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 Ė whenever, wherever Ė- in case I need him. And I expect I will Ė as I always have. ĖGene Hill
The measure by which all dogs are considered has long been my beloved Shadow.
An English springer spaniel of estimable character, boundless energy and daredevil bravery, Shadow came from a pet store in Lafayette. He was a bundle of liver-and-white fur, so sad and lonely in the display window, he had to come home with me. He just had to.
Shadow grew into an amazing dog. Cunning and clever, he was everything the canine breed strives to be. Regrettably, he met his demise at age four to a mama copperhead snake when he got into her nest of young Ďuns, that insatiable curiosity his undoing.
I wasnít home when it happened. She must have struck him multiple times. I belatedly found the nest and dispatched the whole family. I was heartbroken beyond words: My friend and ally, my faithful companion, had died there in the yard, alone, pumped full of agonizing venom. I probably could not have saved him even if I had been there, even if had I rushed him to medical help, but at least he wouldnít have faced death alone.
When Iíd take him out to the pasture, and while Chance -- his buddy, a cocker spaniel Ė would bound here and there, stopping to smell everything, Shadow would run.
That dog could fly. He would wait, impatient but still, until I gave him leave: "Run, Shadow."
Then heíd leap into motion, belly low, legs pumping and ears flapping behind him, and heíd run like lightning across the pasture. I have never had a dog that fast, donít think Iíll ever see a dog that fast again. Perhaps itís just idealistic bias, but Iíd have put Shadow up against any greyhound around.
He had seen me through a divorce; relocated with me twice until I finally settled into the home Iím in now, the old family place. It was odd: Heíd always walk without being taught, on my left side. Thatís my bad eye, the one that never really worked since I was born, and I have very limited vision in it. It was like Shadow knew this, somehow, and took up sentry there on that side as we strolled down path and trail.
I never knew if anything I had done had made him such a good dog, or if he was just born with the spirit. These many years later, I think it was both.
Long after he was gone, my girlfriendís black Lab came to stay with me. Already of considerable age, the dog became my fishing pal and bayouside-browsing pal. I had gone through that common denial: That "I donít want another dog for as long as I live" phase, but Daisy panted and grinned her way into my heart in no time at all. Sheís grown pained of joint and slow now, but her tail still has the energy of a pup, and when she smiles at me Ė yes, she does smile Ė my heart still melts for the olí girl.
But I guess there was something else haunting me about Shadowís death. Not just that I felt I had failed him, somehow, in his battle with the copperhead and his lonely death. Itís that there was nothing there to fill that vast emptiness, and I didnít want anything to. I waded through his sudden absence like self-flagellation.
I dug a hole in the backyard. Over so many decades, the number of pets that have been buried in that yard totals dozens. I dug, and I cried, and when it was done, I lowered Shadow into it, and just before I covered him up, I noticed that he was curled up in a ball, legs tucked under him, nose hidden under his front leg. Almost exactly the way he was when the store attendant handed him to me four years before.
It may not have been appropriate. I donít know the ways of my ancestors well enough for so much has been lost. But I placed tobacco and cedar in the grave with Shadow, and a small feather. I also placed a dog snack there to sustain him on the journey. This is the way of my people, and perhaps it wasnít done that way for a dog, but it was done that way for my dog.
The other night I was reading For the Love of a Dog by Patricia B. McConnell, and a comment by one of the authorís clients struck me as amazingly apt:
"Heís my best friend," the client said, "and I donít know a thing about him."
It was, after all, why I picked up McConnellís book, and a handful of others. I just hadnít quite defined it like that. Itís when I started realizing that I am still haunted by Shadow. What, after all, did I know about his overwhelming desire to chase and confront everything that moved? Springers were bred for hunting. He would leap four feet to snap dragonflies and carpenter bees out of the air. He chased and ate more tree leaves than a Snapper mower. But did I ever stop to consider why? Why he spun circles in unequaled joy when I opened the door of the truck for him to get in? Why he ran like a bolt of liver-and-white lightning in wide, spiraling orbits for absolutely no reason I could fathom, running and running so fast until he seemed to just wear himself out? But after only the briefest respite he would strike out again, a djin unleashed. More: Why he would sit, sometimes, and stare deep into my eyes, probing, and I could sense there an intelligence that perhaps wasnít vocal or devised language, didnít have an opposable thumb or use tools, but at some level stretched far, far deeper than mine.
Oh, I read and reread the dog training books when our Lab pup Bogie came to stay with us, a six-inch long bundle of soft yellow fur. But when I began probing the psychology of dogs, along with the physiology, I began to get a tiny clue about them. About my friends present and past.
McConnell suggests we can learn a lot about our dogs by their facial expressions, and I believe she is correct. I knew, from my own experiences, half of what she described already. But I never wondered why a dog sidled up to me with tail wagging or why heíd look at me sometimes, body turned away but head half-slanted at me, and eyes showing the whites as he looked me in the face. McConnell suggests many answers to such things and as I looked and watched and listened, I realized thereís no way to truly know for sure but I suspect sheís pretty much on target.
Yet what I also learned from McConnell and others is that what weíve done is made Bogie secure or as Cesar Milan calls it, balanced. From the day he came home with us at seven weeks of age, we have made him secure and balanced, just by instinct, I guess. I spend as much time as I can with him. I spoil him rotten in some regards but expect manners, abiding by rules and behavior. Suzie tells me if I leave the house or just move out of his sight, he goes frantic looking for me, whining and searching. And when she drives up in the yard, he races to the door and stands waiting, behind wiggling, tail helicoptering.
All I intended was a dog who would mind his manners, do some bird hunting and be a good companion for the family. But when he was tiny, fluffy and pudgy, I would lay on the floor of the workshop with him and let him climb all over me and tumble off; I played with his toes and made him nip and giggle; I didnít comfort him when the storms came with thunder and rain but I assured him with my stance that he had nothing to fear, and I let him know he was safe when he heard strange sounds in the night. All the things I did with Shadow. And Iíve ended up with a dog thatís, by all accounts, content and unafraid. He harbors neither anxiety nor suspicion. Certainly, he has his stubborn moments, like any teen. He pushes envelopes, challenges authority. He hates his baths and his flea spray. But in his security, he needs no reassurances from me from moment to moment, knows that though I may leave I always return and, most of all, that I will not let him down.
But I tend to be overprotective. I worry too much. Itís hard to let him be a puppy sometimes, and when he gets himself in a bind itís even harder not to intervene unless he really needs me. To let him work it out on his own. Perhaps Iím not as convinced as he that I wonít fail him somehow.
I suppose I am as great a mystery to him. The things I do, the noises I make, especially when I sneeze, which makes him go crazy.
I still think of Shadow, talk of him often, and thereíll always be a part of my heart reserved just for Shadow. He has worthy successors in Daisy and Bogie. Still, sometimes, when Bogie and I are out in the fields, walking trails and heís searching happily for bugs or insects or birds, I detect the slightest of movement on the peripheral of my vision, out the corner of my bad eye, the side he always walked with me on.
The rational part of me claims itís only the wind, but I whisper softly, just to be sure: "Run, Shadow."
And in those times, I think of a verse by Beulah Ferguson Smith, and wish my old friend a happy journey wherever he was bound as he brushed by my side:
We have a secret you and I,
That no one else shall know,
For who but I can see you lie,
Each night, in fireglow?
And who but I can reach my hand
Before I go to bed,
And feel the living warmth of you,
And touch your silken head?
And only I walk woodland paths,
And see ahead of me,
Your small form racing with the wind,
So young again, and free!
And only I can see you swim,
In every brook I pass. . .
And, when I call, no one but I
Can see the bending grass. . .