When I was around 4 years old, my parents entrusted me under the care of relatives, with my auntie Dalen and her family in Ilocos Sur. There, I met their dogs, Garit (the mother) and her son, Yabang.
Garit, with a dark brown colored fur with a little streaks of black was the thoughtful, caring one, the gentle one. The other dog, her son Yabang, had this predominantly white fur with a little streaks of black. Oh Yabang lived up to his name because he was very independent as a dog, a loner, and enjoyed exploring. I hardly touched him because he’s kind of elusive but I have one memory of him that to this day, I have never forgotten.
It was a lazy afternoon and I was attempting to take a nap with my fellow little cousin in this house of another auntie who was auntie Uring, my father’s other older sister, when, just as naturally since I hardly fall asleep in the afternoon, I decided I would just go out of the house for a while. Instead of going to the front door I chose the back door to have a view of the outside. Then I saw Yabang walking all by his lonesome and just as naturally, being his adventurous self, he tried to venture out of the fence that separated our territory from this house that had a wide and spacious grass in front of it—it was so wide that the house looked too far to reach.
So there goes Yabang, trying to crawl beneath that little gap between the soil and the wire fence and succeeded. Shortly after, I saw these big, tall dogs running towards him then as fast as the blink of an eye, I saw a brawl of dogs. Three against one. Big, tall dogs against this small height Yabang. These tall dogs even brought with them their little offsprings, maybe one or two of them, if I’m not mistaken. When Yabang was already weak and wounded, the ferocious dogs left him. I was thankful they didn’t kill him on the spot. Like I told you, Yabang was a very independent dog that despite his pitiful condition, he managed to lift himself up and crawl back beneath the fence, back to our territory.
Then the memory that I next remember was Yabang already limping, with one of his legs broken. He couldn’t anymore climb the stairs to seek shelter inside my auntie Dalen’s house. Then I remember my uncle Uping giving Yabang a bath and he looked so weak and shaking. I was so afraid of what would happen to him. Eventually (I don’t remember when this was if this was many months later or weeks later or what), I had to leave because my parents had to bring me back to Manila to start studying in elementary. I wasn’t able to ask my auntie and uncle about Yabang. Because I don’t ask questions then.
When I returned to Ilocos a few years later for a vacation, probably I was around 9 or 10, I never saw Yabang again. Shy to ask, I guessed Yabang must have died. Oh, but Garit was still alive and she had these new children and I met them already grown. The new dogs were Brownie and Sampaguita. The older one Brownie was just like her mom Garit. So gentle, so kind. Sampaguita was the mischievous one, the flirty one. She would jump or sometimes throw herself at me just to play with her.
When Brownie had babies and was probably not yet ready for the role of motherhood—I don’t know if mommy dogs get to experience post-partum depression after giving birth just like mommy humans—Garit would be the one to breastfeed her grandchildren. And when I found out about this when I took a peek below the bed where the babies are, I would get mad at Garit and shoo her away. Garit understood my action for she would just leave obediently. The puppies then I would put beside Brownie who was just nearby, sad as a dog and indifferent as a mother.
But like I told you, Brownie was a thoughtful, caring one. Because one time, when it was sleeping time already—oh we were sleeping on this banig and the house of my auntie Dalen was still a bahay kubo, a big bahay kubo that was nice and neat—Brownie entered the door which was slightly open and sat in front of me while I was lying. I remember her pulled back ears which as a child I knew already as a sign of friendliness. And her face, I remember it was the sweetest face I’ve seen from a dog, like she’s showing that she really liked me. And in return, I would pat her on the head or caress her fur.
In our own home, we never had pets because my mother didn’t want pets inside the house. That is why whenever I would tell a story to my siblings about my stay in Ilocos, I would often tell them about Garit, Yabang, Brownie, and Sampaguita, the dogs that kept me company and made me learn that dogs are not just animals. They can teach you something about goodness and loyalty.
So missing the company of dogs, I would just be contented playing with the ants. Or one time when my mother was brooming the dust and dirt away from our floor, and from every nook and cranny, and I saw these three baby rats with those gathered dirt, I stole one of those baby rats as my pet while the other two I let them die under the heat of the sun. Looking back, it was so cruel but those were babies of pesty rats. Or sometimes, whenever I would eat and would see this house lizard waiting for a rice to drop from my spoon, I would make the effort to put a pint-sized of rice near the lizard and he/she would eat it. But this was when I was still young and silly. Now that I’m old, I don’t think I can take care of a dog when I can’t even bring myself to wake up early in the morning.
That’s why when I read this article by Alya B. Honasan last month (which I kept and now posted here) about her dog, Larry, it really pulled my heartstrings then tears welled up in my eyes.
Why I never gave up on our old dog
by Alya B. Honasan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
When he first arrived, and for the first few years of his life, he was bright-eyed, cute and full of energy, just like any young creature. My niece named him after her favorite Ateneo basketball player.
By the time our family’s beloved black labrador retriever, Larry, passed away last May 16 of congestive heart failure, he was three months shy of 13 years old. By some counts, that’s 91 human years. He slept a lot, tired easily and was sometimes grumpy when pestered by his younger “sister,” 5-year-old Kikay.
He had cataracts in both eyes, worn-down teeth and white hair in his black fur. He was almost deaf; you could sneak up behind him and surprise him, and it would take several calls for him to hear you, laboriously lift his 75-lb frame, and come.
Still, even if it had admittedly gotten difficult to care for him in the last few weeks of his life—we were constantly monitoring his body temperature to avoid heatstroke—I wasn’t complaining. Neither were the house help, who backed me up when I couldn’t do the job by myself, especially when I was fighting cancer the last 11 months.
Our cook and our houseboy learned how to use a digital rectal thermometer on a dog. They had seen Larry grow old through the years, too. He was family.
Larry was the last of our family’s big dogs, a pack which had, at one time or another, included a rottweiler, a German Shepherd, a Belgian Malinois, a pit bull and three Dalmatians—all of them given to us. Still, I was peripherally involved only in their care.
After the other dogs from the pack passed away one by one from old age, it was Larry who remained, and I took over his care when he turned 7—the onset of old age for some large-breed dogs. I immediately had him neutered, started mixing fruit and vegetables in his diet, and added on to the vitamins. Still, within a couple of years, the health problems started.
Just like with humans, seniorhood is a different ball game for dogs, with the corresponding adjustments that have to be made. Sadly, this is something some dog owners don’t think about. In the West, older dogs are sometimes surrendered to shelters when owners can’t (or won’t) manage their care; if they’re not immediately adopted and the shelter isn’t a no-kill establishment, they are inevitably put to sleep.
In the Philippines, where shelters are not an option, some heartless people (especially irresponsible dog breeders) simply abandon dogs. Animal welfare groups like the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and Compassion and Responsibility for Animals (Cara) have too many horror stories of senior dogs tied to posts, left on unfamiliar roads, left behind when the owners move house, or even dumped in canals or trash bins.
PAWS gets regular calls from people insisting that their dogs be taken off their hands—“Mabuti na, kaysa iligaw pa ito (That’s better than us having to lead this dog astray).”
Think about that for a moment: intentionally leading your dog astray so he never finds his way back, and could die from the exposure, hunger and thirst. It takes a special kind of cruelty to do that.
Owning a dog is a lifetime commitment—the lifetime of the dog, which will never be as long as our own, anyway. Part of that pledge is accepting that, one day, our dog will get old, get sick and die, and it will be our obligation as his guardian to do the best we can.
“We were never meant to share all of your life, only to mark its passages,” Jon Katz wrote in “Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die,” in what he imagined a letter from a dog would read like. “We come and we go. We come when we are needed. We leave when it is time.”
A senior dog will be less hardy, more prone to illness and will have less energy. He will be less resistant to changes in temperature or in his environment, and may require different food. A senior dog will suffer in this heat, but his bones will also hurt in colder weather. Caring for him will need more time, attention and money.
“It’s the same as with people,” says Larry’s long-time vet, Dr. Siday Peñaranda of Vets in Practice. “They get lethargic, have a weaker immune system, have less appetite, engage in less activity and may not want to play as much with other dogs. Just as we watch over them when they’re very young, we have to do the same when they’re old.”
Larger breeds age faster than small dogs, she notes. “Expect that they will need more care talaga. Keep their weight down, and keep walking them, even if they can no longer handle vigorous play. If veterinary care is expensive, then you can just get a baseline test, for example, and then work on keeping them comfortable and giving them a good quality of life.”
The right thing
Please remember those pointers the next time you want to bring a cute puppy home, for yourself, or for your kid, who keeps asking for one. If you can’t see the animal in your or your child’s life for the next 12 years or so, then please do the right thing.
With Larry, there were constant skin problems, a bout with ehrlichia (the tick-borne doggie equivalent of dengue, which also causes their blood count to plummet), and a regular battle with ticks and fleas when the seasons changed. There were rickety joints, and a marked slowing down that forced us to adjust his walking schedule to early morning and late afternoon to spare him the heat.
There was a close call with heatstroke that landed him in the emergency room, when we thought his heart would stop when it was beating at a frighteningly fast rate. Naturally, this meant veterinarian’s bills that made me wince, and I did ask for generic, less expensive options for the medicine.
And then, as I had written about before, there was what I consider a clear case of “sagip,” when Larry saved me from a common side effect of chemotherapy. He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle, and I knew deep in my own heart that he had absorbed the illness in my place. He had anywhere between three months and about a year left, I was told.
Larry lasted for seven more months, pumped with diuretics, supplements and an anti-hypertensive medicine.
The night before he died, he already seemed restless. After calming him down and checking his body temperature, I prayed for a good death when his time came—that it would be quick, that he would go on his own, at home and in familiar surroundings, and that I would be there to say goodbye.
Early the next morning—the day I was scheduled for a follow-up CT scan, three months after I had been cleared of cancer last February—I woke up to find Larry panting. His breathing became more labored when I cradled him in my arms. Our houseboy knew the drill, and was ready with a second electric fan, ice packs, more ice cubes and some calming oil.
But I already knew he was tired, and just wanted my permission. I think he even timed it so I wouldn’t miss my CT scan; I made it to the hospital later that morning, crying inside the machine.
Our old, faithful dog was ready to go. “It is my time to say goodbye,” Katz wrote, and I could imagine Larry saying the words to me. “… My spirit is fading, and I have been called home and away from you.” I whispered in his ear, just as I have released all the beloved dogs I have sent off on their final journeys: “It’s okay, baby. You can go now.”
And with one final heave of his massive chest, Larry’s ancient heart slowed down and eventually stopped. He flew straight to heaven, I know, where he is a puppy again, running around at the feet of God.
“And finally, I ask these things of you,” Katz concluded. “Remember me. Celebrate me. Grieve for me. And then, when you can, let me go, freely and in peace.”
I am still missing Larry; he would be the first to welcome me home whenever I pulled into the garage, and it hurts deeply to realize he’s not there anymore. Still, I know I can eventually let him go in peace because I never gave up on him—just as he never gave up on us, his humans.