Good Dogs

Gene Hill once noted that anybody who thinks money can’t buy happiness forgot about little puppies.

Sure, there’s “dog people” and there’s people who don’t think much of dogs, and people who actively dislike dogs. Same with cats. But I’m of the Tom T. Hall mindset, “Ain’t but three things in this world that’s worth a solitary dime: old dogs and children and watermelon wine.”

Why not? They’ve been with us near’on a hundred thousand years or so. Did you know that a dog is the only “animal” besides ourselves that can understand the act of pointing?

It’s true. When you point at something nearly all dogs will look where you’re pointing, more so some breeds than others, and sometimes a vocalization is needed to enhance it.

But even chimps don’t do that. Scientists claim it’s because our long association with dogs has favored a genetic disposition for the intelligence widget that understands pointing. I think that’s hogwash. I think our dogs are as in tune with us as we are with them, and it may be a matter of evolution to some extent, but if a chimp, our nearest cousin, can’t do it and a dog can…well, that gives you some idea of which species we ought to be hanging around with.

I’ve had some remarkable dogs in my day, and only one that was truly dumb as a stump, and even she understood when I pointed at something. It’s amazing.

Our current member of the family is Bogie, a four-year-old yellow Lab of some 70 or so pounds. Named after Humphrey Bogart, he is a remarkable dog in his own right. More, he’s a member of the family.

Bogie can be an unbridled bundle of vibrant energy. Alternately, he can be a statuesque display of calm. He’s also uncannily intelligent. The things he understands amaze us.

We were trying to get him to go out to make his business before bedtime one night. Suzie held the door open and Bogie wasn’t budging.

“Go on,” she said.

Bogie wasn’t falling for it.

“Go on, Bogie. You can come right back in.”

So Bogie darted out the door, hit the bottom of the steps, spun on his heels and raced right back inside. We laughed ourselves silly, but the point is, he understood a phrase he has rarely if ever heard before: “You can come right back in.”

One night Suzie and I were in the living room and had treated ourselves to a few cookies. Bogie was resting on his rug, and Suzie and I went outside for about five minutes, leaving the dog in the house.

We trust Bogie implicitly. He’s never counter-surfer or chewed anything up. But when we came back in and sat in our respective places, Suzie said, “Uh-oh, I left a cookie here on the sofa and it’s gone.”

Bogie was sitting between her and his rug by then, and we noticed the napkin Suzie had her last cookie on now lying on his rug.

“Bogie,” she said softly, “did you eat my cookie?”

And I swear on a stack of bibles, Bogie looked from her eyes to the napkin on his rug and lowered his head in shame.

We were stunned. So she said, “Bogie, where’s my cookie?”

Bogie looked at the napkin again, and lowered his head more as we did our best to keep straight faces.

This dog, that’s supposed to be far less intelligent than a chimp, made a mental connection between the cookie on the napkin on the sofa + the actual question she asked him + the location of the napkin after he snatched the cookie to = guilt over what he had done. Or at least remorse that he had been found out!

I don’t know about you, but I find that amazing.

But it’s more than that. If we are sitting next to either other, Bogie’s got to be right in the middle of us, tail helicoptering, pushing his snout between us. To be part of the family. When we first let him in the house in the evening after spending the day outside he runs jubilant, joyous circles around the living room for a time, then flops over on his back and writhes delightedly on the oak floor. We call it the “happy dance.”

Will Rogers once noted that if it’s true dogs don’t go to heaven, he wanted to go wherever they go, and I wholeheartedly agree. Yes, there are some “bad dogs” out there, but it’s usually because of bad people. On the whole, I think Bogie probably deserves to go to heaven more than I do. Same for all the dogs I’ve shared my life with.

The saddest thing about dogs is that their lives are so heartbreakingly short compared to ours. One wonders sometimes why we bear the pain. Why we share those scant few years with them and then lost them and cry for days on end.

I know why. It’s because, as W. Dayton Wedgefarth said, “I talk to him when I’m lonesome like; and I’m sure he understands. When he looks at me so attentively, and gently licks my hands, then he rubs his nose on my tailored clothes, but I never say naught thereat. For the good Lord knows I can buy more clothes, but never a friend like that.”

Dogs are champs at lots of things, like retrieving, swimming, catching treats out of the air, but their most blessed talent is unconditional love. Dogs are the most forgiving creatures on this rare and wonderful old planet. To paraphrase Toby Green, I can only hope to be half the man Bogie thinks I am.

The way they must see us! Their pack leaders, their providers and their families. There’s a look in a dog’s eye, when he fixes you with that gaze, that scrutinizing, adoring, loyal expression…it’s almost unsettling. But our dogs revere us, seek to protect us, and often can’t comprehend why we do the absolutely silly things we do. They must think us simple sometimes with the foolish things they see us do day-to-day. He is the eternal optimist: Bogie is always sure something good is about to happen. He’s never pessimistic. His outlook on life is without fail positive.

But when we get home, and Bogie is waiting at the door, and he stretches out in a low bow, tail wagging vigorously, I know what we’ve got there is a true friend.

I’d far rather have a dog as a companion than a chimp. I like Bogie better than I like most of the people I know (you know who you are!) and find him to have greater honesty and integrity than many of the human beings that pass through my life. Some say he doesn’t have a soul. I declar hogwash. If there’s no soul in those big brown eyes, no spark of spirit in the calm, contented way he nestles in between Suzie and I and draws our presences closer to himself, then I doubt the existence of my own soul itself.

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