I saw the movie Marley and Me this afternoon. (Read the book a couple years back too, so I knew what I was getting myself into.) The movie was mildly entertaining, tugging at heartstrings wherever possible. (I cried more reading the book.) Funny thing is, I should've written that story, for I lived it almost to the chapter.
Tom and I had two before-kid dogs, Porter (black) and Pilsner (blonde). (Pilsner was originally adopted by our roommate, but he ended up with us because we didn't have the heart to split the dogs up when lives took us down different paths.) They were littermates and largish dogs, weighing 70 and 65 pounds, respectively. Their mix was never clear. Porter looked a little like a Gordon Setter, and Pils a Golden Retriever/Lab.
What one dog didn't think of, the other did. I can't tell you how many days we'd come home and they'd be casually sitting in the front yard, paws crossed, because they dug under or jumped over the backyard fence. Pilsner destroyed two couches. He was known for jumping out the sun roof of a car and following you in a store. They both seriously tested the limits of life at least six times. And I mean seriously -- dashing across busy roads; lost in the woods; jumping into rivers fed with spring runoff; eating ant traps; catching a collar on a fence while trying to jump over (we found the collar hanging on the fence with no dog in it); broken leg; the stories go on and on.
Then came the kids. Both dogs were unimaginably gentle with the babies, though we were sure we heard them both say, "Oh no, not another one" each time we returned home from the hospital with a screaming bundle. Mia, our first child, gave them patience by climbing on them, pulling ears, tails, fur. Her first full sentence was "Mia ride the Porty dog" while she was sitting on Porter's back, bouncing up and down on him.
They traveled across country with us in an RV -- when Mia was two and Will one. They weren't welcome on the trails in the National Parks we visited, so that created some apprehension while we went hiking and they stayed in the rig, drooling all over the windows, eating whatever they food we mistakenly left out, and sitting on the tables.
In Vermont, they loved swimming in Lake Champlain in the summers. Unfortunately, they took to roaming about freely in our neighborhood, and we received many a call from neighbors who found them. Pilsner even made it about five miles down the road to our neighboring town one day.
We lost Porter to a tumor when he was about 12 years old. As far as we know, he had never been sick. We discovered he had the tumor on a Monday, and he had to be put down seven days later. The Marley movie sadly replayed almost every detail of that day for us.
Pilsner finally met his fate a little more than a year later when he was doing what he loved best -- roaming the neighborhood. It was a snowy Sunday evening in March, and he walked in front of a car in the road right in front of our house. His hearing was failing, so I imagine he didn't hear the car. But as our vet told us, that was a better way for him to go than the strokes or slow failings that many pets suffer.
Boy, they were good dogs.
We've replaced them with two more dogs, Kip and Kobe -- both rescue dogs. Kip is about four years old. A border collie mix from one of the Carolinas. He's red, sort of smart, very loyal, and high-strung, just as you would expect from a border collie. Kobe, a black lab mix, is eleven months. He was brought to New England from Georgia, and he's not very smart at all and eats anything, which causes lots of bad gas. This doesn't make him very attractive sometimes, but we give him enzymes to help his digestion. He's overly loyal and affectionate, but he's still a pup. So we're hoping he settles down a bit.
They're both good dogs too. But nothing can really replace those first two. Kip and Kobe are certainly better behaved dogs than Porter and Pilsner. Or, more likely, we're better behaved owners. We've learned that crating dogs, sending them to a kennel/camp when we vacation, and installing a wireless dog fence in the yard leads to a significantly less stressful pet owner experience.
So Kip's outside barking at the dark. Kobe's probably eating bird seed or frozen sticks. And I close this blog with an internet "Dog Philosophy" story that a friend emailed me a few months back:
Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog's owners, Ron, his wife, Lisa, and their little boy, Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle. I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn't do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home. As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.
The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker's family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away. The little boy seemed to accept Belker's transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker's death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives.
Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, 'I know why.' Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I'd never heard a more comforting explanation. He said, 'People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life -- like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?' The six-year-old continued, 'Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don't have to stay as long.'
If a dog was the teacher you would learn things like when loved ones come home, always run to greet them. Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride. Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy. Take naps. Stretch before rising. Run, romp, and play daily. Thrive on attention and let people touch you. Avoid biting when a simple growl will do. On warm days, stop to lie on your back on the grass. On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree. When you're happy, dance around and wag your entire body. Delight in the simple joy of a long walk. Eat with gusto and enthusiasm. Stop when you have had enough. Be loyal. Never pretend to be something you're not. If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it. When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently. Enjoy every moment of every day. That's what dogs teach us.