Learning to Fall

A brilliant pair of orioles is working on two blocks of suet in the mesquite tree. They swing gently in the wind, easily maintaining their balance while they enjoy the seed and rich sweetness of the meal. Corkie rests quietly beside me while I stroke his thick fur. His coat is a confusion of dense, white Corgi curls and longer, Golden wisps. It feels like freshly picked cotton, soft and loosely enmeshed, but not tangled.

Corkie is about 15 years old and is showing his age. When I started working with Corkie and his Cheyanne, I was called in to help his sister, who has a noticeable limp on a front limb and two weak knees. As is sometimes the case, my attention was redirected to Corkie when he began to lose his footing. At first, it was simple things. A missed step off the brick patio, a stumble on the road during a walk. Things that could easily be explained by his curious nature and desire to get anywhere quickly. Then it got worse and couldn’t be explained away. Nosedives on the kitchen floor. Sudden descents on the rug in the bedroom. He wasn’t slipping or tripping, his front left leg was giving out.

As his balance slipped, so did his spirits. He became more selective about which curiosities he would pursue. Was it worth it to get up? Add to that his gradual but now complete hearing loss and the result was a stationary Corgi/Golden mix—two breeds that are known for anything but stillness, even in advanced age.

After a trip to the vet and a series of vitamin and drug injections, Corkie’s spirits began to rise. He was curious again. His legs still failed, but he was motivated enough to get his feet dirty again. I have what I call The Dirty Feet Club. I love to see my senior dogs with dirty feet. It means they’re up and moving and experiencing their world. Clean feet are a sign of decline—of mobility and of will.

He still takes walks and he still falls. But he’s learned to turn and tuck his head, to meet the pavement with a glancing blow to his shoulder rather than a jarring direct hit to the nose or chin. I wouldn’t say he’s accepted his limitations. He’s learned to work with them, to avoid injury and still get where he needs to go.

Brooke, his mom, and I are learning to let him fall, too. It hurts to watch that leg buckle under him, the nerve signal stopping just short of delivering its stabilizing message. What we realize now is that this is his solution. He’s learned to fall. Our job is to stay out of the way. Our help only hurts, throwing him off balance and sending him crashing onto his delicate nose. It’s hard to accept falling because it feels like failing. If we listen to Corkie, he tells us that the real failure is not adapting to the current realities. We’re a work in progress, but like Cork, we’re going to keep trying.

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