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Love for old dogs and their owners

As the Westminster Kennel Club’s 138th Annual Dog Show gets underway Monday at Madison Square Garden, families with older dogs should take a moment to celebrate loyalty and longevity as the best qualities of all.

Frank Franklin II/AP/FILE
In this 2013 file photo, Swagger, an Old English Sheep Dog, is posed for photographs after winning the herding group during the Westminster Kennel Club dog show at Madison Square Garden in New York. Swagger is a contender for the best in show during the 138th Westminster Kennel Club dog show, February 10-11, 2014.

“I don’t know if I can count how many dogs I’ve had,” says Mary Jane Roethlin, retired high school teacher, mother of four, grandmother of five. There have been terriers, poodles, retrievers, and mutts, rescues, breeder dogs, and even – once – one from a puppy mill. Some have been sprightly, some sedentary, some stand-offish, and others sweet. Most have been short-term fosters – Roethlin’s way of paying forward the joy the family dogs have brought.

But with apologies to her current dog Patrick (a slightly wild Golden Retriever suspected to be part kangaroo), there’s never been any dog quite like Dylan. He joined the family in 2001, when Roethlin convinced her non-dog-loving husband to make a little vacation out of drive from North Jersey to a shelter near an Army post in Georgia.

She’d located Dylan there through the Pet Finder adoption site. He was the male, relatively young, used-to-other-dogs Golden she’d been after.

Life being what it is, her husband soon found himself routinely warming up a little gravy for Dylan’s food. And the Golden never stopped repaying the Roethlins’ generosity. Suffice it to say that Dylan never left Roethlin’s side when her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple months later, nor during his treatments, nor after his later death.

And suffice it to say that when Roethlin herself was confined to bed, the aging Dylan insisted on struggling up the stairs each morning to join her. The trip sometimes took him as long as ten minutes, and when by last year he couldn’t make the stairs at all, he was anguished about it. They knew it would soon be his time.

“It’s heartbreaking to have an old dog,” she says. 

Dog rescue has become a cause célèbre in recent years, and brings with it the usual politics. But Roethlin, despite her long involvement with Golden Retriever rescue, sees no moral imperative to choose rescues over breeder dogs, believing there to be plenty of room for both in the world of dog lovers. Still, she says of rescued dogs, “It is my firm belief that they are grateful for the rest of their lives.” 

As the Westminster Kennel Club’s 138th Annual Dog Show gets underway Monday at Madison Square Garden, all manner of canine will take center stage. Shiny and obedient, they will stay put when told, heel on cue, and not eat anyone’s shoes.

Around the country, the older and less fine of the species will be best dogs in their own right, in their own living rooms, where they astound their own handlers: “Did you see how Gracie looked up when the dog barked on the TV?“  

They’ll bring détente to parents and teenagers who normally can’t so much as agree on whether it’s Tuesday or not: “Mom is Gracie OK? She seems to be limping a little bit.” Mom: “Hmm. You’re right. She does.”  

Mercifully, they will not speak. But they will serve as conversation starters: “Do you hear how Gracie got stuck trying to open the back gate?” Old Gracie may have bad breath and tufts of brownish hair sticking out of her once-lustrous black coat, a growth over her eye, and a way of grunting when she lies down, but you can kind of sympathize. In dog years, the two of you are probably the same age.  

The Westminster dogs – the best of the best – aren’t there yet, of course. But perhaps someday they too will embody the singular gifts of their hobbling, smelly elders: the ability to demonstrate by their late-life fragility the vulnerability that awaits us all; the understanding that loyalty itself can lift the burden of suffering; the proof, by their mere presence, that being there means everything.

Thanks Dylan, Gracie, and friends. 

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