Mark’s foot crunches a bit of kibble in the living room.
“Worthless beast!” he mutters, and Greta, the little dog, hears his tone and hangs her head.
When I walk by the family room, five minutes later, they are sharing the love seat. Greta has her head on Mark’s leg, and he is stroking her silky ears as they watch TV together.
Mark catches my eye. “Why’d we ever decide we wanted another dog, anyway?”
It’s a question I ponder. Why DO we need a dog?
We first decided we had to have a dog when Matt was eight or nine, so we went to the local dog pound and fell in love. Hannah was a wee little thing, fine boned, with long reddish hair, a distinguished snout, and liquid eyes.
Matt put his head near her kennel, and she licked him through the bars and that was that. Hannah came home with us.
That night, Mark’s parents came over to meet the new granddog, and we sat outside and watched Hannah and Matt romp. It was a perfect spring evening, and boy and dog chased each other around the front yard. Long-legged, energetic, they looked perfectly matched.
It was the last time Hannah ran; the next day she could barely lift her head.
Two days and three trips to the vet later, she laid down on Mark’s feet and died as he called the doctor one last time.
The doctor, a young farm vet, was as sad as we were. “Damn shame,” he said. “Beautiful dog. They never should have let a dog that sick leave the pound.”
Mark had been fixing the garage roof; Matt ran up the ladder and sat on the peak and sobbed. He would not come down.
I called the pound and told the volunteer who answered that Hannah was dead. There was a long pause.
“So,” she finally said, “you want a refund?”
I want, I said, for you not to give people dying dogs. I want you to unbreak my kid’s heart. And yes, I took the refund, because I didn’t want to pretend that what had happened was all right.
We buried Hannah in the backyard, next to Sylvester the hamster.
Five years later, Jim was a toddler and Matt a young teen when we passed a house with a ‘free puppies’ sign out front. We passed it, and then we turned around and drove back to it, and we went into a garage full of yipping, bounding puppies. In the back, quietly watching us, was the smallest pup, a little black, brown, and white charmer.
“A boy dog,” said Matt. “I want a boy dog. I’m going to call him Sherlock Holmes.”
We bulled through the bouncing puppies, and hunkered down by the little guy in back. Matt rolled the dog over; there was a tuft of white hair in the right place, and we nodded at each other.
We put Sherlock in the car; the dog licked Jim’s cheeks and then bounded onto Matthew’s lap. I’ll never forget the look he gave me…that look that says, at this moment I am completely happy.
We took the puppy home.
We had forgotten a couple of things…one was to consult Mark, who grumped for at least a minute before falling in love. And we forgot we weren’t exactly nature kids, because Sherlock turned out to be Shirley. We called her Holmsie, though. She was the best dog.
She went to the lake with Matt and his best buddy Rob; she jumped off the dock and swam with them. I walked her on the leash pushing Jimmie in the stroller; we took long strolls through Mayville, exploring the town.
We put the baby gate up in the kitchen when we left the house to keep her out of the dining room. One night we came home and she was waiting for us on the other side. She was standing with her paws on the gate and a proud grin on her face, and the chocolate cake I’d scratch-baked for Mark was almost all gone.
“WHY do we HAVE to have a dog??!?” Mark howled, but it didn’t take long for him to forgive her.
She protected the house and the boys; she was sweet and loving and could not end the day without sitting in front of the television, sighing with bliss, as one of us combed her out. She was with us from Matt’s boyhood to his manhood, from Jim’s baby days till his teen years. She moved with us to four different houses in two different states, and she rendered, every day, unconditional love.
When she got so sick, at age fourteen, that her life was a living misery, Mark and I took her to the vet and let her go. We held on to her thick dark fur and we sobbed as our friend breathed her last. When we looked up, the doctor and the staff members all had red eyes and wet cheeks.
And we got in the car, and we looked at each other, and we said what you always say: Never again. This is too hard.
Less than a month later, on a Sunday afternoon, we were driving by the humane society, and we said, we’ll just stop and look. The kennels were crowded with puppies and young dogs the staff had named for television and movie personalities. We avoided Roseanne—although she lunged at us, hugely,–and bypassed Peewee and Bruce, and then we saw Greta. She was huddled in a corner of the kennel, and she looked so sad.
When I bent down to look, she came right to me.
“She’s never done THAT before,” said the volunteer. “She usually runs away.” And she brought Greta out to see us.
You know the rest of the story. We weren’t able to just pop her in the car and bring her home; the young professionals who ran the kennel came to see our house, and once they were satisfied we were somewhat sane and the house and yards were safe, and we arranged to have Greta spayed, she came home to stay.
Greta is not a Holmsie dog. Holmsie was a big-hearted giver; Greta was a mistreated need-er, and we poured our love into her. Eight years later, she loves us fiercely, but she still is leery around other people; she still sometimes drags her food dish to a hiding place and dumps it, eating furtively—hence the kibble on the hardwood.
Why DO we have dogs? I read a book on the subject not long after we adopted Greta, long enough ago to have forgotten title and author, but I remember what it said. There are two theories, it stated, about how and why humans and dogs developed their bonds.
One said that dogs would follow human hunters, and when the hunt was successful, and the people had eaten their fill, the dogs would enter the camp and polish off what the people couldn’t eat or didn’t want. That was GOOD, because no other wilds were attracted by the leftovers. Soon the humans were training the dogs to help them in the hunt.
The other theory said that humans, with their unprotected tender parts, trailed the dogs; when the dogs were finished eating, the humans would move in to take the scraps. And soon the humans had figured out the art of weapon making and were helping their benefactors in the kill.
I can see the possible truth in both theories. Holmsie would have been the sharer, the dog who gave, who hunted and fed the humans; her life’s goal was to serve.
Greta would have been the follower, depending on the tribe for her food, wary and frightened outside the circle of the fire.
Whatever. Needed or needer, giver or taker, the circle closes. Some houses are empty without a dog.