the autumn years

The Autumn Years with Emily and Barney

Written by Steph McCulloch


Experiencing the senior years of a dog's life is a privilege not all are afforded. In this candid interview, we chat with Emily (and her 13-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Barney) about the ups and downs of dog ownership and how watching your dog slow down can be a gift in itself.
a woman looking over her shoulder at her spaniel dog


Emily is 24 and a clinical psychologist. She enjoys open-water swimming, yoga and really good coffee. Her dog, Barney, a King Charles Spaniel, loves nothing more than napping, snuggling on the couch and the occasional run on the beach.

Emily and Barney have been inseparable since he became part of the family in 2010. Fast forward 13 years, Barney is now living out the senior years of life in a cottage in North Wales, with Emily right by his side.

At Waggel, we celebrate pets in every stage of their life from puppies and seniors to everything in between. We sat down with Emily to talk about her relationship with Barney and the gift that is seeing a dog into their older years.

Q: Firstly, I need to ask, where did the name Barney come from and why did you decide on a King Charles Spaniel?

A: So it was originally my dad who really wanted a dog and this was way back in 2010. My mum, however, was completely against it. It wasn’t until she met up with a friend (with her new puppy in tow) that she was finally swayed. I think it was more of a right place, right time situation. We weren’t set out on getting a King Charles Spaniel specifically, but when my mum’s friend’s dog fell asleep on her knee, that was the moment she knew she was ready to get a dog and knew exactly what breed she wanted.

I was 11 at the time and spent many hours searching through popular names for dogs. I used to watch Barney the Dinosaur as a kid so I think there was some sort of subconscious selection there. On reflection, I think if I was to name him now I wouldn’t necessarily go for the name Barney. My boyfriend is an avid Tolkien fan and thinks Bilbo would have suited him well too - I agree, he’s got a Bilbo-ness to him for sure.

an elderly king charles spaniel sitting on the pavement

Q: Can you explain the concept of the autumn years and what it refers to?

A: The phrase ‘autumn years’ is kind of a metaphorical take on the senior years of a dog’s life. It breaks down the stages of their life into seasons, so for example, in spring they’re puppies and run around with so much energy. They’re exploring new places and coming into bloom, so to speak.

In summer, they start to settle into a routine and become familiar with their lifestyle, friends and family. Things are bright and warm, they slow down a bit and become more mature.

And then comes autumn and winter. In the autumn stage, they’re starting to age. Things are a bit unpredictable. Some days are like summer when the inner puppy comes out, and some days are a bit rainy and remind us that he’s getting older and facing winter.

Whilst the high-energy days of spring might have passed, what takes its place is ultimately a more grounded dog and a relationship built on trust, love, and understanding. Whilst we might be moving towards the days of winter, there’s still lots of autumn sunshine left.

a woman sat on a bench holding her dog

Q: How did Barney end up moving in with you later on?

A: So, when my dad passed away Barney’s routine changed quite drastically. My mum was away all day working and myself and my sister were in school and college meaning he was left home alone more frequently. He went from going to work with my dad every day to waiting for us to come home.

We then decided it was best if he went to live with my dad’s brother and his wife until I finished university and could take care of him full-time. They worked from home and had two other dogs, so no matter what, Barney always had company.

After uni, I moved into my own place with a garden and brought him back home with me which made both of us incredibly happy. My partner now works from home full-time so there’s still always someone around to give him snuggles whenever he wants them.

a woman crouching down and petting her dog

Q: How would you describe your relationship with Barney?

A: To be totally honest, slightly co-dependent. I think I get as much separation anxiety away from him as he does from me. We’re kindred spirits. He’s my shadow and I’m his. He follows me everywhere and we’re never really apart. We’re two peas in the same pod.

I also think we have very similar likes and dislikes. We both love a nap in the garden, a walk on the beach and sitting by the fire. We’re both quite avid swimmers, contrary to beliefs about King Charles Spaniels - he’s a water baby.

a woman laughing and holding her king charles spaniel

Q: What do you think your and Barney’s song is?

A: I think it’d have to be Close To You by the Carpenters. It makes me think of us as a pair. It perfectly sums up how I feel about him and how much I love spending time with him. I always stick it on in the car on our way to the beach, it’s our main character movie moment.

Q: How would you describe the experience of living with a senior dog?

A: Caring for a senior dog is somewhat of a challenge and a blessing at once. There’s both a visible change of pace and yet an appreciation of them slowing down. Things have to be more thought out and you need to be more patient with them. As they slow down physically, you have to adjust things - shorter walks, special diets, and helping them with stairs or getting up onto the couch. But it’s all worth it for those sparkling moments when their younger spirit shines through - Barney getting the zoomies when I get home, bounding downstairs when he hears treats, or chasing tennis balls like it’s his retirement hobby!

Though more care is required, the special bond deepens. Extra time and love lead to brightness in their older years. Simple things like belly rubs and beach romps can mean the world. Supporting a senior dog takes some effort but pays back tenfold in unwavering loyalty and unconditional love.

a close up of a king charles spaniel wearing a red harness

Q: Facing potential health issues is an inevitable part of caring for a senior dog. How have you managed this?

A: Barney has had his fair share of health-related issues. He’s had multiple moments in his old age where we thought it might be the end and we’ve had to prepare to make a decision but each time he’s come back fighting. We’ve had to change his diet and carefully monitor his weight because he was diagnosed with pancreatitis and more recently, liver disease.

Though Barney needs daily meds and vet visits are more frequent now, his cheerful spirit stays strong. More care is required, but it helps us cherish each day without taking them for granted. His motivation around food and exercise fluctuates at times with his conditions, yet seeing Barney enjoy life's simple pleasures remains an absolute joy.

I try to spoil him a bit more - a treat here, a snuggle in bed there. Supporting senior dogs can be very emotional, but the love outpours exponentially. At the end of the day, the goal stays the same - to keep him comfortable and happy. Come what may, we'll stay loyal and live each moment to the fullest together. Barney deserves it - and so much more - for lighting up our lives all these years. Loving a senior dog poses challenges but we’ve built an unbreakable bond.

a woman holding her spaniel and smiling

Q: What does a day in the life of Emily and Barney look like?

A: So because he’s deaf and can’t hear me from upstairs, I have to go downstairs and give him a little stroke to wake him up which is always warmly appreciated with a huge stretch. He then goes for his morning wees in the garden. Then he sprints through to the kitchen in anticipation of breakfast which usually consists of fresh chicken and biscuits with supplements and antibiotics. We tend to take our tablets at the same time.

Then I’ll make my breakfast and sit on the sofa with him before carrying him upstairs with me whilst I get ready. He climbs into my bed and under the covers to stay toasty and warm. We’ll then grab a coffee (me, not him) and go for a walk on the beach. We’ll come home and warm up by the fire. Somewhere in between we'll have a little play with his panda (his ultimate favourite toy). He then tends to sleep for the rest of the afternoon before we head out for another walk. If he doesn’t nap much he tends to follow me around everywhere.

On our walks, he likes chasing squirrels and birds (though he’s never been successful in catching any). Whilst he’s usually more of a people person than a dog person, he’s now got some older dog friends - it’s like he can sniff out fellow seniors. It’s also really lovely to be able to talk to other owners and share experiences whilst we gush over our dogs.

a woman standing in the street holding up her king charles spaniel

Q: Why do you think it’s important to celebrate the autumn phase of a dog’s life?

A: I think we can learn a lot from dogs in their autumn phase. I think they teach us that it's okay to get old and that we inevitably all do get old. When we need to, we should rest, sleep and slow down. They also remind us that we can find enjoyment in the little things like our favourite person coming home, a daily treat or a burst of well-needed energy. Those little moments of pure enjoyment are what make it worthwhile.

It’s a privilege to look after and care for a dog in their autumn phase of life. You’re the person they trust the most, the person they want to be with the most and the person they depend on the most wrapped up in one. I feel honoured to be able to give that to Barney.

a spaniel stood next to a plant

Q: What advice would you give to someone whose dog is entering their senior years?

A: Be kind to yourself. Accept that worry, sadness and anticipation of life when your pet isn’t here is part of it. With that comes all the practical burdens of regular vet trips, the cost of medication, insurance claims, and new routines you need to adapt to which can be challenging compared to when they were more able and younger.

I also think accepting things are going to change is a big part of caring for a senior dog. Barney is now deaf and blind so we don’t feel comfortable leaving him home alone. This ultimately means we have to be more flexible with our plans so he’s safe and comfortable at all times.

My other piece of advice is to take lots of photos. Remember them in all of their glory and not just the puppy moments. Capture the senior years too - including the moments when they’re content or doing what they love.

I’d also like to say that it’s okay to put on a song that reminds you of your dog and cry about it! Grieving for them whilst they’re still alive is a big part of senior dog ownership. Simultaneously grieving for the fact that they might not be with you for long but grieving at what they used to be is a complex thing. However, with that, you still have those moments of pure silliness and happiness when their personality shines, although it makes me sad when I think that for him to get up and wag his tail requires more effort and energy - that's when it feels more special. The cuddles are even more cuddly and the love is even more loving.

Owning a senior dog is also about making choices. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell what’s good or bad, right or wrong. You have to trust yourself and ensure you’re seeking professional help that is always in their best interest. It breaks my heart thinking of a time when he isn’t going to be here but I try to remind myself every day of the joy and happiness we’ve shared over the past 13 years. No one can take that away from me and nothing in the world can come close to that feeling.

There may be tough decisions you have to make but you've loved them for so many years and you'll continue to do that after they’re gone.

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