Given all they do for us, if there was any justice in the universe dogs would have lifespans of Galapagos turtles. We would hand them down through human generations. My present dog would have been first owned by my great-great grandfather, a Civil War veteran perhaps and a man unmet by own grandfather. Instead, they are closer to shooting stars, bringing us immeasurable love and companionship for a precious few years. In my lifetime, I have survived three dogs (there was a gap of a number of years between my family dog as a boy and the first of my own family.) I have loved all of them, including my present best friend Cooper. And they have returned that love ten-fold, always the first to greet me at the door with an excitement that borders on unhinged…fast sprints up and down the floor, cries and woofs, turns in midair and the quick search for a favorite toy to bring me. There are people who don’t get the “dog thing”. I feel sorry for them. They are missing something truly special in life.
Dogs and humans have been together for thousands of years. The speculation is that wolves and early humans formed a symbiotic relationship since they were after the same game. As man’s hunting skills improved, wolves started following humans. Wolves were domesticated over generations, it is thought, raised as pups by their human benefactors. But this is pre-history stuff, so no one really knows except for the fact that dogs have enjoyed “best friend” status for millennia. We do know that dogs were gradually bred for different conditions and purposes, of course, which is why we have so many types today. For the longest time, dogs weren’t simply companions but workers. Although the majority of dogs today may enjoy a comfortable domestic existence, many are still working hard in the service of man, risking life and limb in police and military operations or as rescue dogs, and helping the blind to see. The stories of dog heroics, of refusing to leave a wounded or killed human partner on the battlefield, of going into a burning building or a pile of rubble to find people, are beyond touching.
My dogs have been heroic in far more subtle ways. Their heroism has been providing a warmer, friendlier home; comforting me and my family in times of distress or just everyday stress. My parents both owned dogs throughout their lives and I know how much those dogs meant to them. My dad, in particular, benefited from his four legged friends. He was partial to Scotties but had many different types of dogs over his lifetime. He enjoyed a long, mostly solitary retirement (my parents divorced after 29 years of marriage) and was it not for the company of his dogs I don’t think he’d have fared very well and likely not lived to 91. They gave him purpose every day, provided him a reason to exercise and warmed his lap in his favorite chair as he read the paper or watched TV. His last dog, Jiggs, was a rescue because dad knew he might not out live another dog and he figured he could offer help to one last older dog. Jiggs, typically, offered more help to my father than the other way around.
In my adult household, we’ve had three dogs. Sandy, a cocker spaniel, was the first. When the kids started asking for a dog, I said no. It wasn’t “the right time”. They were little, and handfuls themselves, and I thought adding a dog to the mix would just be one responsibility too much, especially for my wife who would shoulder the burden. I said no, and no and no again. Then one day I came home and heard poorly stifled giggles from around the corner. My wife stepped into the kitchen where I was and said, “we have a little surprise”, and the kids came out with the cutest little puppy I’d ever seen. Love at first sight. For all of Sandy’s long life (she made it to 15), I had to hear “and dad didn’t even want you” every time I cuddled up with her on the sofa.
The next pup in our life was Charlie (aka, Charles, Chuck, Charlieboy, Choopy…). His arrival created quite a scandal. My son was a freshman in college, living away from home in East Meadow (here on Long Island) while attending St. Johns University. His mom visited him one weekend and they couldn’t help but go into a nearby pet store where my wife fawned over a Wheaten Terrier puppy. Sandy was old but still very much with us and my wife told Matt it wasn’t the right time to get another dog, but the idea lodged in his head. I had just accepted a job with the B&W Group (Bowers & Wilkins). B&W was headquartered in Boston and beyond my commutes there for a week at a time I was doing a lot of long distanced travel. With both of our kids in college and away from home and Sandy getting more infirm, Matt thought his mom really needed another canine companion. He went back to the pet store but the Wheaten was gone. The closest thing was a little Cocker-poo male. Matt scooped him up and took him home. I shortly thereafter got a phone call from my highly agitated wife telling me Matt had come home with another dog, they had a fight about it and he had gone off to a paintball tournament in Maryland taking the puppy with him! I suggested (and forever regretted) that we would be able to take him back even though Matt had signed a “no return” agreement. I’d get a lawyer if need be! (Why am I such a fool?) Charlie was a one-in-a-million dog. He was the most affectionate dog imaginable. He’d leap into your lap, sleep side by side with you on the sofa. We crate our dogs and never allow them to sleep in our bedroom…never, except for Chuck who would jump up on our bed and sprawl out crosswise taking up as much room as possible. We never had the heart to kick him out. When my mom was in her final days, I’d take Charlie with me on the 3 hour drive to her home for company. I could not have asked for better companionship on those long difficult journeys. Charlie would end up sleeping in my lap on the drive home. Sadly, and it pains us all even now, Charlie had a very short life of just over six years. His death was a bolt from the blue and traumatic for my wife, who was alone with him at the time. I think that phone call was harder to take than when my parents passed, perhaps mostly because he was so young and so apparently healthy. I drove home from Boston at 4am with tears in my eyes. For my son, it’s still hard to accept. Charlie should be with us now, should have been with us forever. But that’s not the way it turned out. If there’s solace, its knowing he never had a bad day in his life.
Cooper (aka Coopie, Coop, Bear) is my current best bud. Although it was tough to get another puppy after Charlie’s untimely passing, I knew that I didn’t want to be without a dog and I feared that holding off too long might turn into holding off forever. I had to convince my wife and she relented only slowly. Losing Charlie was very hard on her. Today is Cooper’s second birthday, December 14th, which inspired me to write this blog post. He’s a Tibetan Terrier, a not particularly well known breed and the first dog we actually purchased from a breeder. TT’s, as they are called, were bred as gifts and were not to be sold in their native land. (I tried suggesting this to the breeder but she wasn’t having it!) People have asked me where he’s from and I say Tibet…my wife says Rochester. He’s another wonderful doggie, a real licker but not a lap dog. He’ll jump out of reach with great alacrity. But he’ll follow me all around the house, slide up next to me when I sit down and give me a big lick (I know, germs…but I don’t care.) As a puppy, we discovered that these big footed dogs, as one might expect from a dog that hails from the mountains of Tibet, is a real jumper. We put up a 21” high fence across the kitchen which he managed to leap over when he was no more than 7″ or 8” high himself. It was implausible but true. I had to rig a fence on top of the fence to keep him contained. He figured out a way around that, too. Walls are meant to be bypassed (someone explain that to our president!) Today, he delights in leaping (not jumping) onto the sofa backs so he can look out the windows…and he loves to look out the windows. He is also the first dog we’ve owned that immediately reacts to dogs on television and to his own reflections in the glass and mirrors around the house. I tell my wife he’s looking for a friend…hint, hint.
With all the breeding over the centuries, how can it be that we haven’t figured out how to extend dogs lives to decades rather than years? Why do they live in dog years and not human years, at least? My wife works in a pet hospital these days and the hardest part she says is when people need to have their dogs put down. She can’t take that, and it seems so unfair. But I think that dogs short but happy lives teach us something very important. All life is precious and should be joyous. Optimism should rule over pessimism – I’ve never met a pessimistic dog, have you? Even abused dogs quickly recover with love and care. My Aunt Tine, who lived an exceptionally long 102 years, would tell you that even a very long life goes quickly; my 58 years have gone by in a flash. Dogs make it clear that it’s how you live, how you love, how you treat your family and friends that best define your life. Thank you Sandy, Charlie and Cooper for all you give to us.