Saturday Diary / Two old dogs -- we take care of them; they take care of us

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Cleaning dog poop out of an oriental rug isn’t one of the stages of grief. But anger is and boy was I angry at Essie.

Angry that a 11-year-old dog was still having accidents. Angry that we now had five Labrador retrievers to look after. Angry that Roz Barber, my mother-in-law, had peacefully, unexpectedly died in her sleep, leaving behind two old dogs and a family unprepared for the sudden loss of its 72-year-old matriarch.

I didn’t understand that last part until much later. I was too worked up over the way Essie’s mess blended into the colors and pattern of the rug. I let out a roar each time I found another spot, sending Charm, our usual carpet bomber, running farther from the scene of the crime.

But not Essie. She lay quietly on her bed, no trace of guilt or shame on her chocolate brown face. She just looked sad, like a mother enduring a child’s temper tantrum. And I felt terrible.

She hadn’t asked to be uprooted from her old life in Buffalo, from the fenced backyard where she’d been let out several times a day to wander, sniff and wait patiently for nature’s call. I’m sure she missed her leisurely walks with a woman who moved at her pace, fed her a little more than she ought to and let her nibble slowly on her senior dog food, nudging it out of the bowl so she could eat off the floor. She had spent the rest of her days sleeping on a big fluffy bed in the corner of the kitchen.

Suddenly Essie was on a schedule, taking walks in shifts with four other dogs and eating behind a child’s safety gate so no one could steal her food if she walked away. Yet she accepted it all gracefully, quickening her pace on walks and at mealtimes. More than once we have found her snoring contentedly, sharing her bed with one of our other dogs.

Kipper is a whole different story. His high-pitched, hoarse voice is his most annoying quality. He barks when someone comes into the room or leaves it, when he has to go out or is hungry and sometimes just because no one is paying attention to him. He is almost 15 years old, with lots of gray around his long brown muzzle and cataract-cloudy eyes. Hip problems give him an odd, stiff-legged gait.

On the day of my mother-in-law’s visitation, my wife and I took him to his first acupuncture session. Roz had been suspicious of the treatment, saying Kipper would probably bite whoever stuck a needle in him. Sure enough, he barked nervously while we waited for the doctor and continued barking as she examined him..

She said, “It’s unusual to see a Lab that is a Fire, but he definitely is.” She explained that Chinese practitioners categorize animals into five personality types — Fire, Earth, Air, Water and Metal. Fires are vocal, high-strung and like to be the center of attention. They’re also smart, tough and tend to have small, bright eyes.

Somehow, our fiery dog put up with the 30-minute treatment, though his wiggling dislodged a few needles. When she finished, he was walking a little better, but that wasn’t the biggest change. It was his eyes. They were suddenly clear, calm and bright. The effect didn’t last more than an hour, but we took it as a good omen.

My wife takes Kipper once a week for acupuncture treatments. It’s been good for both of them, I think, a small consolation for the doctor’s visits her mother would never agree to.

Kipper has more energy than he ever did and doesn’t bark as much. He has found his place in the pack, second to our chocolate male, Hurricane.

The others have gotten used to me walking him and Essie first. I find I have more patience on the first shift than the third. All five dogs greet us at the door, much the way they greeted Roz whenever we visited her in Buffala. When someone asked my wife how we could handle two more dogs, she explained it this way: “ I’m just babysitting them til my mom is ready to take them again.”

I think they’re taking care of us, too, just the way their mom taught them to.

Correction, posted Feb. 1, 2014: Roz Barber is Kevin Kirkland's mother-in-law, An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified her.

Kevin Kirkland is the Post-Gazette’s Magazine, Homes and Real Estate editor (, 412-263-1978).

First Published February 1, 2014 12:00 AM

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