When my grandmother moved in with my parents, one of the first things they did was adopt a dog. If this seems counterintuitive – common sense tells us that we shouldn’t make too many changes at once – it was actually a wise move. I was married and living in another state, and my parents both worked full time. Abigail the blonde chi-weenie (chihuahua-dachshund mix) became my grandmother’s faithful companion (and living hot water bottle).
At this point in Grandma’s life, her dementia was just beginning, and her hip-replacement had yet to occur. She would put on her orthopedic sneakers, snap a leash onto the dog’s collar, and the two would walk (well, my grandmother shuffled, and the dog pranced) up to the corner and back, and then down three houses in the other direction and back. These weren’t long walks, but it got both of them outside, and gave my grandmother purpose.
My grandmother was not the first elderly person to benefit from having a pet, nor was she the last. Pet companionship is fantastic because you can talk to a dog or cat all day, and they don’t care if a story is repeated, or even if you’re talking to them. While it’s true that most pet dogs recognize about the same number of words as the average human two-year-old, what they really respond to is the sound of the human voice.
Abigail was not trained to be anything more than a family pet. She was not an emotional support dog, although I’m certain that my grandmother was happier when interacting with her. She was not a service dog, with task-specific training. (This is a good thing, as the task my grandmother would most likely have required was fetching Milano cookies.) She was just a dog.
But she was so much more.
For my grandmother, Abigail was a friend and partner in crime. If my grandmother had a snack of salami and cheese, the dog had to have some, too. When my grandmother was tucked into her recliner for an evening of television, the dog was snuggled under her blanket, wedged happily between her hip and the side of the chair. When Grandma went to bed, Abigail slept in a cat bed (dog beds were too big for her) in her room. She would bark whenever my grandmother got out of bed to use the bathroom (or hunt for cookies in the kitchen – my grandmother was notorious for her sweet tooth), not a lot, just one sharp bark, and my parents knew that the movement they sensed wasn’t a burglar. (Abigail barked her head off if strangers approached.)
When my grandmother transitioned into a care home, Abigail remained with my parents, but my parents took her with them every time they visited (usually Wednesdays and Sundays). When I moved back to California with my husband, we would bring our dog on the days we visited. He was also a chihuahua, a neutered male, but to my grandmother all dogs were “she,” because Abigail was a girl. We stopped correcting her.
My favorite memory of my grandmother during that too-brief time, when she was in physical decline but her mind was still mostly there, was of a warm autumn afternoon. Summer lingers long in the San Francisco Bay area, and even though we could feel a bite beneath the sunny weather, it was pleasant enough that we could put Grandma in her cushioned wheelchair, attach one of the leashes to each handle, and take her and both dogs for a walk to the ice cream shop around the corner. (Grandma hated the chair, but she’d put up with anything for ice cream).
Grandparents are magical beings, but they are not immortal. Sadly, dogs aren’t immortal either, though they leave indelible paw-prints on our hearts. Abigail moved with my parents to Mexico in 2000 and lived until 2005. My grandmother died the first Christmas my parents were away, while my husband I were with them. I’m certain that she waited for us to be gone.
I’m also certain that Abigail, who had been subdued all that day, somehow knew.
“She is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are her life, her love, her leader. She will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of her heart. You owe it to her to be worthy of such devotion”. —Anonymous (gender pronouns changed to fit this piece)