The alarm clock sounds – it’s 3:30 AM.  Like most mornings before a hunt, I start the coffee maker and collect my gear for the day before heading out to the kennels to get the dogs.  But this morning is a little different.  As I let the dogs out to stretch and relieve themselves, I come to Lydia’s kennel with a bark collar in hand.  Like usual she is wagging her tail and excited to greet me, though she doesn’t yet know that she won’t be accompanying us on this particular hunt.  I place the bark collar around her neck, knowing that the neighbors won’t appreciate her mournful bays as I drive away.  Lydia is a fourteen year old bluetick coonhound, darkly mottled with subtle tan highlights and a deep, drawn out bawl that I’ve come to know and love – not just for it’s intrinsically beautiful sound but also as confirmation that we’re not running a hooved animal.  She’s become my trusted check dog, letting me know if my younger hounds are being honest or not.  But today she’s staying home.

            Earlier in the week, Lydia had experienced a sudden onset of what I can only describe as a temporary paralysis of rear legs.  The loss of control of her back legs would come and go, and despite looking rather bewildered, she didn’t seem to be in any pain.  After a trip to the veterinary urgent care clinic, the x-rays and examination yielded a working diagnosis of compressed discs and arthritis in the thoracic-lumbar region of her spine.  While this diagnosis seemed more benign than some of the more distressing things I had imagined while in the waiting room, the outcome was the same – Lydia would not be hunting for a while.   As I drove off that morning, she let out a long sorrowful bawl as I had anticipated.  There was not a second bawl to follow as the bark collar had discouraged it, but I knew that she’d watch us from the kennel until my headlights disappeared at the highway.

            This wasn’t my first time leaving a hound behind for medical reasons, but it was the first time I had to leave a dog for a condition that may be irrevocable and ultimately, unavoidable.  It is a condition that comes from many years and several trails – and is often accompanied by greying muzzles and hazy eyes – old age.  While I drove, I pondered what was next for Lydia.  Would I try and hunt her a few more times, or would she be relegated to living the rest of her life as a house dog – a luxury she’d more than earned at this point?  What would be best for her?  What would be best for me?  Was there a difference between the two?

            As the miles ran on I watched the empty road ahead of me in the headlights.  My thoughts wandered back to the week prior when we had been hunting bears and had a hard rig while driving through a low-lying canyon laced with pinion and juniper trees.  The dogs erupted from the box and after a few minutes we had located the track of a good bear heading to the north.  I put Lydia on the ground and she quickly found and struck the track, lining it out with the rest of the pack in a hurry.  In the moments that followed I sat on the dog box in the back of my truck and listened to the race.  I could hear the distinct voices of several of our dogs, and of course, that deep, drawn out bawl that could only be made by Lydia, would echo out from the back of the pack.  I climbed off the box and retrieved the GPS to confirm what I already knew – Lydia was at the back of the race and falling further behind.  I remember wondering then how many more bear races she had in her. 

            By the time we got to the tree, all of the dogs had long since arrived, including Lydia.  By the looks of things you would have never even known that she had taken as long as she did to get there.  She had her head to the sky, baying at the treed bear with her tail wagging furiously behind her.  She looked like a million bucks at the tree, disguising the many years she had on her.   By the time we had the bear skinned and quartered and back to the truck however, she quickly curled up in the box and went to sleep.  Despite being a relatively short race, she was tired. 

            For any of us who keep dogs long enough, eventually we’ll be faced with these kinds of decisions.  Sometimes we get lucky and our hounds will hunt right up until their final day, and other times the onset of old age suddenly brings with it the certainty that retirement is the only reasonable option.  And then there’s those dogs like Lydia who will fall somewhere in between, where the most reasonable option isn’t nearly so black and white.  A reasonable person could make a strong argument that she should keep hunting unless and until her symptoms reappear or worsen, and an equally reasonable person could argue that she should be retired now in the abundance of caution.  I know this because I’ve argued both positions in my own mind over the last couple days.   

            While these decisions appear on the surface level to be solely about the dog, the reality is that we end up making these decisions largely for ourselves.  I’ve already resolved myself to not allow my hounds to endure undue suffering under any circumstances, but the subtle debate over when to retire a dog, especially a dog that may yet have years of life left, is an intensely personal decision without clear answers.           The decision is made even more difficult in knowing that retirement means taking away the very thing that a hound lives for and loves – the hunt.  Lydia has certainly earned an easy life in retirement, to become a full time inside dog and spend lazy hours asleep in the living room.  And yet I can’t shake the undeniable truth that she has equally earned the right to continue doing what she was born to do – that she has earned the right to be the last dog to the tree until the day her body fails to carry her there.