The Old Trainer: Coping when your dog reaches the trail's end

August 8, 2013 

Dear Old Trainer: I live alone with my 12-year-old Shih Tzu, Cassie. My family is gone, and Cassie is my only companion. Cassie's health is failing, and I don't know how to deal with losing her. I cry every day just thinking about it. I save all your columns because your love of dogs shows through, and I need your advice. What will I do without Cassie? I can't face it without her by my side.

— Jan, Sacramento

Answer: It's a lonesome feeling, Jan. I know it well.

Rowdy the border collie, the dog I love most, is reaching the end of the trail. She's been at my side since that autumn day so long ago when she trotted out of a homeless encampment in Golden Gate Park and adopted me.

In her mind we are co-leaders and make joint decisions on how to run the pack. She helps train every dog I rescue. I give the command, she backs it up with her street-fighter stare. She's a born leader and most of what I know about training I learned from her. Together, we've trained hundreds of dogs and found homes for them.

But time has taken a toll and she knows it. She no longer jumps six feet in the air or races through the woods after the same deer that has eluded her for years. At her peak, she knew more than 200 commands and performed them anywhere she could find a crowd, but now, like an old fighter, she has to pick her spots.

She knows what she has lost, and she considers it from time to time. I see the nostalgia in her face when the pack takes off after that deer, but she stays by my side now and lets the younger dogs handle the chase she once led. She watches them for awhile, then looks up at me to see if I understand. I do.

As her gifts fade into the mists, we communicate better than ever. The other day she tried to climb a little hill to join me, but her old legs couldn't do it. She looked at me and wagged her tail. I've never seem more love in a look. I sat down beside her, and she rested her head on my leg. I loved on her while we thought about old times.

In "The Great Gatsby," Fitzgerald wrote of "the future that recedes before us." That's Rowdy and me now. We both know what's coming, so we make the best of the time we have left.

I suggest you find a young dog while Cassie is still able to help teach him. She has a lot to pass on and this is a time for the two of you to train a new dog the way she wants him trained. Cassie doesn't want you to be alone when she is gone.

Rowdy is doing that for me now, training a young dog to take care of me when she is gone. She's tough on him though, and bristles if he makes the mistake of standing next to me. That's her spot. Always has been.


Jack Haskins writes as The Old Trainer. A trainer for more than 30 years, he has rescued, trained and placed more than 2,000 dogs. Send questions to

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