Updated: Dec 24, 2021
An Introspective book review
Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality. Connor, Alison’s beloved Shepherd-Lab mix, passed away in February at 17½. I cannot overstate how profound that loss has been, for both of us. My own dog Sharkita recently turned 10, and even though she’s doing great overall, there’s something ominous about hitting those double digits.
So, it felt particularly meaningful when Evermore received an advance copy of The Forever Dog, the excellent new book by Dr. Karen Becker and Rodney Habib. I was over the moon that our little company was enough on the radar of two of the most influential figures in the canine wellness space (or at least their publicists) to be considered for this. I had intended to write a fairly standard (and more timely) review for our audience, but as soon as I began reading, I knew that I wouldn’t need to—the book would be a New York Times bestseller. A few weeks later, my prediction bore out. What I could not predict was how strong my emotional reaction would be.
The Forever Dog is a well-synthesized goldmine of research and advice to give your pup (and yourself) the best shot at a long, healthy life. Most of the information in the book is not new to me, but I’ve also been working in dog-land for 15 years. Even so, I found myself taking stock of the 10 years I have spent with Sharkita and assessing my stewardship of this magical creature—I suspect it’s a very different book for someone starting out their journey with a puppy. The first week of November was Shark’s “gotcha" week. I’ve already written about her adoption story and transformation from a goofy six-month-old puppy with Demodex to a stunningly beautiful dog. I wish it ended with "... and then Evermore and the fact that I am a model dog owner fixed everything, and she hasn’t had a single health or behavioral problem for the past 10 years.” Unfortunately, that is not the case.
As a former dog walker/trainer and co-owner of the absolute best gently cooked food for dogs, I should be the “perfect” pet parent. Nevertheless, I found myself meditating on the things that I have “done wrong” and wondering if I had just gone the extra mile, would they be different? Of course, I have no regrets about her food. ;)
Like any living being, Sharkita has her quirks and occasional ailments. Often her maladies line up with my own. While the bond we share with our dogs is miraculous, it can also have a dark side when it comes to stress and illness. A few examples: Her tiny velvet ears may be adorable, but they are prone to infection as soon as humidity and pollen come into play. We share seasonal allergies and when things get bad, we both take medication. Like most dog owners, I could be better on the dental front—especially since she’s had to retire from bones after she broke a tooth removing a cast-iron pan from the countertop one too many times and an x-ray revealed needle thin roots. I personally don’t want to think about how long I went without seeing a dentist while we struggled to get Evermore off the ground… or during the pandemic.
Three years ago Shark had cancer. It was a myxosarcoma, I called it the bump on her rump. It appeared at the same time that I developed epilepsy. The timing was uncanny. This is where I feel like maybe I truly failed my beautiful beast. Was my urban life, with all of its environmental toxins and stressors, to blame? Or perhaps it was the flea, tick, and heartworm preventive that my life in the Northeast and frequent country excursions necessitated? Maybe it was me and her sensitivity to the burdens of my stress. In the end, the tumor was surgically removed, and she was deemed cured. Despite it being in a very tricky spot on her glutes, Shark recovered extremely quickly, and we were going on runs again in no time.
After some more self-reflection and time to process the book and my feelings about it, here are my three biggest takeaways from The Forever Dog, and frankly, they are pretty great reminders about living life generally.
You Can Choose Freewill
I truly appreciate The Forever Dog’s emphasis on the roles of genetics and early puppyhood on long-term health. Genetics are not destiny, but they are tendency. While we may be dealt certain hands, it is up to us to do what we can to help stack the deck in our dogs’ favor. Your choices matter. Whenever I go down the rabbit hole of blaming myself for any of Shark’s issues, I imagine her in a different scenario, where she is eating highly processed food and not getting enough exercise, stimulation, or preventative vetting. I believe in those cases, she would have turned out to be a very different dog.
Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself
The authors also seem to be sensitive to the various ways in which people might respond to the information they provide. For those of us who are perfectionists or generally hard on ourselves, it’s a slippery slope towards obsession. We can get so caught up in being the perfect caretakers of our dogs (and selves) that we forget to truly enjoy the lives that we are trying to extend. On the whole, I take her well-being very seriously, so I’m not going to stress out when my mom indulges her with foods I would never let her near or the UPS driver slips her the occasional Milk Bone—after she performs her trick repertoire.
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Dr. Becker and Rodney Habib repeatedly emphasize the importance of incrementalism. Trying to change everything overnight is overwhelming and doomed to failure. No matter what the starting point is, moving forward with baby steps that one can maintain is a far better approach than doing everything right for a short period of time and burning out. While I’m not striving for perfection or immortality, I do want to do my best by Shark, and am already making some upgrades in Shark’s daily regimen. My personal Sharkita resolutions are really for both of us: I’ve resumed adding kefir to her food (I take a swig as well), started regularly including medicinal mushrooms (which I also take), and am reminding myself to get up from my desk for periodic play breaks (a joyful win for both of us).
Perhaps you were expecting a recap of specific health advice? For that, you’ll just have to read the book to find out ;)