ARL readers will have noted the recent posting regarding the unfortunate death of my dog Jake. Mrs. T expressed surprise that I hadn’t said any more and, I suppose, I wasn’t ready to do so at that time. Here and now, I present a more appropriate epitaph.
Jake, more properly “Salmac’s More Than Jake“, was bred to be a first class hunting dog. His blood lines were fairly impressive, including several dual (field and show) champions and at least one national dual champion. As Brittanies go, he was from pretty good stock. But, just as important to me, he was also a gift, given by a new friend and neighbor who, despite his own many flaws, understood that such generosity was a keystone to opportunity. And, this gift, was certainly that.
Now, I know, every human with any kind of “heart” is likely to feel something about a puppy. I was 40 years old and, while my family had dogs when I grew up, I’d never had my own dog. I hadn’t yet come to understand the nature of that sort of relationship.
Now, I’m not the sort of person that believes that animals have an equal value with humans. Neither do I believe that we humans are all that great. But, I think we’re here on this planet to learn something really, really important. And, its in these various relationships, including those with our pets, that I figure we have the best opportunities we’re going to get to learn those really important lessons.
We might hope to learn them most effectively within our families, but for all sorts of reasons – missing or deceased parents or spouses, a lack of siblings, infertility, late marraiges, even the more generic interpersonal dysfunction – those opportunities can be missed, lost, or somehow corrupted. We get still more opportunities with our neighbors and co-workers. And, yes, we get them, I think, with our pets too.
In fact, these more fleeting opportunities with our, sadly short-lived, pets present a quite special and unique opportunity for many of us. After all, where else can we see such pure devotion, unconditional love, and sheer exuberance for life? It is also a quite distinct and serious obligation to care for any creature that, of necessity, is utterly dependent on you.
But, the point, I think, in each and every one of these various relationships is the opportunity we get to understand the true meaning of love or, more acutely, of service; whether as parent or child, brother or spouse, boss or employee. In these roles, we learn firsthand the bittersweet truth about our own existence here. For, it too is fleeting and there will only be a limited number of opportunities for us to “get it right”. And, I don’t know about you, but I’m running out of time.
So, the fact that Jake was a gift, is and was something essential to me here. You can’t help but feel a little differently about that sort of generosity. In fact, I’ve become increasingly aware of how easy it is to become hard-hearted in this world, sometimes because opening one’s self up to love is often so painful. It is easy to imagine that, after all is said and done, the real “lesson” we’re intended to learn here is nothing more than developing our hearts.
Perhaps it is needless to add that Jake, though a gift, was also, ironically, poetically, “his own man” too. There is an old saying that, “if you need a little humbling, try ordering your neighbor’s dog around”. Well, that opportunity happens with our own dogs (not to mention our kids) too, now doesn’t it?.
And, boy, let me tell you, this was one (doggedly) single-minded fellow. He was, after all, a “real” hunting dog. And, for those of you may not know what that means, I’ll try to translate: There is an order to a dog’s universe; for some pleasing the master might well come before food or sex. But, for a hunting dog, hunting is all of that combined. You might not be able to tell the difference. It was, in other words, his whole identity, his job, his purpose for being, whether at home or in the field. It was the ultimate opportunity presented in each and every day, broken with occasional bouts of rest (i.e. preparing for the next day’s hunting).
I regret to say that, in this realm, I was not Jake’s equal. I’m afraid I was a persistent disappointment. I could neither run as fast or as long, could not afford to spend but a limited number of days in the field, nor, sadly, to change the legal hunting season to a year-round activity. Still, I gave it my best shot, thinking all too frequently, that what he really deserved was for me to up and move us to a place where he and I could (and would) be out in the field on every possible day with a fair chance of finding a bird.
Too often, patrolling our neighborhood trails or our own small pasture had to suffice. But, even in this (though he well knew the difference) he was quite serious, only occasionally offering a look that showed me that he got the joke and that, really, it was OK with him and that he wouldn’t hold it against me. Yeah, he’d rather be hunting for real, but he was perfectly willing to take even the silliest training exercise as the real deal. I sort of figured that, in the end, even a bad day’s training was, to him, far better than being, well, some kind of show-poodle.
In fact, Jake really liked training. He knew what it was all about. If there were live birds involved, well, all the better. He could become utterly obsessed with his anticipation. In his vocabulary, which I once counted to include some forty or fifty distinct words, “bird” was near the top of the list.
But, nothing, and I mean nothing, pleased him more than demonstrating to me that he was ready, willing, and able to find birds. His (and my) first ever successful hunt was a true Montana double, when – at only seven months of age, mind you, he both pointed and then retrieved two pheasant roosters that fell well beyond our sight. Did he have any natural talent? Yeah, you could say that. Even his breeder was near speechless, something of a rare thing itself, as it happens.
All I could think was, thank God I had done my part on that particular day. For most of our hunting career, I was more frequently not up to the task. And, though Jake’s own love and devotion were pure enough, when hunting was the job at hand, he wasn’t much inclined to worry too much about my feelings. That could wait until after the hunt.
In fact, God help me if I wasn’t holding up my end of the partnership. In short order, he’d go it on his own. Miss his point – and, oh yes, he would know if you were actually paying attention – and he’d simply dump you, caring not in the least that he might never catch a bird without your help. He’d still do his job of finding them, tracking them, following them to the ends of the earth if necessary. Oh sure, he’d hope you’d eventually catch up. But, I figured that on more than one occasion, in the vast spaces of Montana where such a thing is actually possible, he’d tracked a bird several miles before eventually giving up, not on the bird, I suspect, but on me ever getting there.
Now, there are hunters that would say that Jake hadn’t been properly trained to hold his point or to work closely enough to me. And, in the strictest sense, that might be true. One friend responded to his drooling, lunatic obsession with caged training birds as evidence of some sort of prior torture. Many of my friends dogs, with more regular and disciplined training, not to mention valuable time in the field, tend to be better behaved. They – my friends – are better hunters too, so, I suppose, you could say that those partnerships have been more successful.
But, truthfully, I have to say that, despite the frustration that chasing Jake accross rough country for hours might provoke, I couldn’t help but be in awe of his serious devotion to his job. This boy just didn’t really understand the word “quit”. Not even a little. Not in himself, not in me. And, there’s another important lesson about “heart”.
That heart proved to be a really good thing in the end. At eight years of age, Jake was struck with “Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration” (SARD); he was totally and completely blind in the course of only 1-1/2 weeks. In preparation for the coming season, we’d just taken a quick little shake-down training outing over the weekend before it struck. He was blinded so fast that he never had a chance to gradually get used to it, it suddenly just was. And, of course, he didn’t understand it at all. In that first week, he’d sit on my lap and, you could see him physically exerting himself, trying to see, opening and closing his eyes. And, man, I gotta tell you, that was really hard to watch.
But, as I said, this was a dog that didn’t know how to quit. He knew he was going to bump into stuff, but he still wanted to go, as hard and fast as he could. He learned to take (occasionally) our verbal cues when he was about to smash into a fence or wall. And, we tried for the better part of two years to get him to accept running on our horse’s lunge line…a long lead…so he could run full-out in circles. After two years, when he was 10 and starting to lose his hearing too, he finally, reluctantly, gave in on this…still, running all the faster when he knew I was there to watch.
In the end, of course, it was my decision to quit. Jake had the kind of heart where, I’m sure, he might never have come to it himself. Even on his last night, he was still willing to pull hard enough on his lead just to show me he was still strong, still ready to go, still on the job. But, he could no longer breath properly, his hearing was 95% gone, he’d get lost and confused, would panic, hyperventilating so badly that he couldn’t lie down, wheezing like a tea kettle. For several nights running he’d not slept at all.
So, I played out my role as ultimate master, and as God, God help me. I have a friend who believes that our dogs must be allowed to die a “natural” death, that it is inappropriate to intervene in the process, that it presumes too much to take on God’s role here. I understand that point of view, though it’s far easier and more natural to defend it when we’re talking about our fellow-man: their souls are at stake, after all.
But, not so with our pets. Oh, and no, I’m not saying they don’t have souls. I don’t even pretend to know the answer to that, or to even guess what nature of being they even are. It’s far too easy to say, as some do, that “they’re just like us”. But, they are not.
We can’t help but realize that, in their difference, they are often better than us or, at least, better than we know we ought to be. At the same time they remain beasts that are oh so ready to kill, to steal, and to rape. But, of course, those labels impose an equally inappropriate moral standard on them. The difference between a good dog and a bad dog, as often as not, is simply the character of their owner.
So, while they are alien to the human species and the “human condition”, there can be no mistake: they tend to be mirrors of who we are and how we behave. They have feelings, memories, language (even math) skills, yearnings, the ability to play, to mourn, to sulk, to anticipate judgement and, most surprisingly of all: an innate desire to please us, their masters. In this it seems very clear that they are part and parcel of God’s kingdom, and here willing and able to teach us something really, really important.
What can you learn from such a relationship? There are those that are tempted to equate them with our own kids. Not having human children, this is a habit that Mrs. T and I fall to easily enough. But, we do know the difference, though, having only playfully adopted these “mentally challenged”, four-legged, alien “kids”. Still, is our own “alien adoption” into God’s kingdom so grossly different? And, what might we imagine our status ought to be in that family?
I’m not tempted to believe that the trees or rocks in my yard can love me or that I ought to do any more than admire their beauty. These dogs, strangely though, clearly know love and respond to it. For this, if nothing else, they earn a place in our hearts and, one hopes, would motivate us to be better masters. In their example too, of course, we also learn to be better servants. Perhaps that’s the real deal here.
But, in the end, it almost always falls to us, their masters, to determine just how much suffering we will allow them, our devoted pets, to endure. This is the ultimate burden. Do we imagine that it should be easy? It can’t be and it isn’t. It is enough, I hope, that, right up to the end, my Jake was still ready, willing, and able for whatever was next.
June 2000 – December 2011
~ Wherever you go, go with all your heart. ~