Travels with Mabel


Last Year. Better beach, younger dog. Younger me. Time marches on.

Mabel is not my Dog of a Lifetime. That is Chamois, my Golden Retriever, best dog ever.

Mabel is, however, the dog of my middle years. She is almost 12. (You do the dog years math) We have aged together.  That counts for a great deal. We are grafted.

Among other things, we both love Michigan.

When I pull the Sportsac from the closet at home, Mabel knows there is a road trip in the works. A lake, maybe. Woods. Walks instead of a dog run. She will not take her eyes off of me. She trails my every move.  Waits by the garage door.

We have our system for transport:  Mabel and Milly in the back of my SUV.  No access to the seats. They are screened off to keep them safe, and us undistracted. (Truth told, I violate this when Steve is not with me- flattening the back seat and damming off the front. It gives them more space, plus the seat back is carpeted I keep this from Steve; he is a systems engineer. He will think I’m weak. I am.)


The post beach recovery period

These days, Mabel’s geriatric ascent is assisted by a new Steve system: it involves a maze of baby steps that gets her into the back without any leaping.  Mabel’s leaping days are over. Every time I see her here, smelling the lake in the distance, intrigued by deer tracks- I try to freeze the moment. I foresee that next summer will be Mabel free.  I blame my Irish blood for this gloom, but I have had enough dogs amble through my life that I know it is wise to accept the inevitable.

To be clear: Mabel is not a classic good dog. Her sins are numerous. In a euphemism for “Bad Dog” we could call her a character.

When she was a pup, I walked her with Chamois. She lunged at a distant   squirrel, and my shoulder lost the battle of resistance. For 18 months I navigated cortisone shots, physical therapy and napropathy until I could use my left arm to brush my hair. Needless to say, there were significant gaps in her training and socialization.

She lurches out the door to get to the pool, and any human or animal in her path is doomed to be swept like a bowling pin in the path of a ball. Chamois was her first victim, tearing her ACL. Surgery. Followed by Dog trainer. Systems tried, systems failed. The trainer gave up; “swimming is hardwired to her brain,” she said.

Steve recalibrated his goal: she had to wait for a verbal permission.  Not likely. So we gave up, too.  Mabel rewired us. Now I say she is rickety, it is water therapy. She is purposeful: she is not a recreational swimmer.  She wishes to fetch.  Absent a ball or a floating item, she will try to bring the pool sweep out. For hours.

Milly, whose Portuguese Water Dog roots portend aquatic expertise, jumps in to swim as well, but attempts to hitch a ride on Old Mabel.  Mabel shrugs her off, but then guides her to the stairs so she won’t get waterlogged. She wants to be good.

Mabel loves all people, hates other dogs. She trusts no canine. I cannot trace the genesis of this, but Chamois was 9 when we got Mabel, and I think she fancied herself  a bodyguard. She kept evil dogs at bay as Chamois grew blind and wobbly. Then she transferred her aggression to any passing or visiting dog. She once went after an Old English Sheepdog that had the temerity to bark (repeatedly) at her. She broke her electric fence and jumped into a group that included the aforementioned dog, two women and a fosterchild in a stroller.  That was a very bad day.  Steve declared her a menace to our life and announced that she was going to the Humane Society.  His assistant provided a cooling off period, hid her, and she returned to the folds.  More dog training ensued.

More failure.


Considering the last 50 steps. A pause that includes the return trip.

She crushed Milly’s snout in a food related dispute, so that Milly is a mouth breather to this day. And a profound snorer. She tried the same move on Walter Dog on the day he was introduced to us. Walter, a street savvy rescue, was wearing a cone from a dog beach altercation the day before: he dodged serious injury. Walter, Matt and I all have PTSD from witnessing that moment. Mabel seems to have declared a truce with her canine cousins, but we still feed the dogs in shifts, and dole out treats gingerly.

Here at the lake, Young Mabel would escape and bolt to the lake. This path is steep, and includes a hundred stairs down to the dune. Anyone in her path would suffer, and it was hard to anticipate the black blur because of all the zigs and zags. I would give chase, screaming “dog coming” as a preventative. This was not part of a relaxing weekend for me or for the other residents.   Now she knows that path leads to past adventures, and when we are near it, her nose rises and she looks me in the eye as if to say, “Today? Can I swim?”

I have to resist, Once she would win the tug of war just by dragging me.  Now I can coax her in a new direction. I cannot risk an altercation with an unleashed dog or an ascending person.

Steve walks the beach, and last week he called and gave me an “all clear” to bring her. I took off her leash when I saw the staircase was empty.  And poor Mabel looked down at all those stairs …and just stopped. Even with Steve at the base, she was not sure about the effort required. Her younger self prevailed, and down she went.


Navigating the rough terrain

The lake is choppy, the beach is rocky, and Mabel is old. The spirit was there, the tail wagged, she smiled her Lab smile, but she was content to roll around after a few retrievals. When it was time to go home, she stalled.  The stairway’s big first step was too high for her. We hoisted her hind quarter and she ambled up alongside us, making eye contact that acknowledged that the work was too much for the dollup of freeform swimming. I can relate.

And so this year’s melancholic “farewell to summer” focuses on my schizophrenic dog. She has been a bad girl, now she is good.  She challenged me, now she is my constant, loyal companion.  When my knee was replaced, she lay at my feet as I slept on the couch. Faithless Milly flew upstairs to share Steve’s bed and my pillow.  Mabel remained. Steadfast is a good thing to get in a dog. She never tripped me or even grazed the bad leg.  She knew.

A return to her den

She has done what we all do as we get older: accommodate and regroup.  She cannot get up on the bed; she goes under.  She cannot chase a tennis ball for hours, she fetches it in a leisurely way, giving the evil eye to Milly. She saunters back with it,  sitting and panting to catch her breath. She waits to see if it is my last trip upstairs before she joins me for the night.  She metes out her resources, aware of her limitations. She maintains her “top dog” status in a cunning way, with dignity.  She can still hear the treat jar lid from any corner of the house, and can be summoned from any mischief by the sound of a Kraft single being unwrapped. She fetches three papers every morning, a trick made less meaningful since the delivery man stopped plopping them at the end of the driveway and uses the circle of the drive to put them on our covered porch. Still, she does this job for a Milk Bone. In all her years, she never went on strike or demanded a raise.

Now, oddly enough, the dog I was ambivalent about for 8 years is an inspiration and comfort to me.  She teaches me to just marinate in the present, to make every moment the best one it can be, even if you have to shift away from things you once loved.  There are new joys. Like being allowed on the couch, or commandeering the easy chair.  Propping the big head on armrests built just for her.

I know that her time here in New Buffalo should be remembered, recorded and treasured.  I am skeptical that next summer will find her enjoying this place, with its thousands of terraced steps. Like most aging Labs, she is full of cysts and tender spots.  Her eye has a tumor that the Vet says must be removed now since it is irritating her eyeball.  That is my limit.  No biopsies on her lumps.  No carving away tumors. She will guide me and I will guard her. She earned it.

I cannot and will not push her past the tipping point of dog joy just to keep me company. She trusts me.

I’m not sure I trust me. I’m pretty glad I have Steve. Systems guy.  He’ll know what to do.


Co-existence is the road now taken

The dog that was once a nuisance has become a treasure.  Damn you, Mabel.


I have other tales to tell about the end of summer.  Come back. Type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

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