President Joe Biden leaning down to pet his older dog Champ. His other dog Major is in the background. Both dogs are German Shepherds
White House

pets

Photo by White House

For The Love of Old Dogs


Conservative news outlets may not appreciate the blessing of caring for a dog into its golden years. But for many owners, including President Biden, their senior dog is a gift



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Last Friday night, Newsmax—a conservative “news” outlet that makes FOX seem legit — pivoted from election gaslighting to dumping on a dog. Specifically, the channel’s anchor Greg Kelly went after Champ Biden, one of America’s two First Shepherds, whom he declared to be lacking canine class.

“Doesn’t he look a little rough?” Kelly demanded, displaying an inexplicably sepia-toned photo of the pooch. “I’ve never seen a dog in the White House like this … This dog looks like … from the junkyard. He looks like not well cared for.”

Kelly’s guest, Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer praised by Newt Gingrich and Laura Ingraham, agreed. “He looks dirty and disheveled and very unlike a presidential dog.”

When the Right attacks Democrats over dog care, it’s clear that their ammo pile is running low. (And as multiple tweeters later noted, whatever the Bidens have or haven’t done for Champ, at least they never abandoned him in a cold house while they jetted off to Cancún.)

But if you love dogs, if you’ve ever cared for a dog over the years, and into their twilight, you can’t let it go. Those contemptuous words – dirty, junkyard — are just fucking beyond the pale.

Biden’s beloved dog Champ is 12, and of a breed with a life expectancy of between 9 to 13 years. He doesn’t look uncared for or junky. Champ looks like an old dog. In fact, he looks like my old dog, the one I lost a year ago. In his youth, Casey was sleek and devilishly handsome, a long-legged chow mix, with a full, high tail and plush red coat. Whenever we went out walking, people would call out to him: “Wow! Good looking!”

By the time he was 15, though, as he lurched down the sidewalk at my side, passers-by offered only sympathetic clucks. “Hey,” they said gently. “How ya doin’, old-timer?”

Casey never went gray as he got older, but his torso thickened as disk disease rendered his hind end bony. He walked stiffly, head lowered, tail permanently down. His eyes grew dim with cataracts; his breath stank. And his beautiful red coat became shaggy, falling out in little tufts everywhere. We brushed him, cooked him chicken that we fed him by hand, bought him a ramp for the car and orthopedic beds for the house, doled out a variety of pain pills twice daily, and made multiple trips to the vet, specialty vet, and ER whose costs I’ve never dared to add up. We coddled him, kissed him, adored him, and told him how much we loved him, over and over. He still looked like shit.

His deterioration broke our hearts. It wasn’t only his raggedy looks; it was his sudden fear of being left alone. And that moment we realized he could no longer hear us. And that first terrible time he stood at the sofa’s edge, coiled for the jump – and couldn’t make it. The escalating care sometimes threatened to drive us crazy. When doggy dementia set in, he started to pace at night, from the front door, to the den, back up front, looking for something he couldn’t quite grasp. Instead of lying down, he circled endlessly; if he wasn’t guided outside within seconds of waking in the morning — or sometimes the middle of the night — he walked into a corner, got stuck, and pooped and peed where he stood.

Did we sometimes want out? You bet. But it’s what we signed up for when we brought our dog into our lives. Not everyone gets it, or can afford to. Pet lifespans are increasing,   just as people’s are, and aging comes with mounting vet bills that can threaten bankruptcy — there’s no Medicare for puppies or even accessible vet services in some parts of town. Even the mercy of a quick death runs $50-300, depending on where you live; in-home euthanasia starts at $300, then goes up — way up, if you’d like your friend cremated and his ashes returned to you.

And that’s if we’re even lucky enough to have a dog who gets to grow old — Haskell, my beloved yellow lab, was around 10 when he went from fine to dead in 24 hours; Simba, the Ridgeback heartthrob of my local dog park died of lymphoma at three. Bill Clinton’s chocolate lab Buddy, whose good looks Greg Kelly did deem appropriately presidential, was hit by a car and perished when he was five.

Many of us take care of our aging parents. And many of us try to do the same for our Good Boy or Girl, and with the same terrible tenderness. We pay as much as we can afford to treat what ails them, we give what comfort we can, we gently guide them out of the corners and clean up their accidents. We love them, knowing that time is short. I can easily imagine the President or First Lady, who’s loved Champ since he was a puppy, burying their faces in his “disheveled” fur or kissing his slightly stinky snout. The last thing they’d think about was how he looked.

During the long last months of Casey’s life, no one told me he looked like a junkyard dog. If they had, I might’ve punched their lights out. No, he wasn’t pretty, and perhaps neither is Champ. When I’m 90, I won’t be either. Old age isn’t supposed to be pretty. It’s brave, resilient, insistent, determined: Even during Casey’s last days, he got up every afternoon and headed to the door, demanding his walk. Old age is uncompromising. It’s fierce. Even a dog understands that. And when there’s a human who doesn’t — well, for me, that conversation is done.

 

Casey, an old chow-mix dog, owned by the author Carol Mithers
The author’s beloved dog, Casey.

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