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Old Dogs Can Teach Us New Tricks

Nancy LeVine's images of aging canines provide vital lessons for humans

By Donna Sapolin

Nancy LeVine crouches in front of a small frail dog sporting a veil of white fur around his snout and carefully aims her camera. She speaks to the animal in the sort of quiet, gentle tone some of us use when addressing babies. But this canine isn't young. He’s 15 and the latest subject in LeVine’s nine-year-long photographic project — “Senior Dogs Across America” — that has taken her to every region of the country, yielded hundreds of photos of wizened old dogs and garnered her hordes of human friends.   The images that this Seattle- and New York-based assignment photographer takes for her personal project are poignant, soulful views of elder pets and their surroundings. And they are windows into a heartening culture of caring and nurturing that harsh news headlines can all but overshadow. What We Can Learn

From Aging Dogs

Yet they capture an approach to aging that could well benefit our own — if only we’d let it.   By giving visual voice to the dogs’ movements and expressions, LeVine’s work points up critical distinctions between how animals and people age, something she noticed while watching Lulu and Maxie, her own Miniature Australian Shepherds, grow old. “They floored me in how they always continued to own the moment,” she says. "I became interested in shooting other senior dogs.”

(MORE: Elderly Animals: A Study in Frailty, Grace and Dignity)

LeVine’s pictures get us to see far beyond failing bodies. The milky eyes, curved backs and wobbly legs she captures express the companionship the dogs have provided and received as well as lingering passions that reveal their true focus: the life at hand — not the past or the future. These aged animals continue mustering exuberance until they simply can’t anymore. “There’s something so vivid about them. The shell has aged but the interior has not,” says LeVine.

How Dogs Age With Dignity

In her artist statement about the project, she writes: “I saw how the dog does it: how, without the human’s painful ability to project ahead and fear the inevitable, the dog simply wakes to each day as a new step in the journey. Though their steps might be more stiff and arduous, these dogs still moved through each day as themselves — themselves of that day and all the days before.”   A case in point: Kona, a droopy-eyed elderly dog spotted in a Seattle park who still goes after the tennis ball that’s long obsessed her — even after being introduced to another aged canine. LeVine posted a photo of both dogs about a week ago on the Facebook page dedicated to her “Senior Dogs” project. Though every aspect of her project is meticulously plotted and planned, she also allows for serendipitous sightings and shots which she shares with her followers.   The project images are available for purchase through the artist's site and a “Senior Dogs Across America” book is in progress. Here are some wonderful samples of the work:

(MORE: 10 Ways You Can Help Pets in Need)

The main objective of LeVine's project is to honor the aging dogs. But in so doing, she's discovered another “world of grace,” she says, “through the people caring for the most vulnerable dogs. Whether the senior dog was part of a family where the dog/person devotion knew no bounds or one of the elders being tended at an animal sanctuary, I saw something much deeper than our divisions, something important about where we live and the best way to die.”


LeVine’s insights about living, loving and aging in tandem with her vibrant artistry have recently led her to undertake a new photographic project, “Portraits in the Arts,” which explores the ongoing expression of a career in people of a certain age. “A lot of people focus on who they were; my interest here is in people who continue working actively with a sense of passion.”

6 Admirable Characteristics of Dogs

It occurred to me while immersing myself in LeVine’s stunning work with aging canines and people that it may be worth our while to consider these six key characteristics that all dogs possess — they might help us make the most of time’s passage.

1. They live now, without regard for what came before or what lies ahead.

2. They never stop expressing love and devotion.

3. They never cop out of doing what they love to do — eating, licking, nuzzling, running, jumping, playing — with a stick, ball, Frisbee or other toy.

4. They don’t use physical ailments as a way to get attention or get out of doing things. And remedies for them either work or they don’t; there’s no 'mind game' involved.

5. They do as much as they can for as long as they can.

6. They don’t fear death. Worries about "the end" or "decline" don't get in the way of living.

Donna Sapolin is the Founding Editor of Next Avenue. Follow Donna on Twitter @stylestorymedia. Read More
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