I have had animals in my life, of one sort or another, since I was five years old. Nearing my 65th birthday and trying to formulate in my mind the best way to tell this story, I tried to go back and remember the names I had given the creatures in my life along the way. I remember that my first dog was named Bucky, a beautiful purebred German Shepherd who died unexpectedly soon after I had gotten completely and unconditionally attached to him. I remember my mother telling me he died of distemper. However, in my spotty memory, I recall it was only a few days after he had climbed on the dining room table and eaten the entire Christmas ham, so who knows what is truth and what is protecting the tender and fragile sensibilities of a child in the earliest years of attending Public School?
If my memory serves me, the next pet that came into my life was a baby duck which I named Jack. I will never forget this animal because I was so excited to have him that when my mother went out with her boyfriend, I took him out of his cage, put him on my chest, and laid down on the couch. If you’re paying attention and you’re over the age of five, you know what happened; she came home from her date and told me it was time to get into my own bed, but I insisted on finding Jack, who could not be found anywhere until I actually got up off the couch Define his poor smashed suffocated carcass underneath me. Needless to say, I have never laid down and taken a nap with a baby duck ever again. Who knows, perhaps by the time I’m done writing this essay, I may have a cathartic moment and discover that, had I gone to pre-pubescent counseling, I might have prevented my being as fucked in the head as I have become over the years?
Next up was Timothy, the cat who, in hindsight, must have been my mother’s way of trying to soothe my tortured soul over having already gone through two pets in less than a year. I remember bits and pieces of Timothy because I remember him and me hanging out in the driveway playing with slugs – him batting at them, me pouring salt on them- while my friends tried and failed to kill ants with a magnifying glass. While I’m on the subject, does anyone else besides me miss the days when it was still okay for boys to be boys… Always dirty, always smelling funny, doing silly things, and clumsily trying to learn how to sit atop the food chain? But I digress.
Over the years since I reached adulthood, I have had many pets; I have had dogs and cats, I have had fish and turtles and reptiles, along with several doves and a goat, and I’ve even had several snakes and, most importantly, for me, I was able to realize a lifelong dream of owning horses. Hell, I even had a steer that I raised -named dizzy – who would feed my family for almost an entire year. And yes, I overcame my duck issues and went on to have chickens and roosters at one point along the way. I can honestly say, however, putting horses aside, that the animals I have most grown attached to (and never been able to get over the loss of fully) are the glorious members of the species known as canine.
There’s no way I could have known ahead of time, but the wedding presents my second wife and I received from her sister in Texas would bring my love of dogs to a new level. I had lived through purebred Collies, Shepherd-Husky mixes, and a bevy of mutts, but nothing prepared me for 3 English Mastiffs. Yes, three. And for those of you unfamiliar with this magnificent animal, I can assure you it takes a special kind of person to have even one English Mastiff, let alone living with three; the average adult weight of a female is 150 lb, and the average weight of a male can be as much as 250 lbs. And, just so readers understand, animals this size, whose instinctive characteristics are to work together in packs to kill anything that threatens the people and the herds they are charged with protecting, are not the sorts of animals to be lived with by the faint-hearted. Consider, for your personal edification, that these animals have been in use as far back as 3000 BC, where they served not only as charging soldiers in battle but were also employed to fend off lions and bears intending to attack flocks of sheep and goats and other types of livestock.
Not very long after being gifted these animals, I moved my family to Texas, but none of us knew the mother was already pregnant with another litter, and even though she lost those puppies -in large part because of the trauma from the long-distance move – she would go on to have another litter and, by the time all was said and done, I had as many as seven of them before I was through.
The interesting thing about Mastiffs is how disinterested they appear to be, sleeping most of the day and lounging about in the yard anywhere they could find shade, there would be times I felt like I should put a mirror under their noses to make sure they were still alive. The grandkids laid on them, slept with them, climbed on their backs, and loved them like the huge teddy bears they were. And you could tell that the dogs loved the kids back, licking them like they were their own puppies that needed to be cleaned, cuddled, loved, taken care of, and protected. But don’t be fooled by this picture-perfect postcard Family Life; if you jumped our gates or otherwise appeared on the property – and they didn’t know who you were or hadn’t previously approved your presence – you better have a gun or the world record in the 100-yard dash because otherwise, you were not going to enjoy their reaction to you being somewhere you didn’t belong or hadn’t been properly invited to be.
Having done a lot of research on this breed, I determined that one day, I should work with them to establish my role as the alpha male in the pack. I have read that having a number of them required everyone to be clear on who the boss was, and even though I had thumbs and they did not, the first time I attempted to assert my role amongst five of them, I genuinely had my ass handed to me. I got down on all fours, holding my head high and staring them in the eyes and, at first, they seemed confused, but once I singled out the mother and tried to pick a fight with her, it was game on. We wrestled, we rolled around in the dirt, and they grabbed me with their teeth… Although they didn’t break the skin… And it took every ounce of strength to pin her on her back finally. She didn’t like it, but she accepted it, and even though they all fell into line behind my role as Top Dog, it never stopped being a sort of “tentative at best” understanding and one that always felt more like a truce than an actual victory.
The years passed, my dog pack aged and died, and I ultimately got divorced and moved back to the Northeast. My experiences with the Mastiffs taught me a lot of things I would not have otherwise learned about living with large dogs. What always stuck with me was the extent to which the strength of your relationship with your dog is greatly enhanced by every ounce of extra effort you put into trying to understand the world from their vantage point. Dogs don’t think the same way humans think; people rely upon – sometimes too heavily – context and perspective, while dogs rely, almost exclusively, on instinct and reflexive impulse. And it would be the dog I have now, Daisy – a Red Golden Retriever / Newfoundland mix – that would teach me just how important it is to make an effort to see the world as she sees it.
Unlike the Mastiffs, Daisy’s breed – the Golden Retriever half, anyway – has incredibly strong codependency characteristics; no matter where I go or what I do, she insists on being right at my heel. She engages with me in direct eye contact as if she needs to keep verifying my approval. Over our years together, especially since the strokes, it seems as if she anticipates what I’m doing or where I’m going, as if she is trying to do her part to keep me safe or help me accomplish simple tasks such as walking on slippery sidewalks or uneven ground. I can’t prove this, of course, and it’s not like we can have verbal conversations, but I’m as sure as I can be (and I think professional dog trainers would confirm this) that we effectively work as a team to navigate our way through our daily lives.
Several years ago… Back when she was roughly three years old… I started making a habit of taking Daisy outside at Sunset, no matter the time of year, so we could watch it together. I honestly don’t know, from a canine species perspective, what – if anything – dogs get out of sunsets, but I do know that the older I get, the more I appreciate the quiet and reflective beauty of sitting outside for a little while with my dog doing absolutely nothing but watching the Sun go down.
As the years have passed, we likewise sit out in the yard as the sun comes up; I have written elsewhere on these pages the critical importance of my going outside, year-round and regardless of the weather, and drinking coffee with her before I even consider the possibilities of interacting with the rest of the human race. We have a little spot in the corner of the yard out back where I sit in my lawn chair, in a t-shirt and shorts or long johns and ski caps, while she rolls around on her back, chases birds and squirrels, and otherwise tends her biological business, and I drink my coffee as I sip on the steaming hot caffeine from my thermos in the serenity of my glorious solitude. I can’t think of a better way to start any day than sitting out there thanking the good Lord above for another day still alive while thinking out loud to Daisy about what the hell we are going to do with the day ahead.
It is midwinter as I bring this essay to a close, and what inspired me to put it down on paper – euphemistically speaking, of course – was the hour or so that we just spent out in the backyard, me laying my head on her rib cage while she busied herself with chewing on her most recent favorite stick, and I took pictures of the quarter moon through the tree branches under which we were both layings. Donned with my seasonal attire – Long John’s, ski coat and gloves, and a ski hat adorning my Noggin – it occurred to me that maybe having all the pets that have come and gone in my life really has made me fucked in the head but that maybe, just maybe, this is the best possible way to be batshit crazy. Think about it… How many people do you know that prefer laying outside on the frozen ground, trying to impersonate a dog? But immediately after asking myself that question, the answer is obvious; it seems to me that the best way to establish mutual respect with your dog is to show her how much you appreciate her approach to life by living it the way she does, seeing it through her eyes and from her perspective, every chance you get.