I’ve been thinking a bit about dogs lately, and that’s all been triggered by sorrow. The passing of a beloved dog is a hard burden to bear, especially because that passing is usually at my own request. But with each passing, I’m reminded anew of all the dogs I’ve loved in my life and how they’ve changed me, loved me in return and made my life richer for it. That I am a dog person, there is no doubt. And that goes way, way back to before I was born. Several lifetimes ago now.
I still don’t exactly know where she came from. Part of me always thought my dad found her in a sack on the side of the highway. Part thinks she was a shelter dog that they adopted from the local animal shelter. But regardless of how she came into my family, she was there before me. She was a gorgeous Collie / German Shepherd mix, all long legs and long fur with GSD colors. She was my dad’s dog, until she wasn’t any more. That part came later, though.
At first, to say she and I got along would be an egregious lie. Truth is, as a mewling, pink little pup, I had no idea at all, but she did. I was an invader. I was a new thing that her people had brought home. I was not to be trusted. I was coming between her and her people. And so she’d give me looks. She’d bare her teeth and threaten me with a low growl. Eventually, as I grew, and became more mobile, she’d turn it up a bit until finally she was snarling and snapping at me. She was the alpha dog and was going to put me in my place in the pecking order. I was too young to really remember any of this, mind you, so this is based on what my parents have told me. One day she snapped at me and slunk off when my dad turned towards her.
“Let me catch you again,” he warned, “and you’ll regret it.”
He caught her again, snarling and snapping at me, a dog far larger than I was at that age, capable of killing me should she have put her mind to it. And she snapped and my dad kicked her hard in the side, launching her across the room with his big work boots that I remember so well. And from that moment on, she was no longer my dad’s dog. From that moment on, she was my dog. In that moment, her place in the pecking order was solidified, beneath me, and she came to accept that, and became my dog.
Growing up, Mutt was my best friend. When my parents were at work, or sleeping, she was there to keep me company. When my grandmother was watching soaps and sipping coffee from that old brown mug she had, Mutt was there. She lived mostly outdoors in an old kennel made of what seemed to be 50 foot high fencing wire attached to old T-Bar iron posts. She had a dog house that both of us could easily fit inside, made of ply-board, two by fours and roofing shingles. Every day I’d race out to free her from her confines and we’d be off. Some days she’d hike with me in the woods where I grew up. Some days we’d play in the creek together. Sometimes we’d just lay in the grass, counting puffy white clouds in the Virginia sky, napping in the warmth of the sun. But no matter what, we had each other.
Sometimes, she’d wander off to who knows where on her own and be gone for a couple days or so. But she always came back to me, sometimes bringing back something she’d stolen from wherever it was she ventured. Sometimes it was a carcass from a kill she’d made hunting. But she always came back to me.
Eventually, I went off to Kindergarten. I’m sure she missed me during those long days, but she was always there to greet me when I returned. Tail wagging, ready for me to play, to run, to hike. She was always there to greet me, rushing to the end of our drive to sit patiently when the bus dropped me off. As I grew and made friends, sometimes I’d be late coming back and not get to see her that day. But she’d always greet me with the same joy and enthusiasm every day I got off that bus.
I’m sure that this is why I’m a dog person to this day. Because I had such a healthy life with a dog so early on, a creature that started out resenting me but then adopted me and became my most loyal and treasured friend. Tens of thousands of years ago, this was made possible because someone in a camp, huddled next to a fire to ward off the frightening creatures in the dark, gave some food to a starving wolf that wandered in close. That wolf returned the next night, and the next, always getting some food from the human. Eventually that wolf had pups and the pups learned to stay near the humans and they too were fed. And eventually the dog became domesticated and became the definition of “Man’s Best Friend.” And Mutt was mine.
All those thousands of years of slowly growing a bond with dogs likely saved my life. I came home from school one day, got off the bus and headed up the driveway as I always did. It was a nice late spring day, the gravels of the drive nicely heated from the sun. The kind of heat that snakes love to lay on to warm their bodies. And a snake was doing just that as I headed up the drive to my home. As I grew nearer, I didn’t even see it until it reared back into striking position, hissing at me angrily. I could say I was terrified, but the truth is, I was too young to really grasp the danger represented by that snake. All I knew was surprise. But before that surprise could even register, Mutt flew between us like a blur all fangs and fur and intent to do harm. Hackles raised, head lowered, growling and snarling, my best friend came between me and an angry, or more likely startled, snake. The snake decided it was not a battle to be fought with this large descendent of the wolf and slithered off into the grass. Mutt just looked at me, licked my hand and trotted to the house as I followed her.
The problem with young dogs is that they become old dogs. Mutt grew old without me even realizing it. I was still too young to really grasp the concept of growing old and death. My grandmother was ancient and presumably had always been ancient. My dad was a giant and would always be so. Even though I’d been to the funerals of family members, including my Grandfather, I really didn’t understand. That lesson came to me suddenly one evening.
I don’t even remember how I came to be standing there in the local Kroger’s. Nor do I remember much at all about that time. What I do remember is this.
We were grocery shopping one evening. As we made our way from aisle to aisle, I insistently tried dragging my parents to the pet section. Mutt needed food. I know I had noticed that her bag of food was gone, so we must be out, and we must need more. It was there, in the middle of Krogers, that I, a 7 year old little boy (maybe I was eight?), learned the weight of life. That was where I learned that my best friend, my loyal companion, my protector was gone and was never coming back. I don’t know why they waited to tell me. I suppose the plan was to tell me later that night, so I could cry myself to sleep, but I called their bluff in my own ignorance by insisting that we needed more dog food. I’m good at crashing plans like that.
But Mutt had, without me even noticing it, grown old and tired. Her hips were sore and gone were the days of running tirelessly through the field or up in the hollow. It was her time to go, and my dad had taken care of it. All I knew was anger for taking my dog away. I knew grief, I knew sorrow, and I blamed them for being so cold and heartless. It wasn’t until much later in life, when our next dog, Brittany was at the end of hers, that I really understood. It was then, as I snuggled Brittany for the last time, said my goodbyes and told her how great a dog she was that I finally understood the weight of it all. It was even later than that before I finally understood just how difficult it is to make that decision, and years later than even that before I finally came to terms that while I could order up death with a phone call, doing so was the greatest act of love you can give someone who has given their entire life in devotion to you.
A piece of me dies each time I have to make that call myself, and every time I do, I’m that little boy standing in Krogers, and that twenty-something sitting in the floor with an old Brittany Spaniel, and I’m that thirty something holding my boy Jack tightly to me as the doc pushes the plunger on the syringe, and I’m that inconsolable mess as my heart dog, Patches, stops breathing, giving out that one last sigh as I whisper in her ear and I’m that crying, blubbering forty-something bearded biker carrying an empty collar out of the vet clinic having ended the incredible pain that Jazz was suffering, and I’m the gentle giant, crying into the cold, dark night, wrapped in a sleeping bag on the hard wooden deck to comfort and old Husky who was finally, after 16 years, ready to leave this world. I’m all of those at once.
And it all started with a mutt named Mutt.