As I type this post, I’m listening to music, streaming through my computer.
One song – by Paul Winters – opens with the sound of several Canada geese honking.
Normally, such wildlife sounds would be enough to excite Finn, waking him from his nap on a dog bed three feet behind me to jump up and run outside, certain the geese needed to be herded away to keep us all safe.
But this evening, Finn doesn’t hear them. He doesn’t even lift his head from his front paws as he snoozes.
Finn is now mostly deaf, hearing only the loudest sounds.
It happened fast, at least from my perspective. It took me the past three weeks, observing new and odd behaviors, worrying he was developing dementia, before recognizing the truth. By then, his hearing loss was nearly total.
He hid it well.
From Finn’s perspective, the hearing loss has likely been a long, easy fade into silence, something he’s had plenty of time to adjust to and accommodate.
I haven’t had much time to adjust.
Finn is thirteen, and – I hope – could live to age sixteen. Today he joined me and Conall on a five mile run in the forest, similar in distance to one we did two days ago. As always, Finn was exuberant, having a blast, and didn’t want to stop.
Finn has been healthy and active from the day I brought him home from a border collie/Aussie rescue at the age of seven months (best guess) in 2008. I’m the one who has had to make him take it easier as he aged, running every other day instead of daily for the past year or so to avoid an injury and ensure he keeps running as long as possible. His energy and endurance are amazing, even if, since October, they’ve been helped by daily doses of an anti-inflammatory for age-related arthritis. Honestly, I worry Finn’s teeth will wear down to the gums long before the rest of his body is done.
Hearing loss in old dogs is common, I’ve read. But Finn is the first dog of mine to experience it. I’m learning to adapt in ways that keep our lives together humming along smoothly.
I’m grateful I’ve always used hand signals along with verbal commands when training my dogs. Since they’re often (usually) off leash in the forest, it’s important that they can see my arm held out when I want them to come from a distance, visually reinforcing the verbal command, “Come!” They also know hand signals for sit, down, up (e.g., onto the bed or into the car), come closer, and stay, which we use when in close proximity.
All of these signals are suddenly crucial for Finn. For example, the boys and I often walk on a nearby country road. As a young dog, Finn quickly learned to jump up on the snow berm or sit in the ditch (when there wasn’t snow) until a vehicle passed, responding to both my verbal and hand signal commands to come and stay. Conall has been a little less reliable at staying in this circumstance, viewing vehicles as things that bring fun people to meet and greet. So, I’ve always held onto Conall’s visibility vest as the three of us stand on the side of the road, waiting for a vehicle to pass. Finn still reliably comes and stays on these walks, but now in response to my hand signals, allowing him to continue enjoying them off-leash.
Of course, this assumes Finn is looking at me when I need him to come because a vehicle is approaching. I can no longer simply call out, “Finn, come!” Luckily, Finn loves the tiny chicken liver treats I pack in my pockets for these walks, checking in with me every few seconds (or so it seems), seeking another treat. I almost always give him one, to reinforce his check-ins, but sometimes I hold my hands up, palms facing him and say “All gone!” Now, at that hand signal, even though he can’t hear my words any longer, he continues walking down the road with Conall, searching for voles and interesting critter tracks, until a minute later he stops to look back at me again, asking telepathically if he can have another treat. It works for us.
I still talk to Finn in the ways I always have, in the same tone of voice, saying stay, come, or all gone on our walks even though now I know he doesn’t hear me. I continue murmuring “You’re a good boy,” and “I love you,” as I pet him at home, relishing the feel of his thick Aussie fur in my fingers. I don’t yell to make him hear me. I’m not one to yell, and besides, Finn seems to understand my facial expressions just fine.
Maybe he can read my lips. What do I know?
Best of all, Finn isn’t sad.
He simply goes about his life as usual, with only the smallest changes. He’s as happy and playful as ever. Hearing loss is…a loss, certainly, but it’s painless and his life continues with some adjustments. It’s no reason for despair, on his part or mine.
So I’m following Finn’s lead by refusing to feel sad.
Some adjustments I’ve noticed Finn making so far:
He follows me everywhere. Finn used to be okay staying in a different room or hanging out in the yard if I was inside. Now, he’s my shadow. I feel guilty if I get up to grab and snack because he’ll see me moving, get up and follow me. He also taps my leg with his nose more often, something he’s always done as a way to say “I’m here” if I’m focused on my computer, the dishes in the sink, or whatever, but now it’s more frequent. He checks in regularly.
Finn is more affectionate. He wants me to pet him more often. He spends more time with me on my bed, something I’ve noticed over the past year, one reason I think the hearing loss has been a long time coming. Finn’s most recent thing is climbing up the doggy steps onto my bed an hour before daybreak and lying beside me, knowing that soon I’ll get up to give him breakfast and start our day with a run or a walk. When I finally roll over and say, “Good morning!” his little tail nubbin starts wagging excitedly and he snuggles closer to me. If I don’t immediately start petting him, he touches me with his paws, insisting. Come on, wake up, it’s a new day! His enthusiasm and joy are infectious. If I stop petting him, even for just a second, Finn rolls onto his back, feet up, chest and belly open for rubs, cute as a button and utterly irresistible. As this new routine plays out, Conall can’t help getting in on the love fest. He jumps onto the bed and positions himself alongside my legs, next to Finn below my arm, and gives Finn’s ears and face a few gentle licks as we start our day. Before jumping off the bed, Finn gives me several appreciative kisses on the chin. It’s our new routine. Precious times.
If Finn sees or hears Conall rushing outside (I think he can still hear some loud sounds, like the rare alert bark from Conall), he is right on Conall’s heels barking at the top of his lungs, louder and more insistent than he’s ever barked before, until they’re both through the dog door. Then, unless Finn sees the ravens he doesn’t like, he’s silent, even if Conall woofs at something, like the neighbor’s dog or a fox. Finn’s play bark, when he and Conall chase each other in the yard or forest, is also much louder now. Finn reminds me of old folks who, refusing to wear hearing aids, shout every word.
Finn spends more time collecting visual cues, especially when we’re out in the forest. He keeps his eyes on Conall, observing his body language to alert him to something fun/interesting or potentially threatening. In addition to (usually) letting Conall lead the way, Finn stays much closer to me, checking in more, turning his head just enough to look around his shoulder to make sure I’m behind him as we trot along a trail. But he’s also scanning the forest alongside the trail, as he demonstrated this morning when he saw a grouse that both Conall and I missed, racing on his old dog legs up a slope toward the bird until it flew to safety in a nearby tree. Finn (and I) lost sight of the bird, but while scanning the tree branches above him he gave two proud barks as if to say, See, I’ve still got it!
The same focus on visual cues occurs at home, with Finn paying more attention to my facial expressions. When I smile, so does Finn, his ears relaxing. I’m smiling more, and bigger, even as I talk to Finn in the normal tone of voice I know he can’t hear, because it clearly reassures him. I find myself sitting on the floor and encouraging Finn with hand signals to join me for a snuggle for no reason other than we still can.
Finn snoozes more, without auditory interruption. I’m a little envious, frankly.
So far I haven’t noticed any changes in how Finn and Conall interact. I wonder if Conall knows Finn is “different” now and makes allowances? Or maybe their interactions have always been based more on visual and olfactory signals, rather than verbal.
Throughout these changes and adjustments, gradual for Finn and a bit abrupt for me, Finn – like all of the dogs I’ve been privileged to share my life with – is teaching me. He’s teaching me that we can and should, with grace and humility, accept and adapt to the challenges of aging. He’s teaching me that our elderly dogs deserve our love, attention and consideration, at the very least as a recognition and thank you for all of the joy and comfort they’ve given us throughout their lives. It’s a privilege to take this aging journey with a beloved canine companion, to help them, learn from them, and apply those lessons to our own lives as we age.
I’m learning that, of all of the old age afflictions that could stalk Finn, hearing loss may well be the least daunting. He’s showing me, every day, that he’s not only handling it, but enjoys life every bit as much as when his hearing was perfect. He’s not held back, he’s not less than. Everything about the world remains awesome, in his view, each day a gift to be enjoyed without worry for tomorrow.
Finn is showing me the way.
Feature photo: Finn in the forest, December 7, 2020.