Big Dogs Who Steal Your Heart…

September 13th, 2007 by Aileen

…and then break it.


Most “dog people” know or have heard of the fact that large dogs don’t live as long as small dogs. Each of the breeds has certain issues, and large dogs seem to have more of them than small dogs. If one could figure on being owned by their dog for a decade, it might seem like a fair lifetime (to a child, a teenager or a young adult at any rate). But people live a relatively long time, and if you do live long enough, decades don’t seem like such interminable lengths of time anymore. At some point in a dog-lover’s life, a nagging seed of doubt creeps in about whether the love is really worth the heartache.

My family has lost two standard poodles – who were entirely unrelated to each other – at the age of 9 from cancer. The usual range for these dogs is 10-13 years, though the bigger they are (and ours were in the ‘Imperial’ range), that shorter their life expectancy will be. Depending on the breed, many dogs in the size range of Golden Retriever, Boxer, or Standard Poodle live a mere 5-7 years.

Larger dogs also take longer to mature. For ours there was a full 18 month-2 year puppyhood. Not a bad figure in a 10-year span if you don’t mind spending all that time and energy in training and dealing with the regular issues of puppies (my least favorite is the “shredder-dog” stage, when they shred one of every single pair of shoes and boots you own).

Having another 8 years’ worth of loyal companionship, reliable manners and mature impressiveness can certainly be worth the trouble. But getting just 3 or 4 more years with that adult dog might not even seem worth the downhill struggle or the vet bills at the end, particularly in a dog that needs a lot of expensive upkeep throughout, such as the standard poodle.

Of the large breeds, the Irish Wolfhound is notoriously the shortest-lived with the longest puppy/teen stages (3 years). A healthy wolfhound lives only 6-8 years at best, is a dignified adult for a couple of years, then goes downhill from there with the breakdown of bones and joints, weakening hearts, or cancer. Cancer also seems to be a particular issue with Goldens, Boxers and Poodles. A six year old wolfhound is considered ‘elderly.’ In this size range, the longest lives (at maybe 11 years) are attributed to the Great Pyrenees, Neapolitan Mastiff, Cane Corso and Scottish Deerhound.

Contrast this with the typical life spans of smaller dogs in the mini or toy range. They don’t have the hip, bone and joint problems of heavier dogs, their hearts don’t have to work so hard (so don’t wear out so quickly), and they have proportionately fewer growth hormones surging through their system. Studies suggest growth hormones contribute to early death from diseases such as cancer.

Unfortunately, smaller dogs have more general health problems during their lifetimes, requiring more regular and irregular trips to the vet, medications, minor and major surgeries, etc. For many people the trade-off isn’t worth the hassle, judging quality of life to be at least as important as quantity of life.

Every time one of our beloved dogs dies – or we have to put them down due to suffering – my heart is seriously broken. I have vowed more than once to never again have a dog, never again to get attached, never again to fall in love, knowing I’ll lose in the end, and not being fond of heartache. Then, sure as you’re born, my life starts looking a lot like it’s got a huge dog-shaped hole right in the middle of it, and that hurts too.

So I break down when one of the kids or grandkids (or other dogs) brings home a stray and gives me those “can I keep him?” eyes; when I see another young poodle suffering at an animal shelter because his/her owner found out they’re expensive to keep and love to pull; or when a friend who neglected to spay the dog they inherited from a relative suddenly has a litter of pups to give away to a “good home.”

Thus we fluctuate at between 1 and 4 dogs pretty much all the time. My little girl-dogs- about mini size, though certifiable mixed-breed mutt rescues- are both getting on in years. One is nearly 11, the other approaching 10. Yet we can expect another few years with them if nothing untoward happens. The hole is poodle-shaped these days, and I feel myself growing weaker every day.

I’ve already started scanning the area newspapers’ rescue sections regularly – I refuse to pay $700 or more for a poodle puppy when these dogs show up at shelters so often. I figure if karma is any gage, a pood who needs us will find us soon. And when he or she does come along, I won’t hesitate to fall in love again, even knowing I’ll probably lose in the end.


How Long Will Your Dog Live?

Life Expectancy of Large Breed Dogs

Websites for Pet Loss and Grief

One Response to “Big Dogs Who Steal Your Heart…”

  1. Ed Watkins Says:

    Your writing has hit my Heart as my 6 year old Rott has been diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his right distal femur. He started limping back in August and we surmised that being so big he had tripped on something (which was also the vets opinion). Stayed with him for a couple of weeks , so back to the vet.
    The x-rays showed the cancer. University of Georgia Vet school confirmed and recommended amputation and chemo.

    Not my baby! I put him on a very aggresive holistic diet of my own creation and much study of his disease and bone cancer in general.
    I just took him for a walk before finding your site Approx 1 mile. NO LIMP! Up the rock steps to the porch and is lying at my feet.

    I am in the process of documenting this recipe so that I may share it with all Large breed dog lovers.

    Let me know if you would like a copy when I have it prepared.

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