Devotion with an Undercoat

One of my – one of our – “things” in life is dogs.  We particularly like the rescues. My wife does a lot of work on that front, and is fairly successful at finding homes for dogs in need. That’s a good thing on several levels, one of which is that if she weren’t successful, those same dogs might very well end up here. We have six in our home, and that’s enough.

Oh, the temptation is always there. The easiest thing in the world for someone like me is to bond with a dog. My dog, your dog, the neighbors’ dogs, random dog on the sidewalk, dog in the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot, picture of a dog on the internet… You get the idea. But dogs need food, dogs need exercise, dogs need medical care, and most of all, dogs need attention. A six way split for those resources is enough for anyone, so we fight the temptation on an ongoing basis.

Our oldest dog, Hunter, came into Sharon’s life long before I did, from a Montana whirlwind of animal care and rescue named Joni. From all accounts, Hunter was born nervous, and he remains nervous to this day. He’s the kind of dog that required sedation to make it through the 4th of July fireworks. I use the past tense because he’s lost his hearing now and takes fireworks in oblivious stride. He’s the kind of dog that regards almost everything in motion as a mortal threat. That includes bicycles, skateboards, runners (running two-leggers can’t be natural), other dogs (particularly tiny yappers, dogs on leashes, dogs behind fences, dogs outside the car window, dogs a quarter mile away – basically dogs) and people who talk too loudly and gesture wildly while talking too loudly. In fact, the only safe things in Hunter’s world are Sharon, pee-targetable plants, and cheeseburgers.

All of this nervousness runs completely contrary to his appearance. In his prime, he was a stocky black Labrador, Australian Shepherd mix, complete with nub tail. A purposeful looking dog, he was sixty pounds of broad shoulders, blocky head, and dark golden eyes. Nowadays, he’s still all of those things, but only if he is standing still. As soon as he moves, his great age is revealed with wobbly legs, uncertainty in his stride, and frequent pauses to rest and find the balance on his ailing four-paw drive.

The other massive clue is growing on his front right leg, just below the elbow. A tumor the size of my large fist is wrapped around that leg, and unlike the benign lumps that ride elsewhere on his body, this one is the real deal. We’ve been through the full expensive treatment – chemo, surgery, and follow up meds – the first time the lump appeared, and frankly the results were far better than our best guess. We are fortunate to have an amazing dog oncologist in Olympia. Of course, the odds of a repeat were always high, and sure enough, the tumor eventually came back. We are thankful that it took as long as it did, and we are treating him to slow the growth as much as possible, but for the survivor of a litter of pups that all died of cancer, his advanced 14 and a half years is approaching canine miracle status.

More recently, he added some heart trouble to his list of ailments. The arrhythmia causes bouts of coughing and choking, and has definitely slowed the pace of his walks. Not that skateboarders are safe, mind you… Medicine helps, but we both know that he’s heading downhill and the point that he hits bottom is anyone’s guess. He’s already outlived the professional estimates by at least a couple of years.

All of this leads me to the question of why. Sure, we could point to all the medical care, which has been extensive and of very high quality. We could point to the fact that no one would willingly leave such a pampered and (dare I say?) spoiled life. Heck, we could even give a few points to the cheeseburgers, which jack Hunter up like kids on Halloween candy.

I think – and this is where I reveal my true feelings about dogs – that it’s something deeper. I think it’s Hunter’s own chosen purpose. I believe that dogs all need a purpose. They may be taught their job, and that becomes the purpose, or they will choose it themselves. Wherever it originates, dogs need the satisfaction of a job well done, and once chosen, they will do it until their last breath.

In Hunter’s case, you can look into those dark eyes and see for miles. He’s always looking back with more depth, an almost apelike sense of intelligence, and profound wisdom than you would ever expect. Back up a couple of feet and that sense disappears behind the cartoon curiosity of his perked ears. Back up some more and he becomes a dark guardian of the house (unless you knew better, of course). But up close, you can’t shake the sense that he’s a dog of carefully considered means.

Also in Hunter’s case, that purpose is very easy to see. His purpose is Sharon. They look out for each other, and he takes his side of the bargain as seriously as she does. Maybe more. When I first appeared on the scene, he was protecting her from me, that threatening male two-legger stealing attention from him. At the time, he was second fiddle to an older dog named Austin, and honestly, he was good with that. Hunter has never been a lead from the front kind of dog. He only took over when Austin was asleep, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to trust me easily. In fact, it took almost two years and Austin’s demise for him to realize we were on the same team, “Team Look Out for Sharon.” Once he figured it out, his brow unfurrowed (less full time pressure for him), and we became close friends. Make no mistake, though. He will always choose Sharon over me. He proves it every day.

Just this morning, Sharon was in the shower, and Hunter was sprawled in the hallway, physically blocking the bathroom door. At night, he sleeps within ten feet of her, alternating between his warm bed and the cool hardwood floor. When she is away on a business trip, he sleeps by the front door, waiting in case she should return. He will not get in the car until he is absolutely sure she is getting in the same car, and he will not get out until she does. Even then he will ignore the door I have opened for him until he is sure he can get to her from that side of the car. If his leash is in her hand, he treats those pesky skateboarders as the threats they apparently are. If I have his leash, he figures it’s my job, and he relaxes into the sacred duty of marking shrubs for future generations.

I could list a thousand more example of his devotion to his person in the form of Sharon, but the real question at hand is simply this: Against all the physical odds, Hunter is still kicking, and still clearly feeling good about life. How much of that is imbued in his self chosen purpose in life? How much is the simple fact that he knows he can still do his job and do it well?


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