I knew Zaga would be ours as soon as I saw him. Well, a picture of him.
It had been two years since my family lost our last dog, Rok, in 2012. Rok was a surprise from my mom and stepdad—we adopted him in when I was in fifth grade, and he made it all the way until the year I graduated college. He was a big guy, and, as a rottweiler, he could be intimidating, but he was a mischievous, playful sweetheart who loved everybody he met. We knew it would take time to process his death before we thought about getting another dog.
When we saw a pet rescue Facebook post featuring Zaga in early 2014, it felt like a sign. He looked noble and regal and full of love. And he was all of those things and more right up until we said goodbye to our sweet, gassy buddy at the end of March.
Zaga had quite a backstory. He lived in Queens, New York, with a human family and a cat for most of his life. When they moved out of the country, though, they left Zaga and the cat behind.
Their landlord took care of the pair for about a year, but eventually, it became too much. Both pets were surrendered to an animal shelter, and Zaga ended up at a local pet rescue. That’s how we found Zaga, a rottweiler between 5 and 8 years old who just needed a loving home to spend his golden years.
We like to think he knew he was with his people as soon as he walked into our house. That first day and night, he slept and slept, totally at peace.
That peace did not last long. Zaga had a lot of anxieties and seemed to be terrified of abandonment. He expelled a variety of bodily fluids every time we left the house the first few months he was with us. He jumped onto the kitchen counter and knocked a fresh tub of homemade soup onto the floor. He barked at neighbors and new visitors.
adopting a senior dog, You know what you’re getting into, but you still want as much time with your pup as possible.
But those were just growing pains. He spent a year almost totally alone after the only family he knew left him, and now he was living in a new house in a state with four strangers—there was a lot to adjust to!
Eventually, though, he grew less wary of new people (unless, of course, you are a veterinarian) and absolutely attached to us, especially my mom. He loved to be pet, and if you stopped for even a second, he would paw your hand right back over to his belly or his back or behind his ears.
It was impossible to say no to his big puppy-dog eyes. Petting him was always the first thing I did before and after leaving the house—there is no better de-stresser than hugging a dog, and Zaga loved the attention.
We never knew exactly how old Z was, but we had an idea once he started to grow a little gray “beard.” Like many large dog breeds, rottweilers are prone to hip dysplasia, joint issues and leg weakness as they age, and over the last couple of years, we started to notice those problems progress in Zaga. He needed to be helped up and down the stairs. We covered our kitchen floor with rugs because he slipped and slid around the tiles.
He had always been pretty lazy—he was never one to play fetch or sprint around the yard or go on long walks—but he became very noticeably sleepy and sluggish. Unless he was eating or outside, he was asleep. He constantly licked every surface he touched—the floor, his bed, himself—and we later found out that this was his way of dealing with internal pain we didn’t know he was feeling.
We knew we only had a limited number of years with Zaga. Nobody knew how old he actually was, but it was clear he wasn’t a puppy. Still, every time a new health problem cropped up (and there were many), we’d hope it wasn’t serious. We knew his time would come eventually, but we never felt like it was close.
I think all of those feelings come concurrent with adopting a senior dog. You know what you’re getting into, on one hand, but on the other hand, you still want as much time with your pup as possible. The gradual decline that welcomes dogs into old age seems to happen at lightspeed. You desperately want to ignore it or slow it down, but you know it can’t be done. All you can do is make it a little easier on them. I like to think we did that for Zaga.
The day Zaga died, I came home from work and fell asleep on the floor with him, scratching his head. He wasn’t exhibiting any strange symptoms, and there was no indication that this was our last day with him, but something told me to savor it. I played with his ears. The sound of his breathing almost lulled me into a trance. It was a perfectly peaceful 15 minutes, and I’ll always treasure it.
Later that night, my mom and stepdad took Zaga to the vet for what seemed like a few minor symptoms. But an x-ray showed a mass on his chest, and we knew it was time.
It’s a strange thing to have a dog one minute and not the next. It’s cliche, but the silence is deafening. Little noises and quirks that wove themselves into the fabric of our daily routines disappeared in a snap. I still expect to see him lying next to my mom in the morning or hanging out in his bed when I get home from work. We all do.
I feel a pang in my chest when I think about all of the ways our house has changed, but I’ve decided it’s a good thing to reminisce. Our time with Zaga was an experience, but all the stress and worry was worth the love he brought into our home. I hope he felt safe and loved in his twilight years. He changed our lives for the better. I hope he knew.
Samantha Sciarrotta is events editor of the Hamilton Post. She is a lifelong Hamilton resident.