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What my dog knows

When Sophie was a puppy, we were the ones doing the training. Now, as she ages, she’s teaching us how to grow old with grace.

Gracia Lam

When my wife and I ventured out to Molalla, Oregon, to visit a litter of farm pups, we were thinking a dog would be good practice raising kids — a test to see how safe we were to raise a living, vulnerable creature.

We were about to take home one with an adorable white blaze across her black chest, but when we waved a stick to play it was Sophie, all black, who sprang from the back of the crowded pen. The pick was mutual.

Dogs do test certain kid-raising skills: Will constant demands drive you crazy? Can you arrange a schedule around others’ needs? Can you love and scold and love again? Can you learn to reinforce the behaviors in yourself that lead to the behaviors you like in others? (As Sophie’s puppy trainer put it: “My job is to enlighten the owners while pretending to train their dogs.’’)


On a deeper level, though — and maybe this was the real test? — each life you invite into your own is a unique challenge of relationship to which you must give yourself wholly over. With Sophie, I did, and for 14 amazing years we’ve romped through sea waves and mountain forests and New England ponds. We’ve camped, explored neighborhoods, and tugged leashes across many patches of grass, pulling at opposite ends.

Now Sophie is training us in something we never imagined that day so long ago at the farm, when new life was in the air and on the ground and bumbling all over itself to nip at our shoelaces. She’s old. Long before us, she’s had to measure the gap between her rising heart and the shaky legs that make leaping for the Frisbee an exercise in pain. She’s had to learn the precise expression of long-suffering dignity you wear while being lifted bodily up the stairs, up into the car, up onto a seat. A bout of labyrinthitis meant she wobbled like a drunken sailor and, for a day, couldn’t stand up. She recovered from that glance into the abyss of total dependency. She has recovered from it all, gracefully so far, but each time with surer knowledge of what is inevitably coming— senescence and life’s end.


She’s also been supplanted. The kids came along, small helpless things that were barely worth a sniff, and then larger annoying things that needed constant watching, and finally small gods who commanded and meted punishment and lent grace and meaning to a day, when pleased. She tolerated and oversaw the growth of our family, which was also her own decline through the ranks, again with the grace that is her hallmark. She is an intelligent dog, who saw long before the rest of us where all this would lead. Now we are not yet there, but see, too, in the impatience of the children to get to their friends’ houses, in their eagerness to be right (making us irrelevant), our own journey along the trajectory she has already pioneered, from lordly reign to a trailing, admiring role.

If there’s one lesson she’s tried to teach, and teaches even now as I write, it’s to get your sleep. Despite two or three scares, she’s never had a serious health issue, never needed surgery, never broken down from exceeding her capacity, never, except in thunderstorms, let stress lead the way. She sleeps, and all else seems to take care of itself, with a minimum of fuss. And maybe this is what life is, just a long arc from the morning when you open your eyes and see that perfect shape flying through the air, the one you know you must chase, to the evening when you close your eyes and say, I will never catch it. It is done.


Greg Harris teaches writing at Harvard. Send comments to

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