Respecting Limitations and Letting Go

One of my dreams for retirement was to adopt a dog and train it as a therapy dog. I had owned several cats over my 63 years but never a dog, and I wanted one badly, almost like some women long to have children. I had admired service dogs for many years—their calm, competent demeanor and the trust between them and the people they serve. But I knew I didn’t have the patience or skill to train service dogs. Still, I imagined I could meet the training standards for a therapy dog—well-behaved in public, gentle, reliable, and willing to allow himself to be petted to comfort others. 

So, shortly after retirement, I adopted Digby. I had not planned on getting a puppy, but he was so darn cute I couldn’t resist him. When I met him for the first time, he had just had surgery to repair a broken leg, and he lay on the couch beside me, a huge cone circling his head, licking my hand like crazy, trying to make friends and quell his anxiety. He weighed about ten pounds and was white and apricot, a mix of Pomeranian and Papillon. I thought he would make a perfect therapy dog. His cuteness alone would bring joy to those he visited, and he was small enough to lift onto beds and into laps.

And so, the training journey began. Digby was six months old; still an exuberant, sometimes crazed puppy, and I was sixty-three, inexperienced, with limited energy and patience. The mixture was not quite a recipe for disaster but certainly portended frustration and exasperation for both of us. I could not control his barking, chewing, cat chasing, and peeing indoors for a long time. Likewise, he could not figure out how to please me.

Once we started training classes, I quickly learned I needed training as much as he did. Consistency was my biggest problem. I could not remember to act or react using the same commands in the same order (click, praise, and reward) each time I taught a new behavior. But I persisted, for almost three years, class after class—beginners’ obedience, intermediate, tricks, agility, nose works, advanced obedience, and Canine Good Citizen, repeating some of these classes multiple times. Eventually, he stopped chewing everything in sight and peeing indoors and could walk calmly next to my left knee, which I called “walking nicely.” However, he’s never stopped barking or cat chasing.

Finally, Digby and I made it to the moment of truth, evaluation by a representative of a therapy dog licensing organization in a real live therapy context—a senior healthcare facility. We were both nervous and needed correction and pointers from the evaluator, but after three trials, we were certified. He got his little red heart therapy dog tag, and I got a certificate I could show to volunteer coordinators in settings where we would visit to offer comfort and entertainment. Along the way, I learned that Digby was a performer and a ham. He loved doing tricks to entertain an audience, but he was less comfortable being trotted around from one person to another for pets and cuddles. He loved children and was great at Read to Dog programs in local libraries and schools, but he was terrified of being surrounded by a group of college students seeking the calming presence of a dog during exam week. He was more freaked out than they were. Digby had his limitations, and I had to tailor our volunteer commitments to those.

After discovering his strengths and weaknesses, I focused our therapy work on tricks shows. We offered them to seniors in various healthcare facilities and children at a local library. He loved the mental stimulation, the applause, and the treats he got as rewards. His audiences loved him! “What an amazing little dog!” they clapped and shouted. To keep him stimulated, I taught him more and more tricks, up to 35 or so, and built him an indoor agility course, including a hoop to jump through, a tunnel, a teeter-totter, a ramp for climbing, and poles to weave around. He danced, shook hands, rolled over, crawled, spun, played soccer by rolling a ball through goalposts, and dazzled in many more ways. 

Watch Digby training to roll a ball through goalposts.

Performing together created a special bond between us. I was so proud of the little guy when he turned on a dime and did precisely what I asked, trick after trick, for over half an hour. He looked to me for guidance during the performances in ways he didn’t in other situations. We depended on each other. I loved seeing him succeed and bring joy to the audience; he loved my excitement and praise.

But he got older, and so did I.  After nearly four years of performing, Digby’s formerly broken leg began to show some weakness. He barked more during shows (sometimes frightening the children), tired more quickly, and became impatient during some of the tricks. On the other hand, I found it harder to load the heavy agility equipment in and out of the car and set it up in various venues. And it was hard for me to keep up with Digby as he ran around the agility course. I’d often be nervous about his behavior and enormously relieved when he performed well. We’d come home after a show and take a long nap together, both stressed and tired.

It seemed like Digby’s run as a therapy dog performer had been a short one, barely four years, but I decided we needed to retire, for both our sakes. It was a hard decision. I had invested much time, money, and effort in training. But it wasn’t just that; I would also miss the interdependence we had developed as we trained and performed together and the intimacy it brought to our relationship. And he would miss the mental and physical challenges of doing tricks and the admiration of his audiences. I wondered how I would keep him stimulated and exercised, especially during the long, cold Maine winters. When they heard of our retirement, the volunteer coordinators we worked with were disappointed but said they understood.

I tell this rather long story as an illustration of how many of us feel as we age and bump up against increasing limitations—our inability, for one reason or another, to continue doing the things we love or keep longstanding commitments. Sometimes it feels like failure to admit I no longer have the energy, skill, or interest I once had for certain activities. I hate letting others down, and I may experience a sense of diminishment as the circumference of my life shrinks.

I have three choices. I can try to push myself beyond my limits, whine about my losses, or accept and respect my limitations. Like all living things, I am of a nature to grow old, lose my freshness and vigor, decline into poor health, and eventually die. I try to mitigate these inevitable changes as long as I can—exercising to stay healthy and strong, eating well, and staying involved in work or leisure that stimulates my mind and keeps me connected to others. But do I know how to let go gracefully, when the time is right, of things I can no longer do safely or happily? I built my ego around the things I have accomplished, and when those accomplishments fade, who am I? Do I have anything to contribute? Do I matter to those I love or to the world around me? Respecting my limitations and letting go of what no longer serves me is an opportunity to turn inward and get to know who I am at my core—the I who will survive, transcend, and continue beyond the increasing outward limitations and diminishments.

Digby, reputed to be a fantastic trickster, will soon blend into the growing pack of aging dogs taking shorter and shorter walks around our retirement community. And, though it may not happen quickly, I will one day acquire a walking stick to keep me from tottering as he “walks nicely” beside me.  

Accepting and respecting my limitations is an opportunity to learn graceful letting go and practice it daily as I approach the biggest “let go” of all. As Pema Chodron’s recent book says, How We Live Is How We Die.