Learning to Walk an Old Dog

A call for improving our etiquette with older dogs.
By Sara Greenslit DVM, April 2018, Updated January 2022
old dog

It was 45 degrees and drizzling, and I tucked my six-pound shivering Chihuahua, Chibi, into my coat. Wren and George, twice her size, were on leash, jacketed, game for the street.

The rain started the minute I shut the door. I wanted to go back inside, but Wren and George had other ideas. We went to the green space nearby, where they gamboled off-leash, chasing robins and smelling the wet grass.

When my hat soaked through and Chibi disappeared completely into my raincoat, I clicked the leash on George and whistled for Wren. She turned her head but then started to trot away from me, faster than I knew she could. On new pain meds for shoulder arthritis, she was quick and full of the devil.

Wren came to me eight years ago after a humane society seized 400 neglected dogs. I was volunteering as a vet, documenting the dogs’ conditions for the court case, when I met her on the exam table. It was random, meeting her, a dog in the queue. I put my hands on her small body and she turned and licked me once. Despite starvation, scars and skin disease from parasites, she still had a deep sweetness. I was smitten.


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Her age was unknown, but clues creep in now—she has slowly growing cataracts and a new fear of the double gate at the dog park. If coaxed inside for a few hundred feet, she quickly turns around and trots towards the car like a horse back to the barn. I pick her up and carry her out, once she waits at the gate. She gives us other hints: Her hearing has dimmed and she’s no longer scared of low-rolling thunder. She hesitates at the stairs, so I carry her. She tends to trip if we walk too fast.

But her nose works just fine, and she homes in on rabbit turds and road kill. Last week I pulled a small shoulder blade from her mouth, the week before, a chicken bone.

If something smells good and she isn’t done with its entire aroma, she braces herself with her front legs and lies down. Our walks are more like dawdles, a few feet forward then stopping, then a few more feet. My heart wants to hurry. I have things to do. But do I really? George gets impatient, barks and looks down the block.

The things I have to do, they can wait. We stop and go and stop again, and I leave my head for a bit and pay attention, try to see what Wren wants, what she so desperately needs more time with. My heart hurts standing there—she suddenly seems so old. But for her, the sidewalk is full of good scents and possible rotten snacks, and she could not be happier.

Photo by Jessica Knowlden on Unsplash

Sara Greenslit, DVM, CVA, is a small-animal  veterinarian and writer who lives and practices  in Madison, Wisc.