black Lab mix, Rudi, just turned 10 years old.

I’m not entirely sure how this happened, because I clearly remember bringing home a highly energetic, long-legged puppy whose head looked far too small for her body — and wasn’t that just the other day?

That puppy, who was my second dog, showed me that I was not, in fact, the world’s most natural dog trainer, but had just gotten lucky with a ridiculously trainable and obedient first dog. And that’s not the only thing I’ve learned from Rudi, so, to celebrate her 10th birthday, here are a few words I’d like to share.

Dear Rudi…

I never pictured you as an old dog. I guess I never dared to believe we’d make it to this point. Losing my first dog — your big sister, Yuki — when she was just 7 was a real eye-opener for me, and I learned that I should never take for granted that any of my beloved pets would be around for years to come. After all, she seemed perfectly healthy… until suddenly she wasn’t, and then she was gone. I refused to allow myself to be taken by surprise like that again, so with you, I’ve always tried to appreciate you just as you were at that moment.

But you didn’t always make that easy.

You were a rambunctious pup — and remained that way for four solid years. (Trust me. I counted.) You were stubborn and incredibly strong, and, quite frankly, walks with you were not all that pleasant. But I knew the work would pay off, and although you’re still not the easiest dog to have on the other end of the leash, I look forward to our walks around the neighborhood — especially once we’re a couple of blocks in and you’ve settled down, because even at 10 years old, you’re still a pretty excitable pooch. You definitely taught me a lot about patience during your first few years.

And you know what else you are? Hungry. So hungry — even for a Lab! That insatiable appetite has led to a couple of really scary situations, but topping the list has to be your first trip to the emergency vet and spending a week in the intensive care unit with acute renal failure. You stole every heart in that hospital with your snuggly nature and beautiful brown eyes. I spent that week alternating between lying on the floor of the veterinary hospital with you watching you sleep and crying tears into your fur and steeling myself for the very real possibility that you’d never come home.

But you did, and the experience taught me that life will slow down for you if you just let it. Now, I try not to let a day go by without getting down on the floor for a snuggle session with you and your sister, Hollie, even if it’s just for a few minutes. My productivity hasn’t suffered for it, but my quality of life has definitely increased. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I’m so grateful you were able to teach it to me.

After all your body had been through, I was told to be prepared that you could enter chronic renal failure as you aged, so as relieved as I was to have you back, I remained prepared for bad news year after year and never allowed myself to imagine what you’d look like with a gray muzzle. You developed a few other health problems, like idiopathic seizures and osteoarthritis, but, happily, your kidney function stayed strong. As you entered middle age and sprouted more gray hairs, I allowed myself a sliver of hope that I’d see you into your golden years, but a big part of me still held back. Through that time, I learned more and more about being present, appreciating each moment we shared together.

black lab with toy

The years went by. You became very good at going into your crate whenever I got ready to leave the house, which has been most helpful because, man, if you were a hungry pup before, your seizure medications have only exacerbated it. If you’re left unattended, no box, book or food-related item is safe from your jaws. (I suppose it’s worth noting that this has taught me to be diligent about putting everything away in its rightful place — a lesson my mother tried to instill in me for 18 years. Wow, Rudi — you’re good!)

And now, you are 10 years old. Officially a geriatric canine. We do all of the “old lady” tests at the vet, and you have your own pill organizer so we can ensure you get all the medications and supplements you need each morning and night. Sometimes you leak a little in your sleep, and while I find your snoring to be soothing and melodious, it has been known to wake a sleeping human.

But you still greet me at the door with your favorite toy in your mouth, just like you did as a puppy. When you get a little spurt of energy and come running around the corner of the yard, it’s easy for me to recall the way you bounded from one end of the dog park to the other.

Then you come closer, and the gray muzzle and white eyebrows come into focus and I’m reminded that you’re not a puppy anymore. That’s okay, though — you’ll always be my puppy, and I’ll do my best to make you feel like one today, tomorrow and for as long as I have the priviledge of caring for you. Because, as my colleague Amy Sinatra Ayres so eloquently said in a love letter to her 14-year-old dog, Grizzly, I’m just so happy you’re still here.

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