Since 1987, when I got Truffle, my first real dog (on my own; the family experimented a couple of times when I was a kid, experiments that lasted days, weeks or months) I’ve had upwards of twenty dogs living with me. Not all at once. My upper limit was always six, as defined by law. As soon as I learned that two dogs were less work than one, I always had at least two, and usually three, dogs.
My dogs have all been large dogs from most people’s perspective, usually between 60 and 80 pounds. There are larger dogs, but none of them ever made their way into my life. I don’t think they’re that easy to come by. Only one of my dogs was bought at a pet store and she ended up the saddest dog story of all. Big Puppy was an overbred, over sized, yellow Labrador retriever who killed her adopted mom (Cheyenne T. Wolf) and then tried to kill Lily. These events happened with no provocation, no food involved, no crowding at the door, nothing that normally triggers dogs to scrap. The fights were to the death, too, also very unusual among a pack of dogs and not typical of the Labrador retriever. I had to put her to sleep when she was only two years old. The vet suggested that maybe her mother was also her sister and her dad her brother. “It isn’t uncommon,” he said, “breeders are often in it for the money.” We both cried in that little room at the vets’ office as this beautiful golden dog slipped into death.
The rest were rescues. All of them, though two were adopted from their “mom” it was find a home for the pups or they go to the pound.
I didn’t set out to be a dog rescuer, either. Back in the day, there were no breed rescues or fostering or anything like that. I took in a lot of strays, cleaned them up, neutered them and trained them then took them to the shelter and pretended they were my own dogs and I had to relinquish them. The end result of that was that when I wanted to adopt a dog from the shelter, they wouldn’t let me. I fostered a springer/poodle mix who was happy, bright and loving and quickly found a home. I fostered a pure-bred English spaniel who was adopted while I was signing the papers “relinquishing” her. I fostered other strays, too, and found them homes by walking them at a nearby park with a sign around their necks saying, “Please adopt me.” A well-mannered, leash-trained dog in the company of a happy person is pretty attractive to someone looking for a dog. I always checked up to be sure the homes where the dogs were adopted were legit and the dogs were happy.
There’s no way to keep all the dogs.
I have loved dogs as long as I can remember and wanted one from the time I was born, nearly. I used to put my stuffed dog under my pillow at night hoping the dog fairy would replace it with a real puppy. My mom said I always “pet” things, velvet, fur, the satin edging on my blanket, and she always found it odd, but I think it was like the Dalai Lama who is “recognized” because of what he chooses as a small child. Once I finally had my own dogs I felt more at peace with my life.
And I can’t explain it.
I like being around dogs. Dogs also like being around me. I’ve had several experiences in which a completely unknown dog will see me from several yards away and come running to me with no encouragement at all. It’s pretty freaky when it’s a pit bull, but they’re a happy, enthusiastic and passionate breed and it’s been pit bulls more than once. My first year here my neighbor’s dog — who was tied to a tree 24/7 — broke free and came to my house. Why? He’d seen me walking with my dogs and I’d talked to him. What I’m saying is not that I’m Dr. Doolittle or something, but that it’s not only that I’m attracted to dogs, they’re attracted to me. I think I emanate a, “I love dogs,” pheromone and they sense it.
My mom said they were children replacements. That wasn’t and isn’t true. I’m not their mom and they’re not “fur babies.” My dogs are something else, not quite pets, either. Companions, definitely, but what does that mean? Living with so many dogs has taught me a lot, some of which is inarticulable. I think it’s in “dog” not human language.
So pet? Child surrogate? Friend? I’m dubious about all those terms. But having had not “one” but many dogs during some hard times of my life, and feeling their company was sufficient, has made me think about the canine/human connection.
When my alcoholic brother died, and I learned about it five months after the fact in a strange and unsettling way, I came home from work alone with that knowledge. I remember opening the door to my very cold, very dark house in the mountains, starting a fire, feeding the dogs — at that time five dogs — cooking dinner, all with a numb, sad, cold place inside of me for which I had no words. What do you do, what do you feel, when you learn about your brother’s death five months after it happens? How do you even think about where he might have been when he died? How do you face the questions you will have to ask? How do you even think about finding his remains or what you will do with them? How do you confront the absolute loneliness of that reality? There is no consolation, really. In time you’ll talk to friends, family members will call, there will be sympathy, flowers, even, but that first realization is as lonely and cold as a stone house on a dark night.
There were the huskies, Lily, Cheyenne and Cody. Dusty T. Dog, of course, and Big Puppy? I don’t remember, but I think so. When the initial bustling of a return home was finished, and I sat down to collect my thoughts (which was not possible) I noticed that all of them were there, as near me as they could get. Cody suspended his vendetta against Dusty, and sat quietly beside me, my Knight in Furry Armor. They were simply THERE. I am not sure that any person could have accomplished that much-needed companionable silence. There would have been words and in those moments, there were no words nor should there have been. There was sorrow, dark, purple, bleak, silent, exhausted sorrow.
There have been many times in my life when dogs have been “there for me,” so to speak. I’ve left my house and all my possessions in the care of my dogs during a few dark times, never imagining that there was any better way or any better guardians of our lives. It isn’t really strange. Shepherds trust their life’s fortune to their dogs and have for thousands of years. That I, a single woman, would entrust myself to dogs doesn’t seem that strange to me.
So I do not know really what to call them. Not pets. Not “fur babies.” For me it’s a relationship between equals who have different abilities in interpreting the world. That many of my dogs have learned I love watching birds and learn to show them to me is beautiful. I didn’t train them; they have the instinct as predators and they are aware of my behavior all the time. I’ve seen them work it out — most recently Bear. It’s as if she has thought it over, “Oh, Martha likes to watch hawks and cranes. We always stop to when she sees one.” Suddenly (it seemed to me) she was watching for them, too. Her breed is part “sight hound” and seeing that gift of genetics play out to help me enjoy birds is pretty wonderful. But most of my dogs — one way or another — have learned to read me and to relate to me with that knowledge — the same gifts that make some dogs guide dogs and helpers for handicapped people.
Cody O’Dog — above — was an exceptional being and someday I’ll write about him, but he embodied that human/canine partnership best of all my dogs, so I’ve put his photo here. In the photo, he’s in the backseat of my car and we’re heading for Montana. 🙂