Life Lessons, Courtesy of Man's Best Friend
Now we shut our garage doors when not going in or out. And when Dino goes into alarm mode—which is not a very common occurrence, given that he's one of the mellower beagles around—we investigate outside a little bit ourselves before we let him out.
Because in fact it's not true that when Dino was going nuts the night of the garbage can that I let him out without fully taking my mind off whatever I was doing. It was worse than that. I'd been trying to concentrate on something—some reading, or YouTube, or my own vacant look reflected in the windowpane, who knows—and I'd lost my patience when his barking had crossed the four-minute threshold and I'd gotten up and propelled him outside with what they used to call, in the 18th century, an angry oath. My family's seen me do it before. Much aggrieved, and never thinking, Hey, you just saw a huge bear out there, and you know the bear's been coming around.
In other words, I could have been throwing him out into one of those monster movies in which the dog who first sounds the alarm, when he's finally let outside, is only heard from again once, with that telltale yelp. Was I sending my dog into harm's way? For that moment when I opened the door, it didn't matter.
That's relevant because I've now had six dogs in my life, and as far as I'm concerned I killed two of them. I killed them by giving in to an irritable self-absorption and taking them for granted in ways that came back, and still come back, to haunt me. As taking things for granted often seems to do.
Karen and I have a lot of childhood photos of each other. One she loves is from around my first Communion, maybe even the day of my first Communion; sources disagree. Either on that day or very soon after, as a celebratory gift, my parents gave me my first dog, something for which I'd been pleading since the day I discovered that dogs existed. In the photo I'm probably 6. I'm posed in front of the unpainted cement foundation of our house, decked out in a new white shirt and black dress pants so tightly belted that I look like a cartoon. My hair, Brylcreemed, has been sculpted in the fashion of the period into some kind of breaking-wave arrangement. I'm holding Lady, my first puppy, who's on her back and squirming to get loose. My arms are out in front of me, the way someone might carry firewood. You can barely see her face.
What Karen loves about the photo is my face, which has clearly just passed some insane outer boundary of happiness, headed for somewhere else equally unprecedented. I remember during the taking of the photo being aware that I was insufficiently able to control my expressions. I remember, in fact, that day as being full of the sort of wild happiness that doesn't allow you to sit still, even when told, repeatedly, by pleased and weary parents, to sit still.
Lady turned out to be a German-shepherd-and-something mix, the something being an unspecified hound, probably, given her smaller size. We hit it off, by which I mean I thought about her morning, noon, and night, and spoke for her when people asked how she was doing. (As in, "Lady goes, 'I'm doing fine. How're you?'")
We sailed through six years like that. She was a supernaturally smart dog, by which I mean that she was certainly the smartest dog I'd ever had, and that she always seemed to know exactly what was going on with my emotions, which was more than I could say for any of the adults I knew, or, more important, for myself. If I was sad about something, she'd sit next to me and lean into me. She wasn't impatient with my sadness, as my panicky and overstressed parents tended to be. If I was mad, she'd go sit in her chair with her chin on her paws, keeping a wary watch. She seemed to register that patience was always the best way to deal with anger.