dog and hiker in sunset
(Photo: Paxson Woelber/Unsplash)
Tough Love

My Dog Is Getting Older. How Do I Prepare for the Loss of My Best Friend?

Watching your dog age is one of the hardest parts of having a pet. Make their life comfortable and full of joy, and they’ll know how much you love them until the very end.

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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at toughlove@outsideinc.com.


My soul dog, Molly, is in her twilight years. We have great times together every day but she is really slowing down, and I can’t help but fixate on how much time we still have together, and how short that time might be. I’ve never lost a dog before, and she is my best friend. I am afraid I will be shattered. I know this is selfish, but losing her is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through and I wish she could help me through it… at the same time, I know it must be confusing and scary to her to be slowing down like this, and I want to protect her from it, but I don’t know how…

I’ve written before about how dogs’ lives aren’t short to them; to dogs, their lives are the lengths of lives. It’s only in relation to our human lives that they’re too short. For our dogs, this is a gift: their whole life can be contained within love. For us it’s much harder. We’re the ones who have to say goodbye.

It will be terrible to lose your best friend. There’s no way around it. There’s nothing you can do that will make it OK, and no way you can prepare now that will mitigate your sorrow later, save spending your time with her, soaking in joy and companionship so you build up resilience to deal with the grief.

Give her every bit of joy you can, and help her to be comfortable. Throw a ball for her even if she can only chase it once before lying down—and if she’s too tired to stand, toss it to her on her bed, so she can scramble and catch it and look up smiling. Get her favorite foods. Bring her to her favorite park, even if she can only walk around it once. When you’re sitting at home, reading or watching TV, always sit beside her. Pet her head and her belly. Look into her eyes.

You think you know more about death than she does, because what, you’re human? Dogs know. Molly knows. She knows that her body is changing. That she used to gallop up the trail, but now she gets stiff after a short walk. That she might be losing her sight, or her hearing. There are things happening to her that you don’t feel or understand, but she senses them. She knows what’s coming better than you do.

There is knowledge beyond language. It’s not primitive; it’s precise. It’s our human language that’s the approximation. Dogs have this knowledge. We have it too, somewhere, but it’s harder to access; when we privilege that which can be expressed in words, we lose touch or lose faith in that knowledge that lies beyond them. Molly knows what’s happening, like all animals know. Like the bear who knows to rest in winter, and the bird who knows to fly south. Molly knows better than you do. She knows all of this. She knows.

She is preparing herself. When she dreams. When she wakes up in the morning. When she rests by your side. She is preparing in ways you can’t understand, although maybe you can learn from them. She knows that you’re walking her to the door.

So your task isn’t to protect her from this great tragedy, this great grief. That would be impossible. Instead, understand that she is going through something that you can’t yet imagine—though you’ll go through it yourself someday—and your task is to support her and love her and treasure her as she goes through a process that her body knows how to do.

She knows that the love you have for her is tremendous, and she’ll carry it even as she passes from this world. It will be the last thing she feels—after breath, after senses, after her last heartbeat. After everything, she will still have love. It is the most that any of us can wish for.

When she looks at you now, when you sit beside her, she feels all of it: your love, your worry, your presence, the inexpressible knowledge of her own journey. Feel it with her. Let her teach you; let her lead the way. Know beyond doubt that your love for her will linger—power like that doesn’t vanish—and that hers will do the same for you. Like a bright sun slipping behind the horizon. Even when you can’t see it, it’s always there.

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Lead Photo: Paxson Woelber/Unsplash

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