Just My Dog

May 1, 2009

They’re not almost family; they are family. They may have no language in our terms, but they speak clearly in the way that they laugh and smile and express joy, sadness and pain; they cannot read or write, but if you don’t think they can count, put four biscuits in your pocket and only give him three; they are supposedly without souls, but I don’t think I have ever met a creature with a larger one.
   From the first time a wolf or some descendant snatched a shred of mammoth meat from a Neandertal fire, they have been our companions, and never was there a more valiant or devoted one. As a race, we have treated them with equal portions of adoration and horrid brutality, but they possess far more forgiveness than human beings shall ever muster.
   Witness Greyfriar’s Bobby, a Skye terror in the 1800s. After his Scottish master died in Edingburgh, Bobby stayed by his grave for 14 years until his own death in 1872. A statue at the gravesite commemorates his devotion and loyalty.
   No small wonder that W. Dayton Wedgefarth wrote, “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.”
   When they are in pain, we feel their pain. A few days ago, Bogie, our 16-month-old yellow Lab, started to make an odd clinching of his neck and twisting of his head. He would grimace in obvious pain. I watched him closely through Monday and the condition worsened. We searched for tooth decay, something stuck in his gums, for Bogie can chew a bowling ball into graphite powder. His ears didn’t seem sore, nor could we find swelling in his neck and jaw.
   By Monday night he had stopped eating, clearly because it hurt him to chew. So I took off Tuesday afternoon and brought him to a doctor in Franklin, but they were tied up with surgeries and recommended a vet in New Iberia.
   Bogie, a little frantic over all the excitement and of course not feeling too well anyway, wouldn’t let the lady vet see inside his mouth. She said she’d have to put him under to really see what was going on, and it would be a couple hours before I could retrieve him. It was the longest two hours of my life as I puttered around New Iberia looking for something to keep my mind off worrying. I gave up and went back half an hour later and they said they were just about to call me.
   Unfortunately, the doc could find nothing wrong with my lad…teeth fine, gums fine, neck, ears, throat, all fine. She gave me some antibiotics and anti-inflamatories to try to soothe something that might remain unseen. She said he even flinched under the anesthetic when she opened his jaw to look around, and was mystified.
   He was quite “out of it” when they brought him out to me. I set him in the truck cab with me, and he didn’t really know where he was yet. He was constantly looking around frantically, because the vet said he probably wouldn’t be able to make sense of what he was seeing for an hour or two. His nostrils flared as he tried to compensate for his perplexing vision with his nose.
   I put a hand on his shoulder and he jumped back, frightened, lost his balance and nearly fell off the seat. “Good boy, Bogie,” I said soothingly as I could. He looked around, eyes rolling, afraid. I stroked his shoulder. “It’s okay, buddy, it’s okay.” In a few moments he licked my hand, acknowledging I think that he finally knew it was me, and found comfort. I rode him home that way, dazed and jerking his head around in confusion, nostrils flaring. If I took my hand off his shoulder when I needed both for the wheel, he grew more frantic until I touched him again, and he settled back into a confused, but calmer, condition.
   At home, I carried him into the house and set him down on his mat. He tried to get up and collapsed with a yelp. So I stayed there with him for a time until he settled down and napped peacefully.
   A couple hours later, he was up and around, fairly steady, and seemed to be aware of his surroundings again. I fed him some kibble moistened to make it soft, and he ate most of it. By nightfall he was back to himself, and in the morning we started his medication.
   We won’t know what will happen after the regime of meds is done, about a week. Of course, we’re praying this takes care of whatever is ailing him.
   I always knew how much I love and need him, but I never really was sure what I meant to him. Certainly, the huge grin on his face and wagging of the tail could mean here comes supper, or a walk or a game of fetch, but nothing about me except as a vehicle to fun things. But as we drove home together that afternoon, and I felt his frantic, confused shoulders relax under my hand, I think I knew my answer. And I was silly forever wondering at all.
   I’ll let Gene Hill finish this column yet again, a bow to the master of stories about dogs, and of friendships:
   “He is my other eyes that can see above the clouds; my other ears that hear above the winds. He is the part of me that can reach out into the sea. He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason for being; by the way he rests against my leg; by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile; by the way he shows his hurt when I leave without taking him. (I think it makes him sick with worry when he is not along to care for me.) When I am wrong, he is delighted to forgive. When I am angry, he clowns to make me smile. When I am happy, he is joy unbounded. When I am a fool, he ignores it. When I succeed, he brags. Without him, I am only another man. With him, I am all-powerful. He is loyalty itself. He has taught me the meaning of devotion. With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace. He has brought me understanding where before I was ignorant. His head on my knee can heal my human hurts. His presence by my side is protection against my fears of dark and unknown things. He has promised to wait for me – whenever, wherever – in case I need him. And I expect I will, as I always have. He is just my dog.”