As we approach this holiday season, I choose to make some observations about how I feel about the critters in our life. The reasons will hopefully become clear. In order to put it in perspective, let me back up.
My first family dog was a Yorkie named Oliver. I barely remember the dog, but my mother, 17 years beyond this world, made a statue of the dog in a ceramics class way back on Long Island, where we lived when my dad was a fledgling airline pilot at La Guardia. I still have that statue. It says, “For my Jim,” on the bottom. The fact that my mother was such an enthusiastic Christmas elf never helps this time of year, nor does the fact that she spent many years declaring that she couldn’t hold back because that Christmas could be her last. In 1998, she was actually correct.
In 1972, we moved to Tennessee and adopted my uncle’s basset hound, Barney, who had been completely trained to expect baloney and cheese sandwiches and had no respect for my mom’s rules about the untouchable living room furniture, firmly grounded in a 70’s aesthetic, and in retrospect, could only be fully appreciated by a basset hound. Lime green and gold velvet for the win, people! Barney had the proven ability to snag an entire roast off the kitchen table and devour it in less time than it took my mom to turn around. We kids watched in unfiltered, dropped-jaw awe at its disappearance. He was master of his domain, until the time golf-ball-sized hail fell from the sky, and only the fact that we were there to open the sliding glass door saved the living room from a shower of broken glass. Basset terror is no laughing matter. But it is…
Barney was the first of many ‘B’ named bassets in my youth. Buford, Beaudrou, and the oddly named Patches, who is famous for pulling the heavy dial phone off the counter and literally having the shit scared out of him, all the way down the hall. Buford was a master fisherman. He would sit right on the edge of the waters of Normandy Lake, waiting for a hapless fish to come by. He would launch into the water in a full-on Superman, splashing would ensue, and he would come up with a fish, which he would happily leave by the back door as a gift for the family. Needless to say, our driveway smelled like dead fish on a regular basis. Beaudrou was gift to me and my first wife from my mom, who was anxious to keep the Basset tradition going. I left him with my wife when she became an ex, because he was very attached to Chloe, our other dog. Boudreau died relatively young. I referred to him as a sport Basset, which was just polite code for the runt of the litter. I never heard what happened to Chloe. She was a Border Collie mutt, an excellent dog.
There were other dogs along the way. Villain the Doberman who was the most timid dog imaginable except for two occasions. The first was when my cousin smacked him around and received a well deserved nip in return. Big family drama. The other was when my brother brought home a black friend and we discovered that Villain was totally racist. The good news is the friend in question was plenty fast enough to get away. The bad news was that Villain was determined to get him.
There was Champ, who was hostile to everyone in the family except my dad. The odd part was that Dad seemed to have gained this respect by running Champ over with a Volkswagen bug when Champ was puppy. Champ’s grudging affection didn’t keep him from being a protector of the entire family, which was proven by a rabid groundhog incident when I was 12 or so. He was a champion after all. Unfortunately, he later developed a bad skin problem which required injections. I would hold him while mom administered the injection. Risky business. Oddly, I can’t remember the end of his life. However, no matter how aggressive he was, I remember him fondly.
There was a beautiful English Setter. I seem to have blocked his/her name through sheer guilt. You see, he tried to jump into the back of our 76 Landcruiser when I was backing out of the driveway. He missed and rolled under the wheels. He ran away, but we coaxed him into the car. I was driving like crazy to get him to the vet when he died. I can’t even express how bad I still feel about it.
There was the time a couple of hunting dogs showed up at our house. I gave them a sheet to lie on and petted them. I called the number on the collar and I remember how annoyed the owner was that I had been nice to them. They wanted to stay with me.
There was a crazy mutt who showed up, and that dog was doing everything he possibly could to charm us into giving him a home. This was fine until it turned out that he was actually rabid. I had to shoot him, and again, I carry the guilt of it until this day.
There is a Tennessee style of dog ownership that has almost no relationship to how I regard dog ownership today, but it’s impossible to forget. Dogs were things that lived outside and, at the time, were just there. There was no training, no leash walking, no personal relationship, nothing, It was incidental. It was optional.
I’ve written about Henry before. He was a huge yellow Lab who changed my entire perception of dogs. He was measured, intelligent, and incredibly charming. At some point I will write everything I remember about his life. But without the details, he was the dog who taught me that dogs have purpose, understanding, and that the relationship is meaningful from both the human and dog side of the equation. In short, dogs have souls. In the span of his life, dogs became something worth an active relationship. It was suddenly worth trying to understand their values in the balance.
Nowadays, I live in close proximity to a number of dogs, and the understanding I have for their motivations is ridiculous from a southern rural dog perspective. They are spoiled rotten, and I think the effort is worth it. I have no doubt that they have many things to teach us about ourselves, even if they don’t understand those values themselves. They just are. They don’t hide their emotions, they don’t limit them for any ulterior motive, and they will stand a great deal of discomfort to uphold their own values. The fact that people let that happen says more about us than it does about the completely open motivations of our canine friends.
In that vein, people post stuff about dogs that have been abandoned by their people. I understand that sometimes people can no longer care for their dogs, but the purely optional reasons that people use to justify abandoning a dog completely baffle me. Seeing those dogs hurts me more than my younger self would care to admit. Dogs bond with their people. We bred them to do so, and we must take responsibility for perhaps 15,000 years of teaching dogs that the bond is worthwhile. They invest in that bond 100%. They have no other way of approaching the relationship. They are always sad to see you go, and always overjoyed to see you return. Where else can you find that commitment? You can teach them aggression or cuddling, fear or unwavering protection. You can teach them almost anything, and they will regard that as the absolute truth. Dogs feel shame and pride, dogs dream, dogs aspire – dogs have as much emotional depth, as much soul as we do. The relationship is not casual to a dog. Yes, taking a dog into your life is nothing short of a lifetime responsibility. You deal with everything a dog needs and at the end, you have to say goodbye for the good of the dog. Like raising children, dogs need discipline and rules. It makes them feel secure and confident. It’s a big deal. Where else can you find a creature that can be so easily fulfilled, and yet will do literally everything within its power to fulfill you? Those of us at the end of a thousand generation relationship have hard time realizing what that means, but the fact remains, it’s incredibly meaningful to one side of the relationship, and up to us to define the other side. This is a situation in which we should learn from the dog, treat it as they do, and see if we can’t expand that into our human relationships, which we all know would benefit from the honesty that a dog brings to the table.
You know, there are theories afloat that say that we would have never ascended from hunter gatherers without the partnership of dogs to watch our back. If you can find a dog in need of a home this holiday season, if you can fall in love with that dog, bring them into your home, and let them discover the joys of children to guard and wrapping paper to tear. Give them undivided attention to teach them how to live with you, and you will reap far more rewards from the relationship than they will, but they won’t care. They live to please you and your family if you only give them the chance.