A little update on Sherpa, who still abides

December 26, 2011

I think Karen consistently underestimates Sherpa’s age.

We’ll be out on our evening walk, with Sherpa in her wagon and someone will ask about her. She’s very old, we say.

“How old?” they ask.

Karen will say Sherpa is 15. Or almost 15. I believe she is at least 16. Possibly 17.

We got her in the summer of 1997 — 14 and a half years ago — and they told us she was between a year and two years old then. She was an impulse buy, we saw her at Pet’s Mart; she was one of a few animals brought in by a local non-profit volunteer group, Helping Hands for Little Paws. They had saved her from destruction by placing her with a young lady named Marlow Ball who served as her foster mom. (Marlow Ball is now a veterinarian.)

The dog who was to become Sherpa was known as “White Dog,” and it was clear she was damaged. She seemed terrified of me, which should have tipped us off, but we wanted to believe it was simply the unfamiliar surroundings — all the new sounds and smells that put her on edge. We thought she was beautiful, we thought she might fit in well with our two male lab mixes, Coal and Bork.

We weren’t sure things would work out — Coal and Bork were un-neutered males long past puppyhood. They were settled in their scents and senses, comforted by their routine, their runs and their walks, the rattle of food bowls and the rough rub of rawhide between their teeth. I wasn’t sure they would tolerate another dog or that the addition of a female — spayed — wouldn’t upset the delicate balance of power between them.

Life with Coal and Bork was always exciting — they never quite settled their issues, there was always a whiff of competition in the air. Coal had his alpha dog prerogatives and Bork had his jealousies and once in a great while they resolved matters with a flash of teeth. They never harmed one another — what they did was something more ritualized than fighting — it was a loud dance — but it was never something we encouraged.

They were used to one another, each knew the other’s limits and idiosyncrasies. Introducing a new dog to the mix was a risk — Sherpa couldn’t possibly know the rules, that the galvanized tin washtub belonged to Bork while the muddy tennis balls were Coalie’s property. She might cross some invisible barrier, give unintended but clear offense.

But we took her home anyway, and discovered she was more at home with her new brothers than with us. Or with me, at least — she has always been shy of me. We guess that someone who fits my general description — maybe someone who smells like me — did something wrong to her before we met her.

But while her skittiness could break your heart, Sherpa found her place with us.

She was happy being third dog — she never challenged either of the boys and they never got upset with her. Coal ignored her, as he did most life forms, but she became great friends with Bork. They played together, she backed in to him and swatted him with paws. They larked together. She learned to clown, to flirt and gambol. She found her own spots to drowse.

One of the things that was different about Sherpa was that she looked up — she seemed to scan the sky for birds. At our old house she used to watch the ceiling fan spin.Sometimes she even seemed to be watching the TV.

Our vet told us this was a sign of intelligence, as was the way she used her forepaws — the way she boxed at Bork. And sometimes, if I would sit still for a while, with me. But there was always a limit to Sherpa’s patience with me. I could never put her collar on her; she wouldn’t walk with me. There were limits to her trust — I always scared her, though sometimes she could will her fear aside.

We moved to where we live now in 1999; and Coal died in 2006. Bork died in 2008 and we got Paris and Dublin a month later. Sherpa welcomed her new little sisters (littermates who had been rescued from a Waffle House dumpster); I think she was happy for the canine companionship. She certainly seemed like a happy dog.

She didn’t begin showing her age until the summer of 2010. Some days she didn’t want to go on walks with us; some days she seemed to want to go but couldn’t keep up. We decided to let her decide when she’d come along — she almost always did.

Then, one morning in April, Sherpa would not — or could not — move. And she wouldn’t take water, or eat; she ignored the peanut-buttered toast Karen made for her. I sent an e-mail to my office, to let them know I wouldn’t be coming in. I picked her up and carried her outside, into the sunshine, and laid her on the grass. I brought a little dish of water. And I waited for her to die.

She didn’t. I did not expect her to make it through that day, much less the summer, much less through Christmas. But now I expect she will be here well into the New Year. And possibly beyond.

She is still a bag of door knobs; she still has some problems getting up, but she walks better now than she has since whatever struck her down that April morning. She has her problems still. But she eats. She moves around. And when the weather is OK we take her out in her wagon for the walk.

Sherpa has always been a little mad, perpetually startled, never trusting of male humans, but she was a good companion first to Bork and nowto Dublin and Paris. She has been a very useful dog, a very pretty dog, but never a dog to crawl into your lap or nuzzle your hand. I have a lot of respect for her.

I know what some of you are thinking; you’re thinking that maybe I care a little too much about these dogs. Some of you think dogs are “just dogs” and I suppose you have a point. But I know that there is an untellable connection between us that transcends the usual relationship between man and beast.

While anthropomorphizing is incorrect, dogs do have a psychology. They have motives, emotional insight and are capable of remorse and empathy.

“How old is she?”

She is ancient. She is old. But she is not done with us yet.


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