Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey
I've always been a dog person. While we've owned some cats (usually the result of a process of reverse inheritance), I've never been able to warm up to them in quite the same way. While dogs seem to respond to their owners with an uninhibited joy, cats are much more reserved, taking their affections on their terms. And at 54 years old, I have no patience for hard-to-get.
The first dog that came into my life arrived under a Christmas tree when I was 6 years old. He was a Dachshund, small and wrinkled, with eyes that were barely opened. My sister and I took him into our arms and our hearts, naming him "Brownie."
Over the next year, he became a welcome member of our family. My sister and I played with him constantly, taking him everywhere. But one evening, while he lay in our fenced back yard, some miscreant threw a piece of meat dipped in rat poison over the fence into the back yard. Within minutes of eating it, he convulsed and died.
My sister and I were inconsolable. It took the better part of two years for us to get past that loss. Dad had to hide the pictures and slides of him, lest the very sight of our departed pet brought us to tears.
Finally, on Christmas Day 1963, our parents bowed to the inevitable and on that memorable morning, the presented us with another brown wrinkly tiny bundle of joy. Again, we named this one Brownie. Again, we took him into our hearts and this time, it took. Brownie was a member of our family for 17 years, an unbelievably long time for a dog. Through those years, we played and took walks together. He made the foot of my bed his regular nighttime post. We shared the couch on countless evenings in front of the TV. He loved car rides, but didn’t take too well to my fiancé, unnerving her with his relentless silent glare. Every time we came home, he would be standing at the top of the stairs, leaned out as far as he could in order to see around the staircase and greet us with wagging tail and a joyful bark.
But as the years rolled on, he began to suffer physical ailments, mostly his back, a common problem with Dachshunds. In the last two years, his back legs became stiff, and then paralyzed. Finally, my Mom could stand it no longer and without telling the rest of us, she took him to the vet and gave him his final rest. I remember the day she told me, and that moment of shock and loss; feeling the sudden hole in my heart, knowing that a big part of my life had gone away forever.
I didn’t get another dog until well after we were married. We had moved from California to Missouri and bought a house with a fenced yard. We made two trips to the animal shelter to see what dogs were available. There were many of them there, including a Malamute that, when standing on it’s rear legs, was taller than I was. But amid the jumping and yelping, silent and quivering, there was a dog sitting in her kennel quietly composed and dignified. Cheryl walked by the cage door and suddenly stopped. She knelt down, and the dog responded, licking the fingers she stuck through the mesh. She turned and said definitively, “This is the one.” I know better than to argue with that tone of voice.
She was a breed called Samoyed, one of the few pure breeds left in the world. In their native Russia, they were sled dogs, herders, guards for their masters. They are a hardy breed, their faces softened by a permanent smile. They have a joyous personality, given to legendary acts of pure cuteness. I read about one couple who had gone out for the day. Upon returning, they found that their house had been broken into and been cleaned out of every electronic device they owned. Oddly, there was a pile of the dog’s toys in the middle of the floor. They concluded that this 65-pound mass of fur, flesh, and teeth, had greeted the burglar by bringing toy after toy, trying to get this unexpected visitor to play.
Samantha, as we named her, had an invisible past. She had been picked up wandering through the Mark Twain National Forest near Ft. Leonard Wood. The animal shelter staff thought that the owner might have been transferred suddenly, and unable to find a new owner, simply turned her loose in the woods. But it didn’t take long for her to find her place in our family. She was a joy to play with and to walk, and when any of us felt sad, we could find solace in the incredible softness of her fur.
One of the most remarkable things was how she looked after our kids. My wife and I both had to leave for work early, both of us out of the house by 6:00, after making sure the kids were awake. It was always touch and go as to if they would actually make the school bus. But Samantha understood the routine. The school bus had a stop at each end of our street, which actually gave them two chances to catch it. Samantha, upon hearing the bus pull into the neighborhood, immediately made the rounds of all the bedrooms, barking incessantly, urging the kids out the door. And she was good. I don’t think they missed the bus more than two or three times in the years she was with us.
Of course, twice a year, Samoyeds shed, a process called “blowing the undercoat.” And that was an understatement. Between Samantha and her partner in crime Misty (another rescue) we could depend twice a year that our house would resemble the peak of Everest. We burned out no less than 6 expensive vacuum cleaners, trying to keep the fur picked up. Of course, you could brush them, but you could easily fill two grocery bags full of fur and it would still come flying off her body.
With all the joy they provided, their time with us was relatively short. Samoyeds are short-lived, living only 11 to 12 years on average. And they also have hip problems, which makes old age a trying and painful experience. Like my Mother, Cheryl and I made two tough decisions, a couple of months apart. Misty was first, nearly blind, in constant pain and with no bladder control whatsoever. Then came Sammy’s turn, after a long night of listening to her whimpering, and even howling in pain.
After those years, with all the affection and chaos with which their presence gifted our lives, the house seemed all too empty. Our kids had also begun leaving the nest during that time, which only exacerbated the sense of loss. I was pretty sure we were done with dogs. Then, my oldest daughter, Nikki, who had adopted a microscopic little furball of a terrier who she named “Tweeter,” came to see us. She was our wild child, given to a life more reminiscent of the Woodstock crowd of the ‘60s. At the time, she was living with a pretty rough crowd and asked if she could leave Tweeter with us until her situation changed.
That was 9 years ago. Tweeter is still with us, as sweet and affectionate a dog as anyone could have asked for. To her credit, Nikki had put in the time to train Tweeter, so we inherited a perfectly behaved dog. Despite my best efforts to resist, he has wriggled his way into our hearts as deeply as any of my previous pets.
The thing is, I know how this is going to end. His parentage being still something of a mystery (when people ask what breed his is, we call him “the neighborhood project”), so I don’t know how long he’s likely to live, but I know how devastated we will be when he passes on. I try to prepare myself for that day, as I have gently reminded my wife (Tweeter has really become hers, after all) that that sad day will be upon us all too soon. I know she will suffer deeply, and I know I will feel sad as well.
But when facing that moment, I have to remember all the years of joy all my dogs have given. I firmly believe that a dog is the closest thing to unconditional love a human can receive, next to God, himself. For too many of us, that front door becomes more and more the barrier between the ruthless pain that life visits upon us, and that sanctuary we call “home.” And nothing makes you more welcome than that wildly wagging tail, those bright, happy eyes, that sheer unbounded joy signaling our return.
We all need that. It’s the affirmation that we’re never really alone.