Lately I have been evaluating my evolution as a dog parent and when I compare my current self with my past self I am blown away by the difference. I remember in detail that moment when I first made the decision to have dogs of my own. I was finishing up University and wanted my own four-legged family. Having had family pets growing up there was no shortage of love for animals and I laugh at how I thought love was all you needed to be a good parent. Don't get me wrong, love is a major part of being a good parent, but it is definitely not all there is to it.
Looking back, I understand that there really is no substitute for experience. As a dog parent, everyday is a learning experience and I personally have come such a long way on many fronts thanks to my dogs and the lessons they taught me.
In the beginning I did so much wrong. In fact I cringe at some of the things I used to do such as leave my dogs outside while I did my grocery shopping. I'd attach their leashes to bike rack while I went inside and thought nothing about the risk of dog theft. I was completely naive about dental care, fed them food I would never touch today, never heard of cancer in dogs and had no idea of what to expect as they got older. Fortunately, I'm a quick learner and over the years as I became more mature, more responsible and more educated in caring for my dogs, I became a better and better parent.
What I am most proud of is how I learned to care for my dogs in their senior years and how I changed during this phase of their life more so than at any other stage. As my dogs were growing up I felt an undeniable bond with them like nothing I had ever experienced before. That bond strengthened even more during their golden years and I was forever changed because of it.
My dogs started to struggle when they reached about 10 years old. It was gradual at first, but by the time 12 came around Churchill, my french bulldog, was having some serious mobility issues that was causing incontinence and was diagnosed with a heart tumor. Mackenzie, my pug, was becoming challenged by arthritis making walking difficult. Despite the obstacles age was throwing at them, there is something remarkable that happens during this stage of life. Yes, their dependence on me grew as they needed more assistance with their mobility and overall care, but something changed in me as well.
The more I cared for them, the more I loved them and the closer we became. I learned that I am really good at helping them continue to enjoy their golden years which we did to the fullest. I found a side to me that I never even knew existed. A me that put aside my own needs to make sure they had everything they needed to be happy and healthy, a me that saw the importance of every moment together which I treasured and a me that discovered a greater purpose in life making all the regular stresses so insignificant next to their needs. Life became about so much more than myself. And seeing how my efforts made such a positive impact on their lives changed who I was as a person. I loved who I was because of them.
Mackenzie and Churchill were also the inspiration behind Dog Quality. Their challenges and all the lessons we learned together gave birth to a business that has become my passion, allowing me and my team to help older dogs all over the world. And now through Dog Quality, and as I continue to bring senior dogs into my life, the learning and evolving never stops.
After Churchill passed away Paige, also a french bulldog, entered my life and I grew even more as she became a part of me. Being with her as she fought and eventually lost her battle with cancer earlier this year was one of the hardest times in my life, but I have never felt closer to another dog as I felt to her during this time. My current family, Lily (10 yrs), Milo (12 yrs) and Winnie (4 yrs) continue to shape me and teach me and I can honestly tell you that I learn something new about myself and about my dogs each and every day. My dogs, past and present, have not only taught me how to be a better parent, but they have taught me how to be a better human being.
As a result of my experiences I now know that I will always have senior dogs in my life. I like who I am when I am taking care of them. It is because of this that I see their golden years as an incredibly special time when you are most connected to your dog. I'm not saying that it's easy because growing older is challenging, but I am saying that it is unbelievably special and a time with your dog that will fundamentally change who you are as a person. Embrace this time together, learn from it and grow - you'll love the person you become.
Ann-Marie Fleming is the Founder & CEO of Dog Quality, a provider of products focused on improving the quality of life for older dogs.