Deep Southern Gardening: My Old Yellow Dog

My old yellow Labrador retriever, Bailey, turned fourteen last November. He went completely deaf more than a year ago, he has visible cataracts, and his underside is covered in lumps that might be tumors. Most Labs his age have gone down in the hips by now, but other than a periodic stumble, the only noticeable sign of Bailey’s old-ness are his white face and his new habit of pooping wherever he darn well feels like.

That crazy old dog just keeps on ticking. Bailey eats like a horse, comes in the house by going up and down the stairs unaided, goes on short walks, and even runs after me in the backyard every once in a while.

If you type in “lifespan of a Labrador” into Google, the average comes up as eleven years. One generous source says that twelve to thirteen years is typical. At fourteen years and three months old, Bailey is well past his prime. Willard Scott ought to put up his picture, on The Today Show, next to a jar of Smucker’s.

Bailey on porchI bought Bailey as Christmas present for my then-fiancee, now-wife back in 2000. We had just bought our first house, an old white Victorian with a wrap-around porch, and she had recently lost her family’s old golden retriever. (This picture of him when he was about four or five.) We’ve had him our entire marriage, and he has always – always – made sure that I can’t really finish any gardening project in the backyard.

Bailey has never been an escape artist and has never even growled at anyone, much less bitten. Though this peaceful and loving beast has been a great dog for our kids to grow up with, he has been hell on my hobby. I’ve seen that dog eating from his bowl when a bird lighted on the edge, and he moved aside so the bird could get in there, too— but he knows how to tear up a yard! Bailey ruined my earliest efforts at composting by digging up the pile as soon as he saw me throw scraps down, and he has dug up most of the plants I’ve put down. He peed on our every one of our hostas until they all died, and he has worn his walking paths in the grass. He rotates his sleeping spots so that he always has a patch of fresh periwinkle to lie in— kill one spot and move to the next. To this day, in his dotage he still digs dozens of small holes every time it rains really hard and the ground is saturated.

So I’ve learned: if you can’t beat him, join him. Each fall when I rake the yard, I rake the leaves into his sleeping holes. In our symbiotic love-hate relationship, he gets a soft spot to lay in, and I get my leaves mulched!

2014-07-20 10.15.58One day soon – who knows when – that old yellow dog is going to be gone. For all of the times that I’ve cussed him for undoing my hard work, I’m going to miss my furry archenemy, this creature whose deepest instincts contradict my more civilized desire for the order and beauty of a well-kept yard. This picture is from last July, when a muddy Bailey, fresh from digging after a rain, was chasing my in-laws’ shih tzu puppy.

When I also typed in “14 year old Labrador” into Google, almost every result on the first page was about putting some suffering dog to sleep. I’m not there yet, because he’s not. But no matter how he goes, on his own or with help, I doubt if I’ll ever again do yard work without thinking of him, at least for a moment.

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