What Not to Say to Someone Who Has an Elderly Dog

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I walk our 12-year-old dog, Chloe, through our quiet Los Angeles neighborhood every day. I pull morning shift, sometimes get afternoon duty, and together my wife Jen and I take her out again at night. Mind-clearing, leg-stretching dog walks are one of the side benefits of working from home.

It’s worth noting, before I get into this, that we live in a dog neighborhood. You can find someone walking their dog almost 24 hours a day. Most of the people are friendly, and so are the dogs.

Because we have so many young, healthy dogs in our neighborhood, it must come as a shock to some people when they see our little Chloe. Her health started to turn earlier this year. Her legs are losing their power, and her balance is no longer steady. We walk her very slowly, and every act she undertakes is preceded by much trepidation. Jen and I have come to accept the grim reality that her past stretches much longer than her future.

We get comments. None of them are malicious or intentionally hurtful, but they’re thoughtless, and when you’re already sad because your senior dog is no longer the ball of furry white lightning she used to be, these comments only serve to worsen your mood.

Some folks see our dog and immediately begin pouring out stories about a dog, or even all of the dogs, they have had put down. The subtext to the conversation is, “You’ll have to do it soon, too.”

Thanks.

We know.

Other people complain about being old. They complain, in general, about either being old or about not wanting to grow old, with the specter of our elderly dog as their mortal muse. I get that sometimes these comments are made as gestures of sympathy, but sympathy is something that’s not in short supply around our home. If you mean well, I appreciate it, but it’s unnecessary.

The worst is when people just blurt, “What’s wrong with her?” This is rude and, I am thankful, rare, but I bite my tongue and take the time to explain that over the course of the last seven months her body has begun losing its vitality, and she just can’t get around the way she used to.

Other people don’t deal with us at all. Some folks in the neighborhood who are walking their dogs cross the street when they see us coming. To be fair, some of them own rambunctious dogs, and I appreciate their forethought. Others, though, own calm dogs, and when they pass, it’s sad, because our Chloe still enjoys social interaction, but she receives less and less of it as she gets older and her walks get shorter.

The reactions I like best come from people who see past Chloe’s age and infirmities and remark upon how cute she is. (She is cute. I might be biased, but I think she is the cutest dog that ever lived.) These people show true kindness, and we appreciate it. We don’t know how much longer we have left with our little Chloe. I’d rather chat with a stranger about her big blue eyes and fluffy white tail than dance around the fact that she might not be with us for much longer. It takes a thoughtful person to overcome the urge to unburden themselves of their own sadness and fears and carry another person past theirs for a moment.

Joe Donatelli is the author of “Full Griswold: Stories from a Honeymoon in Italy.” Follow him @joedonatelli

UPDATE: Someone recently brought this LA Times article to my attention. It’s about how to act around someone who is ill. These same rules definitely apply when it comes to those with old, sick, dying or deceased pets as well.

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