Written By: Donna Owczarek

Two years is but a breath in the human existence, yet well over a decade in the lifetime of a large breed dog, a fact that weighed heavy on my mind during this, our second visit together to Martha Clara Vineyards. Each time I glanced down at the Labrador retriever that tugged at the end of my leash, I could not help but notice how much he had aged since the last time we had joined in a Vines and Canines Educational Walk – a fact punctuated by each and every strand of white that now adorned his once golden muzzle.

Faded furs that had not been there twenty four months earlier.

You could say, I should have expected it. After all, he was now ten years old. If you wanted to get technical, ten and a half.

What did that make him in human years? Eighty? Ninety?

If he were a person, he might have been touring the Entenmann Estate in a sturdy wheelchair. Or perhaps ambling along with the assistance of a metal framed walker…

No doubt his would sport halved tennis balls over its feet to help glide it along.

Instead, the dog trotted merrily along on four padded paws, oblivious to the slight hitch he had developed in his gait over the past few years. Unaware of the twenty-plus lumps that seemingly cropped up overnight, protruding from his body like plump grapes on a vine. Ignorant of the advanced heart disease he had only recently been diagnosed with.

He glanced up at me, unaware that a Labrador’s life expectancy was ten to twelve years. Maybe thirteen, depending on which website you clicked on that day.

And why should he know otherwise?

Timelines were created for the ‘benefit’ of humans, predictors of our faithful companions’ expiration dates.

Not wanting him to see the burden in my eyes, I tore them away and attempted to focus on what my guide had been saying…something about how the Malbec grapes had been grown for the benefit of wine club members only. Before I could inquire as to how I might join, my eyes fell on his dog, a black and tan fellow, sporting floppy ears, a short coat, and a youthful expression. The very same dog that had accompanied this very same guide during our last visit to this very same vineyard.

But unlike mine, his did not appear to have aged.

How was this fair?

Maybe mine had faulty genes – although I had no breeder to blame.

I obtained my Labrador from a shelter, where his previous owner had dumped him at the obnoxious age of seven months. Like many an adolescent, he had been old enough to know better, but too young to understand that poor behavior brought with it heavy consequences.

Back then, his name had been “Buddy.”

I guess he did not live up to his name.

Imprisoned for crimes he did not fully comprehend, he waited, month after month, until I sprung him from his cell just before his first birthday. The employee warned me that he had “issues” – yet I put my pen to his adoption papers, figuring any dog could be trained. It did not take long to uncover why his first family rejected him. Leaping on visitors, excavating the yard, destroying my belongings, pilfering and eating everything he could wrap his teeth around, including some rather revolting unmentionables. The list went on and on…

But I also saw past all that, to the gentle soul underneath, to the dog who had once been seen play-bowing at a frog. And so I redoubled my efforts to teach him good manners.

Nine and a half years later…here we were.

Against the backdrop of a striking blue sky, our guide ushered us onward, and we strolled behind him – flanked by fifty or so other people whose pooches all seemed to know how to walk on a leash. All except mine. Blisters erupting on my hands, I clenched that nylon lead like a lifeline as we followed our guide and his ageless pup deeper into the vineyard. With every step I prayed my dog would not slip away from me, race off into the fields, and start culling those future bottles of Cabernet, or even more horrific, the Merlot.

You see, aside for his graying face, his knobby trunk, and his ailing heart, my dog had not changed in all that time. Not one bit.

And, oh, how I tried.

I took him to an even dozen. Not classes. Trainers. As ludicrous as it may sound, I had sought assistance from exactly twelve of them. Various methods, various tools, various beliefs.

Yet none could help me.

Not entirely true. There was one, near the end of my fruitless foray into the dog training realm, who had gently suggested that maybe, just maybe, a trained dog wasn’t who my dog was meant to be. Maybe it was who needed to accept him for who he was, instead of forcing him to bend and mold to my ideals…

Halting the motley assembly of dogs and their humans under the overhanging limbs of a magnificent tree, our guide pointed out a strategically placed bowl of water. As I held my dog back, awaiting his turn to drink, I noticed a couple sitting in the shade with their own Labrador, a sedate black beauty who lay beside them in the grass, content to watch the world go by.

Pointing the dog out to my own, I jested, “See? That Lab is calm. Why can’t you act like that?”

Overhearing me, the woman said, “You should be happy he isn’t calm.” She stroked her dog softly. “They only get calm when they get old.”

I met her gaze, my expression whimsical. “He’s ten. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

As her jaw fell slack, my dog decided he had enough waiting. He wrenched me over to the bowl, nearly toppling me as he dove in up to his ears and took himself a hefty drink, spilling more water than he ingested.

Beside me, I heard someone say to their dog, “See? That dog’s not afraid to take a drink.”

It must be human nature for us to point out our dogs’ flaws.

But perhaps, as that insightful trainer had once pointed out to me, it was us, the owners, who were flawed. It was a truth I had recently discovered on my own, on a day that I had grown irate with my failed attempts to teach my Labrador not to pull the branches from the helpless dogwood that struggled to survive in my yard. There I stood, crimson faced from scolding him, when he wagged his tail back at me. ‘Why so angry? It’s called having FUN.’ I considered him for a long moment, thoughtful, before turning away.

Returning a minute later, camera clutched in my hand, I encouraged my dog to continue his attack – laughing in fits as I documented the tree’s demise.

Although any onlooker might have thought I’d gone mad, from that day forward, an astounding transformation took over me. The very behaviors that had once enraged me, now amused me. When my dog stole up onto my bed, I turned a blind eye to his treachery. When he snatched a slice of bread from the counter, I blamed myself for leaving it there. When he dug a trench in the yard, I defended his need of a cool place to rest. You might even say that I had simply given up, finding it easier to live with his antics than to be angry. But there was more to it than that.

My dog, my friend, was getting old.

Our walk concluded, and as our host handed out coupons for free flights in the tasting room, I led my dog to a nearby picnic table for a rest. He flopped into the grass at my feet with a satisfied grunt, and then began rolling on his back, feet flailing in the air. Watching him, I thought of all the places we had been to together – and all the places we would never go. Like the vines we had just toured, I knew that even the heartiest of us would one day wither, dry, and turn to dust.

My dog stopped moving, to stare up at me, upside down, his tongue lolling lopsided from his mouth. ‘Why so sad? It’s a beautiful day.’ I could not help but smile, comforted by the knowledge that he had no idea how fast his fate was hurtling towards him. All he knew was that moment in time. Just him and his person, the same person he had painstakingly taught to laugh more and yell less, enjoying a fun outing together on Long Island’s East End.