Friday, November 25, 2011

If you think dogs can't count

If you think dogs can't count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving Fido only two of them. ~Phil Pastoret

My love for dogs began when I was five.

My mother had passed away and my dad had me stay with my Aunt Mim and Uncle George for a few days while he sorted things out. I was too young to understand the full impact of how life would change, but smart enough to feel the loss.

George and Mim had a beagle named Lassie. Somehow that dog knew I was hurting and confused, and wouldn’t leave my side. Lassie let me hug him, talk to him, and find comfort in petting him. Author Ben Williams once wrote, “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” And Lassie, at least in my memories, was the therapist that helped a scared little child cope with the confusion of life. In some ways, dogs are like surgeons – or, as Judy Desmond noted, “A dog is the only thing that can mend a crack in your broken heart.”

Flash forward to when I was a newlywed, and our first joint decision was to get a pet for our new home. A friend from college had introduced us to his Yorkshire Terrier, “Polo” and the dog just plain stole my heart. Yorkie’s are a unique breed (aren’t they all?) and I was drawn to the “character” of the spirit inside that cute ball of fur. Prissy, yet impish … Yorkie’s are dogs that can tear up a rug while melting your heart with a smile and a wagging tail. We named our first “child” Stash and in the words of Corey Ford, we quickly learned “Properly trained, a man can be dog's best friend.”

Yorkie’s just don’t understand they’re a small breed. Fearless, Stash would gravitate toward bigger dogs at every opportunity. With reckless abandon, he’d chase Labs, Dalmatians, and even a Great Dane. His mistake was going after an Alaskan Malamute in an effort to protect his yard. The Malamute wasn’t into negotiating a peace treaty and settled the matter rather quickly. Tougher than they look, a Yorkie’s devotion to their owner creates a relentless survival instinct. Despite a crushed rib cage and collapsed lung, and an “outside” body cast developed by the Columbia College of Veterinarian Medicine at the University of Missouri, Stash stayed with us for fourteen years. In the words of Agnes Sligh Turnbull, “Dogs' lives are too short. Their only fault, really.”

This Thanksgiving weekend, I watched the National Dog Show on NBC. The competition has become an annual event, traditionally following the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I have yet to find a breed that draws me more than the Yorkshire Terrier. What struck me during the broadcast was a poem read by actor John O'Hurley. The words expressed a sentiment I could never put into words and they touched me. The final line of the poem, paraphrased, was “because a dog’s tail is attached to his heart.”  I don’t think I’ll ever see a dog wagging his tail and not think of those words.

Later in the day, on the evening news, there was a story of some forty beagles rescued from an animal testing lab in Spain. Rescued doesn’t seem quite correct, as the only reason the laboratory gave the animals to the Beagle Freedom Project was because the business, yes business, was about to close. These animals had been prodded, poked, and tested every day of their lives. They never knew the happiness of a gentle stroke on their neck, or the joy of chasing a ball. Yet there they were, on a tarmac in Los Angeles, wagging their tails and licking the faces of perfect strangers who would soon become their servant. “Dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me they are the role model for being alive,” Gilda Radner once wrote. Can anyone argue the point?

I know there are people who aren’t dog lovers or think of animals only as tools to perform chores on a ranch. I don’t understand them. And while I prefer the company of a dog, I know there are people who prefer cats. But I’m allergic to them which makes it difficult to become close to a feline friend. Somewhere along the road of life, my daughter developed such a love of animals that she is studying to become a veterinarian. Through every imaginable obstacle and despite various setbacks, she has never stopped pursuing her dream and next year she will complete her coursework and begin to help the animals she loves so dearly. I’m incredibly proud of her, especially because I was part of the obstacles and setbacks.

My oldest son has a Yorkie and he quickly learned once you “Scratch a dog – you’ll find a permanent job.” (Franklin P. Jones). My youngest son grew up raising “Wicket” and “Poco” … two of the most mischievous Yorkie’s I’ve seen. Today, my Yorkie, “Winston” takes me for walks each day pulling on my leash when I’m not walking fast enough. His daily goal is to mark his territory. Apparently, Winston thinks he owns the entire neighborhood. Poor pup, too many mailbox posts, and such a little bladder. Winston, like his predecessors, has the same policy of not allowing me to read a newspaper without putting his paw through the pages. He wants to play “tug of war” whenever the most important part of the movie is showing and with undying faith, sits under the dinner table hoping for a morsel of food to drop. Occasionally, I accommodate in the spirit of testing some of Newton’s principals of gravity. Or is it gravy?

If you’ve taken the time to read these thoughts, I know you are a lover of dogs. My breed of choice may not be yours. It doesn’t matter, because you have your own stories to tell of how your dog made you laugh and listened to your heartache and kept your confidences. It’s what dogs do – they are the best listeners in the world. “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole” wrote Roger Caras.

Winston brings me a peace that takes me to simpler times. At night, he will sit on my lap and let me stroke him while I try, usually without success to get him to stop licking my face. As someone once wrote, “My goal in life is to be as good of a person my dog already thinks I am.” As I write my thoughts, he is faithfully sitting in a chair by my side. He is my shadow and I am his. Over the years, my family has been the servant to six Yorkshire Terriers. Each one filled with unique character, loyalty and a stubborn streak for which terriers are famous. Each one owned our hearts and yes, healed our hearts.

If only we had a tail to wag.
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