Rui, our labradoodle, has turned nine. The book, The Year of Living Doggedly, which chronicles his and my first year together has been out for four years, and it describes events that had happened four years before it came out. In human years that makes him about 63, to the extent that one can translate such things. And yes, there is a distinct change in him that parallels the changes I see in myself, as we become approximately the same age. I write these words at 7:36 pm, and he has just trotted up the stairs to go to bed. He used to stay up later, but didn't we all?
I look back on my anxieties of that first year, my worries about whether that puppy energy could ever by tamed, about whether he was a "bad dog", some punkish urban equivalent of a sheep killer, and they seem hilariously naïve. He was a puppy, and that's what puppies are like. If a friend confided her worries because her 6 month old son couldn't write yet, it would be similar. First dog, new parents: what can you do?
His maturity manifests in a number of ways. He stopped playing with other dogs about four years ago, for the most part. The one exception is puppies who are bigger than him physically. Rui is generally submissive, so we suspect he enjoys dominating bigger dogs, and he can only do that safely if they're younger. At the dog park, he enjoys chasing Pepper, a 14 months old great Dane. He always preferred people to dogs, but while he'll enthusiastically greet anyone who comes to our door, he becomes uninterested in them in a few minutes. Happily, he rarely leaps up any more; non dog-people used to seem displeased by a 30 kilogram dog leaping onto them, even if it was affectionately. Stuffed toys, which he used to tear at until they were completely destroyed now warrant only a few minutes attention, and then are discarded.
But from the beginning, before Diana and I had even come to live with Rui, I'd had a dream. That was of being able to walk with a dog off leash, calling him when I needed to, not worrying that he'd run off. And that's come to happen, though not where there are cars, or houses. Rui retains his curious disposition, and will happily try to learn what’s inside any open door, which is how I have made a number of new friends with whom I share a common alleyway. Ella, a four year old who lives three doors south, came shyly to our door last week and asked if she could give Rui a dog treat. That was very kind of her, as her first meeting with Rui had come when he dashed through the garage in which her mother was working, ran across the backyard and into the house, grabbed one of her stuffed dolls, and dashed back out of the house, “like a Navy Seal on a mission”, as Ella’s mother admiringly noted.
So Rui and I walk together on paths through parks, and in Toronto ravines. Rui has always been benign towards nature, and has become more so at nine. He doesn't chase squirrels or birds, and has never shown aggression to any one, so I don't have to worry about what he might do. He might eat something disgusting, or lie down in mud, but he is a dog, and I've come to accept that is what they do.
He has become a delightful companion. He has expectations of me: there is a time for food, and a time for walks. Should I stray outside of the acceptable bounds of either he will come and stare intently at me, till I remember and do what I am expected to do. But he rarely barks, unless he wants to be let in and the door is closed, or a stranger is arriving. He is an easy dog to be with, and he accepts that humans are in charge without resentment.
Rui and I both have a fairly cavalier attitude towards rules about leashes. There are a few dog walks on which a dog can be unleashed, but we very often walk elsewhere. We walk in school yards that have "No Dogs Allowed" signs. We walk, unleashed, in ravines that warn "All Dogs Must be on Leashes". We walk though the gates in High Park that say "You are leaving the off-leash area. Please leash your dog". Rui stays on paths, which he understands. He doesn't chase fauna, and he doesn't destroy flora. I can't think of any damage he does that he wouldn't do equally if he were leashed, and as we walk at different speeds it is much more pleasant for me to walk at my slow amble, while he'll sniff something of interest and then catch up with me. Or perhaps, he'll dash ahead, and then wait for me to catch up. Should the path fork, he'll wait to see which tine I choose, and then follow unquestionably.
There is a minimum fine of $360 for having a dog off-leash in a prohibited area, and for a while I was concerned about that. But the bylaw officers who enforce that law rarely get out of their cars, as many dog owners have noticed, so as long as we remain out of sight from the road we seem to be safe. If I consider how many fine walks we've had illegally, and divide that into $360, the average cost per walk seems quite reasonable, certainly less than the cost per walk of a dog walker. Like other practitioners of civil disobedience through the ages, I believe there is a higher law than the law of man; for me it is the law of dog.
Over this Edenic bliss, of course, a dark shadow looms. A dog's life is far shorter than a human's. Rui continues to be quite healthy, but the average life span for either standard poodles and Labrador retrievers is about 13. Both Diana and I notice how empty the house is on days when Rui’s staying with friends. There will come a time when he is staying with a different set of friends, those who have passed on, and that is hard to imagine. But that is not today's problem, and one of the many lessons Rui has taught me is to remain more solidly focussed on the present.
Pets age faster than their owners. That means that they start out younger, and end up older. So it logically follows, according to what I once learned was called the intermediate value theorem, there must be a day on which they are the same age. I have calculated that April 25th, 2016, is that day for Rui and me, and that will clearly call for some sort of celebration. I don't know what it will involve for me–perhaps a very long walk– but for him meat will certainly be part of the festivities. In some regards, he hasn't changed at all.