Oh, the joys of paying attention! Recently I saw a decisive sign that my German shepherd Aktis is growing wiser as he grows older.
To put what I saw in context, you need to know that Aktis is a good natured, spirited, full-steam-ahead dog who would rather apologize later than ask first. (Actually, he’d rather not ever apologize; he prefers letting bygones be bygones.) Aktis would also rather leap first and look or ask questions later. Once he cut his shoulder running heedlessly through brambles. Five stitches. Another time, a bit of barbed wire caught him in the flank. More stitches. Once he injured his back chasing another dog across a sheet of ice.
He’s too cavalier, but he’s not stupid, which is why he’s managed to avoid any major harm to himself. Now nearly nine years old, it appears he’s finally “settling down,” which other shepherd owners have told me they do around 4 or 5. While it’s true that in many matters he had settled down by that age, until recently he’s remained heedless when it comes to taking risks with his own body.
But that’s changing. The first time I noticed it a wave of pleasure swept through me that surprised me with its intensity. I felt pleasure in observing his growing awareness and care of himself. Of course, there was also the pleasure of relief, for now I can worry a little less about him, since he’s worrying a little more about himself. But above all there was the pleasure in seeing Aktis take better care of himself. Who doesn’t like to see that those we love are caring for themselves? (Sadly, it’s not such a common sight.)
The decisive sign came a few weeks ago, down by the snowy creek. Usually he just leaps over or plows through creeks. On this day the snow was piled high on the banks, and there was no easy way across. I went first, crossing the creek in a couple large snowshoe-clad steps. I turned around and to my surprise Aktis not only hadn’t followed right on my heels, he was standing motionless 10 feet back from the far bank, regarding me intently. I watched as he surveyed the creek and considered his plan of action. I could see this was exactly what he was doing, and that’s when I felt the thrill of pleasure run through me, for I suddenly realized how rarely I saw Aktis being thoughtful about mere physical obstacles such as snowy frozen creeks. But there he was, deliberating: Should I go down, through, and up? Or should leap from one bank to the other?
After a long pause, I offered him an encouraging word, calm but upbeat, “Hey there, Aktis, let’s go—careful!” (“Careful” is a word I’ve been using in situations where I want him to exercise caution.) He backed up, paused again, and then ran to the edge and carefully but gracefully leapt over to my side. He didn’t stick the landing perfectly, but it was pretty damn good considering he was landing on a load of soft snow.
I called him to me and scratched him along his neck and flank as I praised him for keeping his wits about him and making a good job of it. It’s good to see him growing wise about such matters—before he’s dead.