I’ve heard all the remarkable love stories of polar opposites finding soul mates. The Croatian and the Serbian. The devout Catholic and the atheist. Online lovers that defy geography. Ex-girlfriends who now have boyfriends. Even the story of the fate-filled collision in a Vancouver dog park where two individuals met over the laughter of calling for two different dogs who shared the same name. They got married. And what a great love story—I can just imagine the curious expression of other dog-parkers when they talk with the now-married couple with two dogs of the same name.
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to address the most transcendent type of love. And that would be the love of a dog. This is a tribute to all the dogs I’ve loved before.
Last Saturday I cut through Allan Gardens on my way to work. A golden retriever galloped after a tennis ball and cantered towards me with the prized ball. His face and swagger was so similar to Bently’s, but when he looked up at me, there was no acknowledgement. He carried on towards his owner. In that instant I realized how lovely it is to have a dog’s acknowledgement. There is no greater feeling than when you have been separated from your dog (even for the length of a work day) and you get that knowing look that a dog gives his owner that says, “Hey, there you are! My person! Where have you been? What took you so long? I’ve been patiently waiting for you all day!”
Josh Grogan’s Marley & Me captured this divine relationship in words. A man and his dog can share an incredible intimacy that is unmatched. And if you don’t love dogs? I don’t think I want to know you because there is something obviously wrong with your human wiring.
Enter Xanadu. He was a drop-off. We lived on a country road where apparently it was acceptable for people to drop off unwanted pets that would hopefully have the persistence to find a new, forever home by themselves. I remember getting off the school bus (age 6?), about to charge down the driveway to secure my place in front of the TV to watch The Flintstones, but instead, found myself on my knees in the grass, mauling my very own dog. Dreams did come true!
I had wanted an English sheepdog in a terrible way. My mother said, “You can barely comb your own hair, how will you ever take care of a sheepdog?” I didn’t care about my own hair, but I promised and swore on everyone’s grave that I would brush my sheepdog until it was fluffier than candy floss.
Xanadu was my sheepdog alternate. He was a Benji knock-off, very vocal, but extremely dedicated. He slept at my side, woke when I did and was always game for my expeditions to the pond, corn field or train tracks. Because that’s how I spent my days. I would eat Froot Loops as required by my parents, and then disappear with my dog until the sun went down.
My grandparents and uncles who lived at the end of Arthur Road had a motley crew of dogs over the years. There was a dopey St. Bernard, a politically incorrectly named black lab (“Spook”), a Great Pyreneese, a few Rotties (that kept my dad in the car—honking until my Aunt Freda would come to the rescue)…but we all gelled. Those dogs could run like greyhounds and followed my cousins and I when we hopped on my grandfather’s tractor to wherever the tractor stopped. They swam with us in the murky irrigation ponds full of leeches and duckweed. They braved the ferocious February temperatures, just to hang out with us.
Xanadu’s short and furry stature meant he accumulated a lot of snowballs on his legs though—sometimes making him completely immobile. On one cross-country sojourn I had to leave my ski poles behind, pick him up, and awkwardly ski home with his shivering, snowballed body in my arms.
There was a Christmas when Xanadu disappeared. For hours. I cried and cried on my bunk bed at the loss of my very best friend. I was so inconsolable I moved to the floor, which would allow for more dramatic crying. My dad was still out in the storm with a flashlight, desperately trying to find our dear dog. As I pounded my fists into the shag carpet, I heard a sound. I held my breath. I looked under my bunk bed and found Xanadu! He was curled up on the stupid Sears bomber jacket that I received for Christmas—the one that I had hidden under my bed because it was so awful. I never wanted to wear it. My rational mind thought that my parents would forget about it if it were tucked away until spring. Naturally I had to confess when everyone crowded into my bedroom and fell to their bellies to welcome Xanadu back (even though he had been warm and comfortable and sleeping on my unwanted bomber jacket all night).
He lived to be 17. Plus all the years he lived before us in a world that we would never know of. One day he just walked away, nearly blind, nearly furless, and found a safe place to move on to the next world. My dad never stopped looking for him. Every night after work he would walk until dusk, calling Xanadu’s name. We never found him.
Certainly, no dog could replace Xanadu, because he was the first. But I have been charmed by many since.
Ripley was a black lab-shepherd cross that belonged to a transient roommate in Vancouver when I was 18. Ripley (or “Re-play” as my French roomie referred to her) was an embarrassment to walk. She practically walked on her hind legs. I do believe she competed in the Iditarod in another life time, because the click of her collar around her neck set her off. Oh, how the neighbour’s would look and point at the spectacle that we were. I often walked Ripley, due to my incurable love of dogs. She would choke herself to death on the leash and drag me to the park in three minutes flat. I have a scar on my index finger as a testament to her wild ways. Ripley loved to chase the tennis ball, but only once. Then it was a tug-of-war to get the ball back. Or, bloodshed, in my case. But she didn’t meant to bite my finger nearly in two, I’m sure of it.
I lived vicariously through my friends’ dogs for many years. I even found kinship with Toughie, my Croatian neighbour’s pit bull. Toughie terrorized my partner on a daily basis and Ziggy kindly offered this sage advice: “If Toughie attacks, pull his front legs apart and it will break his ribcage. Game over.”
Yeah, right. He was telling this to a person who picked worms off the sidewalk so they wouldn’t get stepped on. The person who would throw washed-up starfish back to the sea. I saved spiders from being squashed in the house and rescued sunbathing snapping turtles and snakes from careless drivers on the back roads. Even if I was being attacked by Toughie, I’d never break his ribcage.
Scrappy's lion impersonation
In Uganda, I was elated to learn that the Jane Goodall office had three dogs. When I arrived, there were actually five. Beevis and Buster were temporary additions, who immediately failed the guard dog test. Levi, the biggest and beefiest of the lot, proved to be the suck of the bunch. When a thunderstorm rolled in across Lake Victoria, Levi was the first one pawing to get under my mosquito net. I would hurry downstairs to get the Rescue Remedy for him (a homeopathic anti-anxiety treatment for humans, but dog-friendly). Levi would immediately sit and gladly swallow the Remedy, then assume his position with me in the single bed, beside the two other scaredy cats–Scrappy and Tinker.
Scrappy stole my heart, he was like a little deer. His life was a charmed one—chasing cocky Vervet monkeys who dared step foot on his turf. Tinker, the darling black lab was more concerned with fetching. He wasn’t picky about the fetch item either. In fact, Tinker would find pieces of wood the size of matchsticks to fetch. He would drop a dead cockroach at your feet as a fetch offering. Most of the time the sticks he found were so small that they would remain stuck to his tongue. He would be convinced that he had dropped the matchstick at your feet already and take off running in anticipation of the throw.
I recently learned that Scrappy, Tinker and Levi have moved from their African digs. Due to staff changes at the Uganda office, no one was going to be at the office on weekends anymore to care for the dogs. So, they have found a new home in—wait for it—Amsterdam! I can`t imagine how awestruck (and shivery!) the dogs are in their new climes. As humans we are well-equipped for digesting new locations, but dogs? From Africa to Amsterdam? At least Tinker had a life in England before, and was hopefully able to give Scrappy and Levi a primer of what to expect in their new Dutch territory.
Tinker's "Fetch Face"
When I think of all the dogs I’ve met over the years (shout-out to Maple who ate an entire block of Swiss cheese at a barbeque in Michigan, and Toblerone who I’ve known since a blue-eyed pup to a grey-faced senior gal)– their personalities and quirks shine brighter than some people I have known.
Of course, Bently and Mila carved out a giant place in my heart. I’m surprised Bently trusted me at all after I accidentally ran him through a just-poured sidewalk. The poor guy was in wet cement up to his elbows and I was too busy thinking all the construction crew were giving me cat calls. Meanwhile, they were giving me dog calls—i.e.-Get your dog out of our just-poured sidewalk! I was so in tune with Laura Branigan on my iPod, dodging yummy mummies in minivans carting their kids to school and road repair trucks that I missed the WET CEMENT signs. Whoops. Luckily we were close to McKee creek, otherwise Bently would have had cinder blocks as feet by the time we reached home again.
The mention of Mila still makes me weepy though. I miss her giraffe tongue licking my legs after a run like a popsicle. I miss her howling at the cookie jar several times a day (how could I resist?). I long for her thundering feet down the hallway folllowed by the flying leap into bed with me in the morning. With closed eyes, I can see her in the backyard, whipping her Mad Butcher cow bone six feet in the air. Bones made her crazy, but pig ears were her cocaine. We once thought that we’d been robbed and ransacked. Flowerpots were tipped over, soil was tracked across the hardwood and area rug. Books were toppled from the shelves. It took a while to realize that Mila had snuck a pig’s ear into the house and was anxious to bury it while we were at work.
I miss Mila in the way that a sad song can make you instantly ache (cue up Jann Arden’s All the Days here). But I can’t turn the song off. When I see a lab retriever, Mila visits me every time. I see her vitality, her fierce protection of us from the coyote at Hayward. I laugh through tears to think of the time she came out of the Cultus woods dragging a rack of deer ribs behind her.
Agnes Sligh Turnball was bang-on when he said, “Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.”
I know there will be more dogs, and that makes me happy. I miss fur on my socks. I miss having a running partner who is willing to go out in the sloppiest of weather (the sloppier the better). Bently waited by the front door (so he wouldn’t miss an opportunity) and never asked how long we’d be gone or where we’d be going. He was simply happy to be in my company.
Gilda Radner once said, “I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me they are the role model for being alive.”
To all the dogs I’ve loved before, thank you for letting me be your person.
Special thanks to these pals: Boston, Prince (who rode in the back of the pick-up truck with me on my Aunt`s dill farm), Spook (who rode shotgun in my grandfather`s pick-up while I rode in the back), Brutus, Lucy (of Brantford), Lucy (in Jinja, Uganda), Sally (the whitest dog on the pig farm), Heidi (seen most often with a lampshade on her head), Cruise (despite general annoying behaviour that I will blame on the owner), Ali, Junior, Maverick, Reggie, Smoogles, Vanille, Maple, Toby, Nakina, Kennisis, Max & Chloe (American dog pals), Marlon Brando, Chester, Morgan, Abby, Molly, the 17 farm dogs that chased me on a daily basis on my bike commute down River Road and Doodlebug. And to those I haven`t met but have strong affection for—Kuluk (RIP), Extra in Nunavut, Mr. Wilson, Maddie, Midgie and Midi the wonder dog. And I know I’ve forgotten ten dear others, forgive me.
“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” –Roger Caras