Some animals are so good at touching the hidden places in our hearts that it’s as if God, Himself, put them there. Maybe He does. There is a love, not easily articulated, that finds its way into our lives through a special pet; a love that, while not greater than one person for another, rivals our own with its purity. People tend to hold something back, perhaps to protect self; perhaps because if they fully expressed the love they sometimes feel or encounter, it would leave them in a puddle on the floor. Deep feelings are inadequately expressed through words. People rarely do the careless, unselfconscious, in-your-face thing. Dogs, on the other hand. . . A dog’s love is open and effusive and immoveable. It’s irreplaceable, and it pricks our hearts with a lifelong tenderness and a lump in the throat. You might have that special encounter in your life or life’s past. Here is a snapshot of mine.
Our dog arrived on a July day to a house of four children and a dog-loving mom. My husband made the 60 mile trip to pick her from the litter. She, he said, was the prettiest of her brothers and sisters and a little shy; an unaggressive puppy for an unaggressive family. I’m probably the most competitive of the bunch, and I’m – attempting a second career as a writer (though maybe a few family members are just better at hiding that trait under cover of innocent faces and sweet conversation). Ah well. We all changed a bit through the years.
He put her in the new kennel behind his seat in the van. Before the trip was over, she was sitting on his lap. And that’s the way it was. She was smart and clean and lived life on her own terms as most of us do or should do. She found her way swiftly into our hearts, and as far as she was concerned, there was no better place to be than with her family.
She was our dog no more than we were her family and our house was her house. She had her own family jobs. She was a task master at doing battle with varmints in our yard. One summer in particular, a squirrel took some stuffing from a stuffed animal she had played with. She sat for days on end under the tree not unlike the Queen’s Guard. Retribution was palpable in that spot that summer.
The manner in which her jobs were done was sometimes a matter for debate. One day when the kids had left for school and as my husband was about to leave, he noticed a new stuffed animal on our daughter’s bed. That day I spent part of the morning figuring out how to get the still soft and warm dead bunny our dog had smuggled into the house away from the dog and back to the earth from whenst it came. Let me just say that disagreement, bribery, and distraction were involved.
Besides rodent management, our dog also was attentive to keeping our floors cleared of food. She was a bit pre-emptive at times. There was the time that she jumped up and snatched the just-prepared hotdog from my son as we sat together at dinner and left him holding nothing but air. It was impressively swift and clean, like a disappearing act. Well, supper was a family thing and she was family; just relegated to under the table. Dogs do that. They love their food. And yours.
Another job, taken seriously, was to help us have fun. We played hide and seek with her with duck feathers after hunting season. We’d put her in another room, then trail a duck feather up, over, around, and through the living room and hide it. Then we’d let her in and it was great fun to watch her follow the trail until she found the feather. Her sense of smell was amazing.
She loved stuffed animals and regarded a few of them as her own personal favorites. One or two are still buried in our backyard, a blue head or beige foot sticking up from the earth, leaving the polite uninformed to puzzle over after they’ve left.
But the job she did best was to just love. She didn’t care how you did on a test at school. She didn’t care if your level of life success was amazing or clearly needing some attention. She didn’t care if people loved you or hated you or found nothing at all to think about you. Our dog thought each one of us was wonderful. What a gift. What. A. Gift. She did that better than any of us could do it, and did it without effort. She celebrated our happiness with plenty of jumping and playing and a few happy barks thrown in for good measure. Her intuitive sensitivity brought her to our sides even when we sought to keep some private sadness apart. Whether apparent to others or private, she sat with us in our sorrow; just sitting and looking and licking the tears from our faces.
Our favorite place was also her favorite place, and every summer when we would make a trip up to the cabin, she would budge her way past everyone to be the first in the van. Oh, the piney, sea-weedy scent was a little taste of heaven to her whether she was running like a maniac unhindered and free, or jumping off the dock to swim to a thrown stick, or taking a boat ride or wading in the water, pawing at the minnows. The minute her paws hit the ground, she would smile her little doggy smile and delight in just being. Such a simple thing. A good thing. A thing we would all do well to learn.
Our dog would (almost) always come when we called her. She would sit, lie down, and roll over on command. She shook your hand when asked and sometimes when you didn’t. When you threw something up in the air, there was rarely a doubt she would catch it; and if you threw it waaay out in the lake, she would make a running leap from the dock and swim out to get it and bring it back. She had a fairly large vocabulary of words and expressions she understood. She quickly learned to love music and occasionally sang along with the cello or violin. She would drop something we didn’t want her to have, unless she wanted to hold it a while longer first. She would stop jumping on someone just as soon as she could manage her excitement. She would stand still for us to put her leash on to go for a WALK(!). No, she didn’t really do that. Our dog wasn’t the best dog in the world or the most well-trained dog in the city. I often told her she was the best dog on the block. That was enough for her and it was enough for us.
We were the house with the dog who barked at everyone who had the audacity to walk past her house (black motorcycles elicited much loud concern). We were also the house with calm spirits and whispered secrets and spoken and unspoken love all because of a dog who loved openly and completely.
A year ago today she wasn’t feeling well. She took extra time that evening to look at each of us who was at home as we petted her. She ran off in the middle of the night through, we later learned, a park that reminds us all of that favorite place up north and then lay down on the edge of someone’s yard and died. For three days we searched through woods and along roads and parks, hardly eating, barely sleeping, begging God to send an angel to bring her home. When I finally tracked her down at an animal hospital she was in a cremation bag with a few dried leaves still sticking in her fur. I brought her home, letting her ride in the front seat of our new car. I petted her all the way. I made a body bag from unbleached muslin and lined it with an old, soft flannel sheet. Each member of our family wrote something from their heart; a memory, a personal gratefulness, an expression of love on that canvas bag; and it has been her sleeping bag now for a year as she rests in a private spot in a place she loved.
Our dog loved all the true things: fresh air, good food, family. Oh, sweet little girl. You might have been only a few feet tall, but you filled up our hearts with your love and spoke fun and silliness and goodness and blessing into our lives. Rest well, my little friend. You really were the best.