THE SPIRIT IS still strong and willing, but the flesh is getting a little weak. Normally, I might be saying that about myself, but after a Sunday afternoon 2-mile walk with my dogs, I’m sad to say it’s beginning to be a little evident that I have to say it about 11-year-old Molly, our faithful golden retriever.

She has loved to go on long walks, runs and hikes ever since she came into our home at the age of 3; at that time as a gift from friends who were moving to Florida. She still loves to go, but it’s starting to look like a mile is about as far as I should let her go.

Sunday afternoon, she and I, along with the yellow idiot — I used to get yelled at a lot for calling our male golden “the golden idiot” — went for a 2-mile walk on a mostly flat back road that is plowed, but seldom used by motor vehicles in the winter.

It has long been a favorite winter trail for me and the dogs; a time when most of our favorite back roads are unplowed and tough to traverse when the snow gets deep.

As we walked Sunday, I noticed about a mile in that Molly was humping along with a little hitch in her giddy-up. Actually, the hitch has shown up here and there since last summer, when our hikes would take us along old dirt roads, two-rut goat paths and simply overland through the woods.

Just as it came to be when I had to retire Timber, a springer spaniel, from hunting at the age of 12 when he went stone deaf and half-blind; and just as it was when our beloved golden idiot, Snuffy, a rock star in the store where I worked for his last several years, similarly went deaf and half-blind, I’ve had to watch Molly start slowing down.

Overall, the vet said her health is still excellent and I’m crossing my fingers I get 14 years of having her as a companion on our walks; just as I got 14 from Timber and Snuffy.

She may be slowing down, but that doesn’t keep her from bouncing around like a hyper 4-year-old in a store’s toy department whenever I say ride, get in truck or walk within earshot of her.

She still has to sniff a million scents that apparently are absolutely fascinating to her all along our walks and she still thinks she can run with 3-year-old Gordie, even though that thought only lasts until he’s run out about 200 yards past her without even going full blast.

She is content to sniff whatever needs sniffing and to take quick notice of a ruffed grouse, red squirrel or any other living wild critter that crosses our path on any given walk.

More than any dog I’ve ever had, she lives and loves to roll in the snow; not to mention in anything dead, decaying or rotting that she comes across during our hikes through the woods during warmer months. In that respect, she has never, ever been a lady.

My wife and I have been very lucky in our lifetimes to have had every one of our dogs remain healthy, happy and eager to run the woods at every chance well into double figure ages.

Timber was far and away the best hunter of the bunch. Back when I hunted ruffed grouse on a regular basis, he allowed me to come home with a bird or two more times than I can remember by tracking down birds that I either knew were just winged or many times, thought I had missed altogether.

Surprisingly, his real strength was retrieving ducks. His breed is more noted for upland hunting and with the best nose of any dog I’ve ever owned, he was exceptional at finding grouse and woodcock. Retrieving ducks is supposed to be a secondary skill for springers, but with Timber it was primary. The funny — as in odd — thing was he would not retrieve a grouse or woodcock. He wouldn’t even hold them in a pose for a picture. He’d run down a winged grouse and kill it, then come back to me and lead me to it without hesitation. He did it many times, but doggone if he would retrieve a bird.

Snuffy, along with having the greatest personality of any dog I’ve ever seen, mine or anyone else’s, lived to run. When we hiked, he would run like there was no tomorrow. On dirt back roads, if I was feeling lazy, I would let him out of the truck and let him do all the running.

Long-legged and lean, in his prime he would run 2 miles without slowing a step. Let a deer run across the road practically in front of his nose, so what? The deer might get a quick sideways glance, but that was all the attention it got. Same thing if he flushed a roadside grouse on one of those runs.

During hunting season though, he would not retrieve a duck to save his life. He would hunt close rather than run ahead like a greyhound and he would get as excited as any other bird dog if he flushed a grouse. Again, though, he would find a downed bird, but not retrieve it. On the other hand, he was a ham. Give him a duck, goose or grouse and he would hold it in his mouth in a rock-solid pose for an hour, as long as you were clicking a camera.

Molly has been our little lady except when it comes to rolling in nasty stuff. She’s been our charmer; never ready to quit at a mere half-hour of being petted. She likes to bird hunt and once in a while, in her prime, would reluctantly retrieve a duck.

Her strength has been being a queen in a household in which the other occupants are mere subjects. She has been the most laid-back dog, most of the time, of any I’ve had. She has been a wonderful addition to our family and even though she is starting to slow down, I’m looking forward to a few more good years with her.

She, like our other dogs, has been and continues to be a gift in every way possible for my wife and me.