STANLEY pointed out the other day that the lives of dog owners are measured in dog years.
It’s not that we only get a year for everybody else’s seven. He meant that eras in our lives are delineated by which family pet we had at the time.
My husband was talking about this on the night we “lost” our beloved dog. Molly, a Golden Retriever-yellow Labrador cross, was almost 12, happy, affectionate and still quite energetic, when her health suddenly declined. I’ll spare you the details, but, among other things, she had inoperable cancer, and euthanasia was the only compassionate option.
Twelve years is a reasonably long life for a dog, and Molly had a wonderful existence, gamboling along the North Shore’s trails, dashing in and out of its rivers and bogs, and hanging around with children and teenagers, her favourite pastime. Give her a body of water and a bunch of swimming kids and she was in absolute bliss. For years she got extra joy out of mountain romps with four-footed friends courtesy of the fabulous local dog walkers at Sweet Paws. She was a deeply loved dog, and, like every ideal pet, she returned the favour.
Now the time of Molly is over, just as the life of her predecessor, a somewhat aloof but still endearing blue tick coonhound named Cooter, came to a close 15 years ago. When we revisit the Cooter era, we picture time spent in Calgary on the sunny open plain of River Park, and the hours she spent following her amazing nose wherever it led. Once, she stayed with our friends on their acreage while we were away. When we picked her up we discovered that she’d rubbed her nose raw chasing the countryside’s countless delicious scents.
My life’s first doggy interlude featured a shy, sweet English springer spaniel called Pandora. My teen years coincided with the era of Pandora’s soft-hearted granddaughter, Cleo, and her buddy/nemesis, Lace, a plump, eccentric Irish water spaniel. When they were young, this naughty duo loved to steal roasts off counters and tear into Christmas presents that weren’t meant for them. As old dogs with graying muzzles, Lace and Cleo attended Stanley’s and my wedding reception and posed in our pictures, belles of the ball.
While at the animal hospital the other day waiting for the test results that ultimately led to Molly’s demise, Petunia, Stanley and I were looking at a book in the waiting room, still hoping for the best. It featured quotations about dogs along with photographs of Hollywood’s canine actors in everything from The Thin Man to Air Bud. Among the quotes was one whose source I can’t recall. It said the great thing about dogs is that they understand you’re sad without wanting to know why. We can learn a lot from dogs’ acceptance that some things just are – the why is not important.
Much later, as we drank rather heavily to the memory of our tee-totaling friend Molly, Stanley and I concluded that dogs are democrats while cats are anarchists. Perhaps this was a generalization. Maybe it’s just Labs and Retrievers that are democrats, while Jack Russell terriers are fascists and Schnauzers are members of the Green Party. Whatever.
Certainly, our dog understood the concept of the top dog not being her, and the notion that she needed to get behind the top dog. I wasn’t the top dog -- that was Stanley’s role. I was seen as more of an adorable sidekick. (Trust me, nobody else sees me as an adorable sidekick. Our dog was nothing if not optimistic.)
Besides providing unquestioning affection, a pet’s job is to bring some comforting regularity to your life. In our house, Stanley revealed recently, he’d be downstairs making breakfast for our son while subconsciously listening for the sound of Molly’s tail starting to wag beside our bed as soon as I woke up. The thump of her morning greeting would travel through the floor, into the kitchen ceiling, prompting Stanley to put on the water for my tea. Our morning had officially begun.
Dogs must be regularly fed and watered; they must be let out; they must be walked. Most of the time, through these rituals, they take you out of yourself without making you feel imposed upon. A good dog is a welcome encouragement to shake off your own routine and get into theirs -- preferably outdoors.
As somebody who works at home, for me, our dog was the best sort of colleague. She didn’t make stupid observations or annoying grammatical errors. She was always nearby, so I was never alone. And she was constantly up for a break, especially if it involved our walking together through the rainforest. While she did not laugh at my jokes, as the ideal colleague must do, I felt sure that she would if she heard them in translation. Molly – as is probably the case with most dogs – simply radiated approval. That is, of course, when she wasn’t radiating pure doggy joy.
We each had our own habits with her, Stanley running her behind his bicycle when she was younger, Bart wandering through the neighbourhood woods with her to meet up with his buddies, and Petunia using Molly’s need for exercise as incentive to get active. Molly, of course, had her personal obsessions, including a smelly sock chewing addiction that must have doubled our hosiery bills over the years.
While I don’t consider myself a dog “nut” by any stretch, I do agree with the fanatics that a dog is much more than an appendage to your life. It becomes integral. It helps define who you are, and what you do, and who and what you love. If somebody doesn’t like your dog, it’s the person who diminishes in your eyes, not the dog.
A great dog teaches you gentleness and how to find joy in the passions of others. Watching Molly jump off a big rock into the water and paddle, over and over again, behind an inflatable boat groaning with kids to the middle of Sechelt’s Trout Lake gave all of us as much pleasure as doing it ourselves.
We will get another dog. She won’t be the same dog as the one we had – the ones we’ve had – because dogs are individuals. But if this particular dog, this extraordinary being named Molly, taught my family one thing, it’s that life is truly unthinkable without somebody like her in it.