The springer spaniel
photo is now my desktop image. He's tied to a flimsy chain, the kind with thin oblong links you used to get in garden shops for something that didn't involve restraining an animal. He's standing proud on the spot he's worn clear of grass over the years. Looking into the distance toward something worth chasing he'll never get to. His uncombed fur is long and unruly brown on top, white underneath, liver and white is what they called him at the puppy farm.
His name is Herbie. I came up with it.
I took the picture with my fully manual Yashica camera, one of my rare properly exposed kodachrome images. I digitized the image some years back. It was an automatic process. I hadn't even looked into the file until I got my new laptop and there he was.
There's a small bare spot in his fur, just above his left eye. That was a hotspot from stress. He was always stressed.
I was 13-years old when we got him from Lamb's farm in Illinois. He died in New Jersey, 14 years later. My wife, young daughter, and I had moved to California earlier that year so I wasn't there when it happened. Mom had to take care of it because she was the only one home when he died. He couldn't see very well, nor hear. Even though he'd never done it before for some reason he hobbled out through a door my mom left open when bringing in groceries. He went into the street and was hit by a passing car. Mom brought him to the vet and they put him down.
She told me about it when I called her on what would become my weekly ritual of calling back to the east coast to talk to my parents.
I probably said, "Oh well, he was old." I probably just moved the conversation along. He was going to die at some point and given I'd moved my small family to the west coast chances were I wasn't going to be around for it.
"He was your dog."
"Not much I could do from out here. At least you won't have to worry about him when you go on vacation."
". . ."
And so on. It never occurred to me that perhaps I should have taken Herbie when I got married and moved away. I had a new life to start. Anyway, things live. Things die. Life goes on.
When I took that photo he was just a convenient subject for my camera. When I ran out of flowers to take pictures of, there he was. He was a subject. How excited we were to get him, and what an annoyance he became later in life. A massive inconvenience. He was something that required me to go out in the dead of Chicago winter and walk in the subzero darkness. He was something I had to feed once a day. He got in the way when our friends came over. Stole food from our table and was the reason we couldn't leave any shoes out of the closet.
Then we brothers and sisters got married and moved out and left him with my parents.
Never looked back.
Maybe it's age. Perspective. Maybe it's knowing what we did and how we felt about him, or how little we felt about him.
I look at that photo and what goes through my mind is: poor dog, forgive me.
He wasn't a particularly good dog. He barked a lot and jumped on people when they came in the house. Both things infuriated my father, who reacted by locking Herbie in the laundry room or taking him out back and chaining him to the fence. When he got older, we just chained him to the fence as a matter of habit. He tended to want to be in the house with us at night. But unless it was raining, he went back out to the fence to be out of the way, which is where we mostly wanted him.
Knowing what I know now about dogs, I know what an awful life we provided for that creature. The cause of his behavior lies entirely at our feet. At mine. We didn't know how to raise animals. We treated him like some sort of distorted miniature hairy human with terrible manners. He was fed, but poorly looked after. We even stopped walking him, and he took to making his messes at one extent of his chain, and sat toward the other. Inevitably, because we didn't clean up after him, his entire chained area would be covered with dried excrement.
We were all busy living our lives and this animal was an appliance we no longer wanted, but couldn't easily remove. If he'd once had a purpose it had ceased to be relevant soon after we siblings were all into our teens.
I look at my desktop picture of my childhood pet, and now realize that if there was any lesson in his life it is for me to now realize how possible it is to so completely fail some being who is under one's watch. How easy it is to be brutal without intent. How easy it is to practice ignorance without prior malice. To wish one's self into an absolute knowing that everything is fine and we are impeccable when the evidence is clear we are not.
Because it was inconvenient and difficult to do what was right for Herbie - we didn't. It's as simple as that.
He was just a dog.
Maybe that's why we have dogs.
I consider myself a dog person. Now that I am remarried we also have cats. Living with cats reaffirms my lack of understanding of the species. I can take care of them and provide some degree of comfort to them, but their mental patterns occur on a frequency that does not resonate with my existence. To me, they are a couple evolutionary steps above bugs, and a step below dogs, who are only a step or two below humans.
I don't begrudge cat people their love of those animals. It makes sense to me that there are cat people just like there are probably cockatoo people and hamster people and maybe even marmot people and chicken people.
But I am a dog person. I hunt in packs. I am part of a team. I believe greatness evolves from our local society and that it makes perfect sense to yell at the lights in the sky.
I believe there is a hierarchy. I believe I am at the top. I believe it is my job to acquire resources and see they are shared. I believe the weak should be tended to, the sick cared for, and the strong put to service to the utmost good of the group. I believe we all have a purpose in the pack, however insignificant. And I am alpha. I fought to get here, and I will keep my position until some young pup unseats me.
Now I understand a lot more about how canines think. It isn't totally intuitive. I've had to study dog behavior. I've had to be trained, and I've taken training from professional scientists, zoologists, and local puppy school people. While I don't remember much of many other things I have been taught in life, the stuff about dogs has stuck. Their impulses make sense to me. Their behavior doesn't confuse me.
Most importantly, though, I fully understand the dog-human boundary and the dangers of crossing it. Dogs are not people. People are not dogs. I know that treating dogs like tiny furry people just makes them miserable and prone to antisocial behavior that in the end benefits nobody.
And because I know all these things I know what a rotten life we gave my first pup. What a hell must have been many of his days, due to me. I who named him, the alpha male in our pack of humans and dogs, am most responsible of all.
My current dog is 11 years old. She's a girl. Her name is Ozzie. She's a 120lb Akita, black with white socks. I have trained her the best I can.
She is getting old, my Oz. There are white circles around her eyes and her muff is as gray as mine. We both have arthritis. Neither of us is much interested in throwing or fetching balls anymore, though nearly every day we act toward each other as if the possibility is there but perhaps we'll play fetch later.
She is always happy to see me, and I make certain I am always happy to see her. I make sure she gets to the vet. When she develops a hot spot we look to see what's changed in her environment, and how we can make it easier for her.
She barks when it's important to bark, doesn't jump on visitors, and has a role to play in our home. She takes care of us, and we her.
We walk every day, whether or not we need it. These days the walks are much shorter. She tires out after a block or so.
If things go the way the physics of nature turns out, I will be with Oz till the very end. It's a day I am not looking forward to.
I hope she thinks of our relationship that it was a good life. That we caught plenty of mice and blue jays. That the treats were bountiful, the fields were flat, and the companionship was real.
It's important to me that she knows, and I know - that I did what I could do. Because I'm positive she's doing everything she can do, and never falters. And Herbie did the same.
As far as I can tell, dogs, and most of the natural world, are all about life. So I don't know what a dog thinks about death. I am pretty sure my dogs haven't had a clue about their parents or the pack we took them from when we adopted them. I don't know if Oz knows she's getting old. If I didn't remember that I was young, myself, I might think I have always been gray haired and paunchy. If Oz is fretting about age and the end of the road, she doesn't show it. But I am sure she senses the tension and sometimes reflects that back.
Maybe that's the last step for me, too. To realize what I could have learned from these animals about being a social creature is that to be in the lead demands responsibility to the team. That to worry about the inevitable is a senseless waste of energy. To let what is, be.
And there will come a time to just lay down under the back porch, bark at a passing deer, and watch the young pups contend for bragging rights.
I'm nearly there. So is Oz.
But not yet.