The joys of getting a puppy don’t really prepare you for how much responsibility comes with taking care of an older dog. As we have adjusted to dealing with it in our household, we received some unexpected assistance!
Willie came to us a tiny Sheltie pup; a fuzzy, fluffy, energetic ball of fur with sparkling brown eyes and a smile a mile wide (Yes, dogs do smile!) For 13 years he has been a part of our family. He grew up with our kids chasing soccer balls, trying to herd their friends, and barking at them nonstop for hours from underneath the trampoline as they bounced with their friends. It is a melancholy time as we see him age; one by one his faculties have diminished, until he cannot see much or hear, can’t climb stairs, and often has to be physically guided into the house at the end of the day.
Today, our five chickens were out of the coop roaming the yard. Willie, always diligent and on-point (when he remembers to be), loves to bark at them and run around them in circles. They sense he is harmless, and pay little attention to him. This day, however, was different. As he circled them, they turned and went clucking after him instead. Suddenly, out of nowhere, like a hurtling hair missile, our German Shepherd Nika came running from the front of the house, her unmistakably protective bark leading the way as she ran right into the center of the flock to “save” Willie from the chickens. My husband called her off before feathers started to fly.
Two years ago, we decided to add a member to our group. Nika is a 5-year old Schutzhund-trained German Shepherd who came to us via a trainer. Her personality traits really weren’t suited to the rigorous training Schutzhund requires, and we were fortunate to have her come to live with us.
Introducing Nika into the household was…interesting. Willie, who is 25 pounds of confident, hairy attitude, took the bull by the horns during their first meeting by biting her right in the face and making clear who was the boss. She accepted that role, and they moved on to develop a relationship based on her knowing her place and accepting Willie as the alpha male.
What we did not anticipate was Nika’s uncanny intuition about all things related to her new family. She bonded immediately to my husband in a manner that continues to take my breath away. She quickly became tuned in to his every move, emotion and need. Other people in her life exist, and are important – myself, our kids and grandchildren – but my husband is her world. And Willie.
Over time it became obvious that she is sensing and responding to Willie’s growing needs…his loss of hearing, sight, and cognitive ability. She began last year by constantly tending him like a shark circling bait as he roamed the yard. She wouldn’t leave him alone, until he would become agitated and bark at her in frustration. One day she pulled him back from the edge of the second-story deck when he got too close. If he is in the driveway, she hovers over him when cars come and go, physically moving him away from anything she perceives puts him in harms way. When he starts to bark and run at the grandchildren playing ball, she hovers over him like a mother hen, making sure he isn’t upset or overdoing it.
We are thankful for the love and attention Willie is getting from his new canine companion as we continue to watch this relationship with growing amazement. It appears possible that – just like humans – senior dogs benefit from companionship with their peers. Her relentless protection of him leaves us speechless and humbly aware of a world which we can only observe from the outside in.