Many Dogs, Many Lessons

Despite the pain and grief that comes with losing a dog, I cannot even begin to imagine my life without one… or two, or even three… In addition to the joy, love, and blessings they bring, they’ve also been great teachers. I may not have realized it at the time, but the lessons were there.

German Shepherd Dog

My very first canine companion was a German Shepherd. I happened upon him one summer day in the woods far up behind our house–he lay underneath a tree, a bag of skin and bones. I went straight home, stole took food from the fridge and returned. He ate everything I had and then, with little coaxing, followed me home. I was eight years old at the time and had always dreamed of having my very own dog.

Our house was the neighborhood vet clinic and rehab center for injured birds, motherless baby squirrels and raccoons, as well as the occasional stray cat. I took them all in (god love my parents) and did my very best to nurse them back to health. When I lost patients, typically the baby birds, I wept, wondering what I might have done better to save them. I had dreams of becoming a veterinarian. However, an intense animosity between the high school chemistry teacher and myself, coupled with a flat-out refusal to dissect a cat in college biology put the kibosh on that dream. But on that summer day, it was still my dream, so my parents weren’t actually surprised when they saw me coming up the walkway, bedraggled creature following. They were in fact, much more surprised that he was obviously a purebred, yet had absolutely no identification: no collar, no tags, no ear tattoo. The walk had tuckered him out, and he slowly collapsed onto the front porch. I quickly went inside to prepare another meal, placing it between his front feet so he could eat once more.

Although my parents placed ads in the local paper and contacted our town vet, his previous owner was never found. One of my dreams came true: a dog of my very own. I named him Smoke. He followed me every where–no leash, no formal training–just a kid and her dog, wandering the woods in the summers, sledding the back hills and ice skating on the pond in the winters. When school was in session, he would remain out back, in our fenced-in yard, content. However, when he heard the school bus rumble up the hill, that dog would clear the 6-foot high stockade fence and be waiting for me at the bus stop. He was the stuff stories and legends are made of and I adored him. I was 19 years old when cancer took him from me. He was my best friend. I was shattered by his death.

I didn’t have another dog until I was a young mother. I found an ad in the local paper for an adolescent Golden Retriever. His owners were elderly and he wasn’t getting the exercise he desperately needed. When I met him, I was aghast- he was obese–a rotund barrel with legs. But he was sweet and gentle, so I took him home (diet starts now dear boy). He genuinely enjoyed my two young daughters, choosing to sit near the high chair (for obvious reasons) and to lay near them on the rug when they played. One afternoon while I was folding clothes, I heard Banner yelp and looked up to see my 3-year old daughter attempting to insert a hard plastic block into one of his soft, silky ears. I was confounded that he remained near her, when he clearly could have moved away. Sara was scolded, her blocks taken from her. Banner continued to seek her out, preferring her company, the incident obviously forgiven or forgotten. He delighted in playing fetch. With a toddler. Who could only lob the ball a few feet. He proudly returned it, laying it at her feet for another go while she clapped and crowed with delight.

Banner was 5 years old when he developed epilepsy. Despite medication, his seizures quickly progressed from petite to grand mal. They were frightening to watch but I became quite adept at quickly encasing him in a sheet, then tying each end to the trestle table leg ends so that he physically could not flip or twist over, injuring his head or neck. He would sleep for hours once the seizure had passed. When they became frequent, diminishing his quality of life, I had to let him go. A beloved family member, he imprinted upon both of my daughters a life-long love of dogs. He was a beautiful soul.

Smoke taught me about the deep, wordless friendship that can exist between two different species. Banner taught me the beauty of forgiveness and recognizing that sometimes the people who hurt you may not understand. Throughout the years, my cherished dogs have given me companionship, laughter, and love. In addition to those blessings, they have provided valuable lessons, impacting me in positive, even profound ways. Rose Marie changed the course of my life. I owe each one a debt; through my life and my work, may I do justice to their legacies.