Since 1987, when I got Truffle, my first real dog (on my own; the family experimented a couple of times when I was a kid, experiments that lasted days, weeks or months) I’ve had upwards of twenty dogs living with me. Not all at once. My upper limit was always six, as defined by law. As soon as I learned that two dogs were less work than one, I always had at least two, and usually three, dogs.

My dogs have all been large dogs from most people’s perspective, usually between 60 and 80 pounds. There are larger dogs, but none of them ever made their way into my life. I don’t think they’re that easy to come by. Only one of my dogs was bought at a pet store and she ended up the saddest dog story of all. Big Puppy was an overbred, over sized, yellow Labrador retriever who killed her adopted mom (Cheyenne T. Wolf) and then tried to kill Lily. These events happened with no provocation, no food involved, no crowding at the door, nothing that normally triggers dogs to scrap. The fights were to the death, too, also very unusual among a pack of dogs and not typical of the Labrador retriever. I had to put her to sleep when she was only two years old. The vet suggested that maybe her mother was also her sister and her dad her brother. “It isn’t uncommon,” he said, “breeders are often in it for the money.” We both cried in that little room at the vets’ office as this beautiful golden dog slipped into death.

The rest were rescues. All of them, though two were adopted from their “mom” it was find a home for the pups or they go to the pound.

I didn’t set out to be a dog rescuer, either. Back in the day, there were no breed rescues or fostering or anything like that. I took in a lot of strays, cleaned them up, neutered them and trained them then took them to the shelter and pretended they were my own dogs and I had to relinquish them. The end result of that was that when I wanted to adopt a dog from the shelter, they wouldn’t let me. I fostered a springer/poodle mix who was happy, bright and loving and quickly found a home. I fostered a pure-bred English spaniel who was adopted while I was signing the papers “relinquishing” her. I fostered other strays, too, and found them homes by walking them at a nearby park with a sign around their necks saying, “Please adopt me.” A well-mannered, leash-trained dog in the company of a happy person is pretty attractive to someone looking for a dog. I always checked up to be sure the homes where the dogs were adopted were legit and the dogs were happy.

There’s no way to keep all the dogs.

I have loved dogs as long as I can remember and wanted one from the time I was born, nearly. I used to put my stuffed dog under my pillow at night hoping the dog fairy would replace it with a real puppy. My mom said I always “pet” things, velvet, fur, the satin edging on my blanket, and she always found it odd, but I think it was like the Dalai Lama who is “recognized” because of what he chooses as a small child. Once I finally had my own dogs I felt more at peace with my life.

And I can’t explain it.

I like being around dogs. Dogs also like being around me. I’ve had several experiences in which a completely unknown dog will see me from several yards away and come running to me with no encouragement at all. It’s pretty freaky when it’s a pit bull, but they’re a happy, enthusiastic and passionate breed and it’s been pit bulls more than once. My first year here my neighbor’s dog — who was tied to a tree 24/7 — broke free and came to my house. Why? He’d seen me walking with my dogs and I’d talked to him. What I’m saying is not that I’m Dr. Doolittle or something, but that it’s not only that I’m attracted to dogs, they’re attracted to me. I think I emanate a, “I love dogs,” pheromone and they sense it.

My mom said they were children replacements. That wasn’t and isn’t true. I’m not their mom and they’re not “fur babies.” My dogs are something else, not quite pets, either. Companions, definitely, but what does that mean? Living with so many dogs has taught me a lot, some of which is inarticulable. I think it’s in “dog” not human language.

So pet? Child surrogate? Friend? I’m dubious about all those terms. But having had not “one” but many dogs during some hard times of my life, and feeling their company was sufficient, has made me think about the canine/human connection.

When my alcoholic brother died, and I learned about it five months after the fact in a strange and unsettling way, I came home from work alone with that knowledge. I remember opening the door to my very cold, very dark house in the mountains, starting a fire, feeding the dogs — at that time five dogs — cooking dinner, all with a numb, sad, cold place inside of me for which I had no words. What do you do, what do you feel, when you learn about your brother’s death five months after it happens? How do you even think about where he might have been when he died? How do you face the questions you will have to ask? How do you even think about finding his remains or what you will do with them? How do you confront the absolute loneliness of that reality? There is no consolation, really. In time you’ll talk to friends, family members will call, there will be sympathy, flowers, even, but that first realization is as lonely and cold as a stone house on a dark night.

There were the huskies, Lily, Cheyenne and Cody. Dusty T. Dog, of course, and Big Puppy? I don’t remember, but I think so. When the initial bustling of a return home was finished, and I sat down to collect my thoughts (which was not possible) I noticed that all of them were there, as near me as they could get. Cody suspended his vendetta against Dusty, and  sat quietly beside me, my Knight in Furry Armor. They were simply THERE. I am not sure that any person could have accomplished that much-needed companionable silence. There would have been words and in those moments, there were no words nor should there have been. There was sorrow, dark, purple, bleak, silent, exhausted sorrow.

There have been many times in my life when dogs have been “there for me,” so to speak. I’ve left my house and all my possessions in the care of my dogs during a few dark times, never imagining that there was any better way or any better guardians of our lives. It isn’t really strange. Shepherds trust their life’s fortune to their dogs and have for thousands of years. That I, a single woman, would entrust myself to dogs doesn’t seem that strange to me.

So I do not know really what to call them. Not pets. Not “fur babies.” For me it’s a relationship between equals who have different abilities in interpreting the world. That many of my dogs have learned I love watching birds and learn to show them to me is beautiful. I didn’t train them; they have the instinct as predators and they are aware of my behavior all the time. I’ve seen them work it out — most recently Bear. It’s as if she has thought it over, “Oh, Martha likes to watch hawks and cranes. We always stop to when she sees one.” Suddenly (it seemed to me) she was watching for them, too. Her breed is part “sight hound” and seeing that gift of genetics play out to help me enjoy birds is pretty wonderful. But most of my dogs — one way or another — have learned to read me and to relate to me with that knowledge — the same gifts that make some dogs guide dogs and helpers for handicapped people.

Cody O’Dog — above — was an exceptional being and someday I’ll write about him, but he embodied that human/canine partnership best of all my dogs, so I’ve put his photo here. In the photo, he’s in the backseat of my car and we’re heading for Montana. 🙂

62 thoughts on “Dogs

  1. The community of pack needs no words of explanation, no human entrapment with sounds that aren’t connection. Dog is pack and pack is dog, and there is no survival, one without the other.

  2. Reblogged this on SERENDIPITY and commented:
    I could not have said it any better. Although there have been some periods when I didn’t have dogs (and had cats and parrots), most of my life including childhood, there was always a dog. Usually a big one. Together, after decided to get a dog (we were in a condo with no yard, so we needed to be sure we were ready for the rising and shining and walking, wind, rain, and humidity) . Since then, we have had as many as five and as few as two. Three works pretty well. One seems too few. But there will always be dogs, as long as we can shuffle our feet and remember to buy the treats and there’s room for them on our sofas.

  3. I’ve seldom been without a dog…usually two at a time. Only one at the moment, as she is all I m allowed by the landlord… otherwise, there would be two. We have fish instead…
    She is not a child surrogate…I’m a mother and grandmother and happy with that. She is not a pet. She is herself and we share a life.
    Ani is not a well-trained dog. She knows the basics and accepts the niceties of sharing a home. She knows most commands… and obeys them if it seems the right thing to do. Someone once likened her behaviour to the externalisation of my own inner child… which about sums her up, even though she is definitely her own self, not mine.
    I’ve been without dogs… but never from choice.

  4. They’ve been messing with the reblog function again. It worked for almost a week! Now it is kerplunk again. And now PRESS IT isn’t working EITHER. I keep hoping they will stop fixing things and let them work. Anyway, I wanted to reblog this and finally, I did. No thanks for WordPress.

  5. Martha, I **LOVE** your “Dogs” piece.

    The big question — the relationship?? I fall into “They are my furry kids.” I’ve asked Marilyn, surveying the wreckage of toys, etc. if this is the way it is with babies?? I have no first hand knowledge other than caring for my baby brother as the oldest Brother.
    The furry kids “play” me, knowing how far they can go before incurring my displeasure. I know they know I know. Does this sound crazy? Again, thanks for the wonderful piece.

    • Bear THINKS she plays me but she doesn’t seem to realize that everything she “manipulates” me into doing I taught her. She’s a canine clock. She’s learned the “drill” and if I’m NOT out picking up poop by 9:30 am the world will end. I think the “furry kid” thing this is OK. It’s kind of true. We are responsible for them much as we’re responsible for children. Having dealt with stepsons and a niece, I think the difference is the dogs are more easily satisfied with our efforts. 🙂

    • There are different ‘rules’ of engagement for each member of the pack. My other half is nowhere near being a ‘boss’ entity, instead, he is the one required for the play moments, the extra treat moments, the litter-mate stuff. He has to get toys, play the doona/sheet games, hide/seek, running the yard like idiots, etc. That’s his job in this pack, and mine is to know when to bring it all to a quiet halt – or notify of feed time.

      • Martha, your piece has received numerous (positive) comments from my Facebook friends. Obviously, you’ve touched a tender bone (pun intended).

        FYI: I received a cortisone shot for my bum shoulder today. Duke “checked it out”. Still tingles a bit.

        • Duke probably feels a lot of sympathy for you right now, poor little guy! I’m glad your FB readers enjoyed the post. Sadly, 90% of what I want to say is beyond my ability… But I think dog people get it.

  6. Not pets. Not furbabies. They are what they are, whether they bark or purr, and are treated that way.

    That description of coming home sad and cold, and having all that silent comfort, that just blew me away. Lovely, both the image and the writing.

    • Thank you. ❤ I agree. Horses, cats, dogs all of them — if given the chance — offer us something pertaining to who THEY are rather than what we train them to be or make them out to be.

      • I think the secret is to listen. To stand back and watch, and observe what and why they do stuff. To respond to that pain inside them and know they have to work it out themselves, whether it’s chewing a barn board a week, or gnawing on a cardboard carton, or just howling when it rained…And none of that is about us, we’re just the guy with the camera, with the tools, patience, and the fluffy blankets.

        • Yep. There’s a real difference between Dusty, who’s early life was hell, and Bear who was dumped as a puppy but was never hurt and has spent her whole life here with me. And Mindy who was left in a backyard for years to fend for herself. I just got back from my vet and a walk with the dogs. The vet said, “You’re going to love going swimming out there, aren’t you boy?” Talking to Dusty. I walk them at a slough near the Rio Grande. I said, “Dusty doesn’t swim.” “You’re kidding.” “No, and even off leash he is never further from me than six feet.” Dogs know their own things and I think that deserves respect. I like to watch my dogs put things together in their minds and then act on what they’ve figured out. I know they observe me and try to work with me. I have a bad hip right now and I’m still walking the dogs. They’ve learned to work with going slower, fewer impulsive movements. I knew they would do that.

  7. I don’t think dogs (pets) are a replacement for anything. They just are. They share your life. They become more precious as time passes because their personality becomes more pronounced. There is something special about having a dog in your home that is incalculable and perfect!

  8. Beautifully written and heartfelt, M. 🙂

    I consider myself a dog person too although have only ever owned one – a German Shepherd named Tsar. We had him from a pup and he was a loving, fun, loyal and protective member of our family.

    All animals have some kind of consciousness with which we humans can connect with on some level, even if it be the most basic possible of a shared living being; some animals have the ability to learn to offer us some form or degree of trust (you mentioned horses and cats as examples), but I believe dogs to be the only animal that is capable of deliberately trying to read us, our emotions, feelings, expressions and voice so as to be able to really LIVE WITH us, to want to be as like us as possible (and perhaps hope that we might do the same for them?) – to be an important part of our ‘pack’. (family)

    Thanks for posting! 🙂

    • Thank you! I thought the same until I got to know a horse, though of course a horse can’t live in our space. My neighbors in CA got an old horse and his pen was next to my fence. I spent a lot of time with him, just hanging out. Two of my dogs did , too. He was lonely and made a herd out of Dusty, Lily and me. When I came home in the evening (night) I got the horse version of “happy dog” Brownie was tuned to me and after a while I was to him. It was an amazing experience and I’m deeply grateful for having had it.

  9. I’m rather that way myself and so is my wife. We were surrounded by dogs from infancy and they were our best friends and bedwarmers. I think I am better socialized with dogs than I am with humans.

  10. Very well put! I consider my houseful of dogs, permanent residents and temporary fosters, my co-workers. And they are some of the best co-workers I’ve ever had! Although, sometimes they feel more like my bosses.

  11. This is a beautiful post (and a gorgeous Husky) that I completely relate to. I have also adored dogs since I can remember. They are noble and the most trusted friends.

    • You have a husky. I have had five — Ariel (husky/low-content wolf), Jasmine, Lily, Cheyenne, Cody. They are the most wonderful, wondrous creatures. ❤

      • He’s actually a Northern Inuit Dog, but his lineage does include husky and malamute. Northern breeds have always been my favorite, so much personality.

        • He’s really beautiful. I thought he looked different from a husky, but there’s so much variation in the breed anyway. My second dog was a Malamute/Aussie mix — personality and brains! ❤

    • I hope you get to have a dog, too. I haven’t had the best day today with mine, but they all know that whatever happens (or what they might do) sometime down the road, fairly soon, we’ll go for a walk which in dog language is “have a good talk.” And we did. Every morning there’s a moment when they all come around, not for breakfast but a “good morning” hug and the four of us kind of “re bond” after the night. It’s a very sweet moment. Yep. Dogs are great. ❤

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  13. Terrific read. Your experiences with dogs are inspiring. My three are absolutely terrific companions. They are good to me and I hope I can always be good to them

  14. You had me at “Dogs.” And, you wrote about the relationship between dogs and their humans exceptionally well. I am also planning on writing “dog” posts, but for me, writing about something I feel so strongly about can be difficult. You just gave me hope though. 🙂

    I am also one who loves dogs. We have two rescue dogs right now. Brook is 12 (a lab x border collie) and Ayla is about a year old (border collie x Australian cattle dog). Brook has been my partner in crime since she came to our home. She sleeps by our bed, she goes with me to work, she lays by me when I work on the computer, etc. Ayla has picked up on Brook’s “ways”, so I now have two shadows – can you imagine?

    Thanks for the lovely read. I’m going to go ahead and follow you blog, and I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  15. I am pretty much a cat person (cats seem to love me the way dogs love you…) but I don’t think you have to be one or the other. I adore dogs too!

    Unfortunately I think doggos are a big responsibility and although i am sure if we had a dog it would love coming on all the walks we do, I just don’t think it’d be fair to have a dog sitting at home all day while we work.

    Hopefully one day I’ll be able to have a dog pal again but for now our cat has the flat to himself!

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