We’re a dog family. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have a dog. When I was a baby, we had two golden Labs – Cain and Abel. I don’t remember them at all, but I do remember a golden collie named Lassie. I must have been 4 when we got her. She was sweet and silly, and was run over by a car and killed a few years later. It was my first heartbreak so I remember very clearly. I was in Sunday school then and was glad that there was a heaven, so she’d be waiting for me up there. When my Sunday school teacher said that dogs didn’t have souls, and therefore would not be in heaven, I decided I’d rather go to Hell.
After Lassie we had a nutty poodle called Puppy, a lovely German Shepherd named King, and Hesse. I can’t talk about dogs without mentioning Hesse. She was a rescue shepherd, gotten from the dog pound when she was just nine months old. She’d been severely mistreated, her shoulder had been broken, and she would duck her head and cringe when you went to pet her. We were young when we got her – my brother was 4, my sister 6 and me 7. When she realized we were her forever family, and that we loved her, she became the most amazing dog in the world. She would babysit us – barking if we went in our pool, grabbing my brother by the bathing suit and preventing him from swimming. She stood on the edge and watched, and if we went underwater she’d bark until we came up for a breath. She was our guard dog, and never barked if someone we knew knocked on the door – only when a stranger was outside. She loved children. The whole neighborhood mourned her when she died from a tick bite. She was too young, only 9. We stayed home from school the day she died, huddled on the couch, bereft.
The dog I have today is called Auguste. He’s actually the family’s dog, my daughter’s dog, mine, my sons’ and husband’s. We all treat him differently – he’s a family member, another child. We’ve never been without a dog in the family. Our first dog was Fudge.She was my sons’ birthday present when they turned 5. They were in kindergarten, and we spelled it out in front of them so it wouldn’t ruin the surprise. “We’re going to get your present today, we told the twins. It’s a D-O-G.” Turns out they were expecting GI-Joes. But they loved Fudge. She was the twins’ dog from day one. She was their guardian, she slept on the foot of Alex’s bed for all her life, opening his bedroom door when everyone had gone to bed and sneaking back into her doggie bed at dawn, before anyone was up. She could open any door or window and was deathly afraid of thunderstorms. She was a destructor – chewing shoes, chairs, rugs…our living room rug still has the ragged edge that she chewed off it. She was amazing, standing next to the boys and baring her teeth when anyone dared get too close. She did the same when Julia was born, stationed next to her stroller – silently snarling at anyone who came over to admire the baby. They were Her children. We would say, “Go get Sebi”, and off she’d run, taking him gently by the hand, leading him back to us.
She died of acute leukemia. In less than a week, she’d gotten sick and died. It was too sudden. She was only eleven. We waited a year before thinking of getting another dog.Because it can never be just a dog. It’s adopting a member of the family. Fudge had been a black Labrador, my husband, when I’d met him, had had a yellow Lab. We decided to get a chocolate Lab. Her name was Rusty. We got her from a breeder who didn’t want her because she had an undershot jaw. “Look,” said the breeder, showing us the puppy. She peeled back Rusty’s lips and showed us the bottom teeth overlapping the top ones, like a bulldog’s. “I’ll give her to you for the price of her vet bills.” We took her, and brought her to the vets a month later for her puppy shots. The vet looked at her jaw when we told him she was defective. He peered at her teeth. “She’s perfect,” he said. We decided she’d been holding her mouth like that so we’d adopt her.
Rusty was the perfect dog. Never cried, never chewed, never dug holes and was house-trained in minutes, it seemed. She and my daughter were inseparable. When she was 7, she showed signs of getting old. We decided she needed a puppy to keep her active and young. We got Auguste, who Rusty adopted after first loving him, then deciding she’d had enough, then finally accepting he was here for good, and she might as well get used to it (although she encouraged him to escape from the garden as much as possible by showing him where the holes in the fence were. “Bye bye Auguste! Don’t forget to write!”)
But there is a terrible problem with dogs. They die too soon. They don’t live as long as we want. We want them to live with us forever, to grow old when we do, instead of suddenly, shockingly aging into arthritic dementia while we are still young. Rusty was poisoned twice in her youth, and the first time barely survived. The vet said she’d never make it to old age, and her kidney’s failed her when she was just 10. My daughter still has her dog collar in her room – and when she sees it, she cries.
Auguste is elderly now. I don’t want to look into the future – with him, it’s all in the present. He makes me see each day as it is. And maybe that is one of the gifts of dogs.