I learned a lot in the 15 wonderful years I had with my rescue dog, but never as much as I did in the last few.
woman kissing and snuggling with her dog during its final days
Credit: Courtesy of Su-Jit Lin

When I stumbled upon my Lieutenant Baxter Bear, he was a russet bundle of silky fur, knobby bones, and enormous half-perked ears that looked like they'd lift him straight up off the ground if he weren't anchored down by his big paws and oversized tail. He lifted one and wagged the other, and I was done for.

I felt a tight squinch in my chest as my heart swelled at first sight, an indescribable joy as his whiskey-brown eyes lit up at me for the first time. Little did I know that was just the beginning of years of a love that would know no bounds.

As a first-time dog owner, I was even more unprepared for how hard it would be to have those years pass us by. To witness my once-spry, 75-pound adventure dog steadily decline. To watch his still-sharp mind struggle emotionally and physically as his body began to fail him. To remember that I made him a promise, back when he was little more than a 6-month-old rescue, that I would never give up on him.

To me, that meant trying out and coming up with a variety of creative solutions to keep his quality of life as high as possible—something I am proud of maintaining up until his blazing sun finally set this summer.

I learned a lot in the 15 wonderful years we had together, but never so much as I did in the last ones. From practical ways to bring him comfort and happiness to personal lessons in how to become a better human—the person my dog thinks I am—these were the most valuable things my Baxter taught me in his final years.

1. If It Helps Humans, It Could Help Dogs, Too

One of the biggest game-changers for us was veterinary physical therapy. Once his slight hobble became a pronounced limp, I researched pet rehabilitation in my area and spoke with several therapists until I found just the right fit who bundled together massage therapy, exercise, acupuncture, and laser therapy.

The results couldn't be denied. Baxter moved better immediately after each session, and the acupuncture was able to address not only his muscle soreness but other issues like digestive upset. On an everyday basis, the massage techniques and stretches I learned were visibly appreciated as his aching body immediately relaxed.

2. Not Everything Will Work for Your Dog—and That's OK

Like humans, no two dogs are made exactly the same, which means even the most celebrated solutions may not be a right fit for yours. Remembering that made it easier for me not to get discouraged when a genius invention didn't pan out for us.

Harnesses made to aid in lifting and supporting larger dogs didn't work for us because of some fatty tumors in inconvenient spots that made the straps dig into his body. I bought a low ramp for the couch to help with his mobility issues. Unfortunately, Baxter's distrust of it was severe enough that he'd try to jump over it when climbing off, which was much more potentially harmful for him.

Many of the investments you might make for your senior dog will be based on trial and error. It's great to be optimistic but best not to hinge too many hopes on helper products. The most important thing I learned from this was to buy from pet-friendly companies with great return and donation policies—and don't forget your local animal shelter or even vet's office can take donations.

3. Everyday Items Can Be Repurposed in Many Ways

Instead of buying new elevated water dishes for Baxter, I bought cheap folding step stools to lift his bowls. I used certain toys to angle his food bowl when he started to prefer to eat lying down. When his feet grew too unstable to stay standing in the tub while his anti-itch shampoo soaked into his paws, I gave him foot baths using plastic sandwich bags on each foot.

I bought simple white rags in bulk for cleaning up dirty paws, beds, and other messes, which turned out to be more economical (and eco-friendly) than using loads of paper towels. After trying tons of fancy shoes to protect his paws from environmental allergens, I found that the inexpensive, lightweight, and easily washable silicone Youly booties were the most practical. The textured grip on the soles actually helped him with his traction on our walks, and the confident grip he had on the ground was a huge help.

4. Car Rides Can Still Be Fun

Older dogs may not be able to enjoy the same things they loved when they were younger, but there are ways to adapt experiences to recreate certain feelings. While Baxter still perked up for car rides to the end, I had to improvise to find a way for him to stick his face out the window and feel the wind whip through his ears and jowls.

While back seat extenders are great for straight bench seats, allowing him to lay down comfortably, the deep bucket seats of my sedan still made it hard for him to get his feet under him when it was time to get out of the car. Trading the soft hammock seat cover for a stable platform one gave him some ease in getting back up from a reclining position, and a throw blanket helped to level it out. Then when even that became less pleasurable to him, I got a little beach wagon.

5. You Can Recreate Past Moments of Joy

As my former adventure buddy, Baxter and I had the same overly optimistic outlook about our stamina. Unfortunately, as he got older, a sudden drop in ability turned a happy activity into a stressful one as he'd suddenly lose steam, unable to make it all the way back home. The wagon changed all of that. Suddenly, we could walk as far as he wanted, with no restraint nor limitation because its rugged wheels and light weight made it tremendously easy to get him back home. Better yet, walking briskly with Baxter in tow gave him back another favorite pastime—the breeze in his face.

dog wearing yellow boots laying in an orange wagon; lessons learned during dog's final day
Credit: Courtesy of Su-Jit Lin

On a smaller scale, we adapted our play, too. No longer could we play the long games of fetch that used to have him bounding gleefully across an empty beach or field. But that didn't mean we had to give up entirely! We switched from fetch to toss; instead of tug of war, we switched to puzzle toys. Once he got used to wearing shoes, my water-averse dog found a new pleasure in splashing through the puddles he'd always used to avoid, unlocking a joy it took him his whole life to discover.

6. A New Reason to Work Out

When I built a garage gym during COVID-19, I called him my coach as he watched me lift; he insisted on supervising, limping from the office to the garage no matter what. Having to carry him up and down two flights of townhouse stairs wasn't easy. But it stopped being hard when I started working out to that goal. I got stronger because I had to. I needed him in my home office on the ground floor, next to the fireplace on the second floor, and in bed with me on the third as much as he needed it—maybe more.

7. The Daily Sense of Purpose and Responsibility

Loving an elder dog is paradoxically simple and challenging. It hurts and requires more time and work, yet it's incredibly tender and gratifying to know that your deeply appreciative old friend relies on you as a source of comfort and reason to go on.

Knowing I was on borrowed time, I made it a point every day to try to make each better than the one prior. It was a task I gave myself, an instant feel-good during dark times. As I struggled with grief and depression after the death of my mother and a divorce, he reminded me that I had to continue to carry on because my life was more than just myself. The daily chores of getting him out for brief walks, mixing his food, getting his medicine, and washing his shoes gave me things to do—a schedule to follow—and put order in my life during a time it was crumbling. He saved my life by giving me more reason for it.

dog sleeping on couch with comfy pink blanket; lessons-during-my-dog's-final-days
Credit: Courtesy of Su-Jit Lin

8. Tenderness, Tenacity, and Determination

As much as he required assistance during his last year with me, Baxter was a living lesson on stubborn courage. He never stopped trying, even to the very end. Day after day, he'd visibly rally and remind me that I had to, too.

Determined as he was, he also made me slow down. He gently taught me patience, a trait I didn't even think I had. His slower gait reminded me that walking was something that could be done for pleasure, not just for exercise, and that the world was full of lovely things to observe. I started to smell the sweet olive and honeysuckle in the air again, to notice new plants and home décor accents in my neighborhood. I began to see the world with his attitude.

9. Boatloads of Gratitude

Of all the things Baxter taught me in the waning years of his life, gratitude is the lesson that stands out the most. His senior care made me appreciate the privilege in my daily life. I was thankful to be able-bodied with the strength to carry him. That I had the resources to give him a better day every day. That I could afford to buy him more time with enhanced care. That I transitioned to working from home to spend every last moment with him.

I was thankful for everything we shared in our life together. Grateful that I had the opportunity to watch his black muzzle turn white and his paws turn blond, to kiss his snow-dappled lashes and little white eyebrows. That I'd had the chance to love purely, wholly, and learn that I was capable of that depth of emotion.

And above all, I will always be eternally grateful that of all the amazing dogs in the world, I had the single one that was absolutely perfect for me, from our first day together to our last.