Martha didn’t want to eat breakfast.

Our lab-pit bull mix, almost 14 years old, had always enthusiastically chowed down her meals. She usually jumped up on her hind legs as my husband, Paul, put down her food bowl. On this particular morning in July, though, she hesitated. She hemmed and hawed. Finally, she ate.

Since Martha’s behavior was otherwise normal, and she wanted her usual snacks, we didn’t worry. There are also four cats in the household, three of them elderly, two with advanced kidney and thyroid disease. We describe ourselves as running a “kitty hospice and senior dog day care center.” On any given day, somebody is off their feed.

Martha ate her lunch and supper with her usual gusto. But she remained slow about breakfast the next day. We chalked it up to old age.

We soon went on vacation, to our usual rental on the coast. Martha outright refused breakfast on our first full day there. Though she’s been going to the cottage since she was 8 months old, I’d noticed that it had been harder for her to transition the last couple of years. The same thing had happened with her late brother, Aquinnah, in his final years. When dogs’ senses dim they start to want security and familiar surroundings.

I stood in the kitchen with Martha and thought. I was convinced that a stress-free vacation was probably not in the cards for me. There were the fragile cats, the elderly dog — heck, Paul and I were older than 65 ourselves. Anything could go wrong.

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So I did the only thing I could think to encourage Martha to eat her breakfast. I put a dab of canned food on her kibble.

Now, I knew this was the highway to hell. Normally, Martha only gets wet food in her Kong (a hollow rubber toy) as a treat after breakfast and dinner. Martha is a dog that likes habit and routine. Once she had a dibby dab of canned food on her dry food, she would always have to have a dibby dab on her dry food. Morning, noon and night. For the rest of her life.

Martha ate her breakfast. My vacation was saved.

The dibby dab technique worked for several weeks, although Martha was definitely not as excited about breakfast as she once had been. Her behavior at the other meals was entirely normal. We cut back on her breakfast rations, and that encouraged her to clean her plate. It seemed like a stopgap solution, but it was the best we could do.

At this point, I had other things on my mind. I was scheduled for a second full knee replacement at the beginning of August. My right knee had undergone the surgery in March, and I was anxious to have my stiff and painful left knee taken care of as soon as possible.

But there was a delay, and I couldn’t have the procedure until the middle of the month. When it was finally completed, I was homebound for two weeks and taking pain medication. I was sleeping late, which for me was 7:30 a.m.

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This intensive recovery period did give me time to read and to think. I revisited one of my favorite books, “The Tao of Inner Peace,” by Diane Dreher. The author takes lessons from the ancient book of wisdom, the “Tao Te Ching” and applies them to modern life. When faced with “hostile cycles,” for example, it is helpful to observe from afar, and discern the patterns of the disruption.

What was going on with Martha? Hmm. Martha’s life had been disrupted, and that was probably the root of her breakfast issues. Not only had I had surgery, I’d retired from my day job at the end of June. Though Paul kept taking her out and feeding her first thing in the morning, my schedule had changed. I was sleeping later since I retired — and after the surgery, I had really changed things up.

Just as I was mulling this over, Paul came by and said: “Maybe she’s tired in the morning. She sleeps more deeply now.” I agreed.

Paul has risen at 4 a.m. for years and taken the dogs out. The cats, then the dogs, ate after that. I’d be up by 5 a.m. back then, because I had to be at work at 7. But there was no reason now to get a 13-year-old dog up at 4 a.m. And I needed to get back on a schedule.

We devised a plan. Paul would get up at his usual time and feed the cats. But he wouldn’t take Martha out until 5 a.m. Then, we’d give her a break, and I would get up and feed her at 5:30.

From day one, it worked. Within a couple of weeks, she was back to her usual half cup of dry food at breakfast. Of course, it must now be topped with a dibby dab, but I knew that going in.

I, meanwhile, recognize the irony that I am showered and dressed every day by 6:45 a.m., as I would be if I were still working.

But, believe me, that’s a tiny price to pay for a little peace and harmony at the kitty hospice and senior dog day care center.

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]


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