Today I was driving over the mountain, enjoying the crystalline brilliance of the day and the jostling of three dogs in the back seat of the X-Box as I slowed for hairpin curves. With only two windows at their behest, the mutts were taking turns sticking heads out to grok the complex smells carried on the passing air currents. Between lush emerald grass, herds of cattle and horses and the occasional pig, goat or sheep, it had to be a field of dreams for sensitive canine snouts. Finally the Lab plunked himself on the floor with a groan and a sigh, letting the girls option a window each, balloon their cheeks with wind, flap their ears inside-out. It was, no doubt he reasoned, a bit overrated. Shoving his muzzle in between the two front seats as he’s done since puppyhood, he was more content with me massaging his massive neck’s folds of flesh.
Dogs have been companions throughout my life. But it is only now that I begin to glimpse the breadth and depth of their friendship. Growing up a black sheep in the whitest disguise imaginable – Caucasian, female and fundamentalist – I yearned for freedom in a way only the imprisoned might comprehend. Like a dog with a shock collar, I could roam, but conditioning ran a current through my being, preventing me from straying too far afield of a prescribed reality. I appeared free only to those observing from the outside. Overly responsible from an early age, I craved autonomy and found it in journals, in libraries, even in the smell of new textbooks. Words were my key to liberation. Dogs were the key to living without words.
Humans learn far more through observation than from language, and if we observe dogs, here’s what will rub off on us eventually: positivity, unbridled enthusiasm, a carefree attitude, non-judgment, persistence, living in the moment. Unconditional love and loyalty get their own mention, for if there exists a more desirable trait to a friend, I’ve yet to discover it. They are likewise completely trustworthy and will forever hold secrets. Some say they like it best that dogs don’t talk back, but honestly, ours do. I speak to animals in pictures along with words, and our dogs have been keen to pick up on this sort of interspecies communication. Their joy or displeasure is registered first in bright, dancing eyes. And then there are the growly, whiny noises they make in attempt to respond vocally, especially if they dearly desire something and the eye thing doesn’t seem to attract the attention they would wish in the turnaround time they have come to expect.
My first dog arrived on the scene when I was about ten. I remember picking her out from a wriggling litter – she was uniquely solid brown with long black guardhairs, looking much like a canine version of the porcupine. Animal people themselves, my parents must have figured I was ready to care for her. She suffered, though not unduly, from both my youth as well as my ignorance. Little was provided in the way of guidance save for food and a leash, so I didn’t know, for example, that cutting less toenail would cause less pain and bleeding. A gentle soul, this creature likely taught me more than I remember.
Subsequent dogs arrived, one at a time. There was the Beagle who wouldn’t stop running away who ended up at an old folk’s home; a German Shepherd brought through marriage and divorce into life in the woods on a run line. She too pulled free while I abandoned her to go to work. Then there was the little black Lab puppy who I left in a big house with four male roommates while I made my living – she was passed on to a loving home elsewhere. Finally there was the Boxer my daughters grew up with, but not before a Humane Society Dalmatian rescue pup summarily bit my small daughter on the face and had to be returned.
I am not proud of these stories; rather I mention them because they typify many situations in which pets and humans find themselves. Puppies are loved and adored, but like all babies, they require focus, attention, training. Often the well intentioned are simply swept away in the moment, not thinking of the future with a grown dog.
Our next family pet was a small Pitbull mix we rescued in Hawaii. He lived into old age and enjoyed many adventures from west coast to east. His companion for a time was a grey wolf rescued in New Mexico that we raised on bottled formula from two weeks on up. He died at age six from a thyroid condition, diagnosed post mortem. By then the kids were grown and, after the grief at losing them from daily life, we began to savor our freedom. It was a short run however, for the house seemed far too quiet without the tap-tapping of toenails early in the morning. When my youngest begged for a puppy (no matter she was in college and could not house it in a dorm), our hearts softened and we found another Lab, this time a chocolate. He was the biggest and the most seemingly mellow of a litter of thirteen, raised in a cellar and never having set foot out of doors. Three months later we had a party animal on our hands, full of vigor and energy – and today, at nine years of age, he hasn’t slowed down much.
In our big boy’s lifetime, none of us expected to gather another creature into too-full lives, but fate had other plans. One day upon visiting the local feed store, I spied a little puppy with a neon bandage on her front leg. She’d been in an unfavorable situation, and the gal who owned her wanted to find the pup a better home, as she herself was not able to leave. And thus a little girl hound dog ingratiated herself into our household, and most certainly into our hearts. She turned four this year, and has been a Lab’s very best friend.
Then there’s the story of Lucy the foundling dog, posted elsewhere on this blog. I’ve always said I can’t save the world, but I can confront what is in my path. Hit by a car and left by the side of the road to languish with a broken back, I found this little creature while riding my bike. She has now undergone a complete recovery – and runs and plays with the big dogs as if they’ve always been friends. She’s still a bit light on her feet, but grows stronger every day. We never expected to embrace a pack of dogs, but there you have it. Life grants us gifts on its own timeline. Oh, and add patience to the far-above list. I’m not sure dogs demonstrate this trait; rather we are, in their midst, encouraged to cultivate it. For the love of dogs.