I love dogs. Honestly, I like dogs more than a lot of humans. I have had 5 dogs in my life that touched my soul. Four carried the same name — Belle — because I believe that the soul of one passes on to another. My current hound is simply named “Dog.” He came with that name, and it seems to be working for him.
My father, God bless his soul, was an alcoholic. It was painful for him to express his feelings. I don’t recall him ever kissing my mother, holding her hand or putting his arm around her. I never heard him say “I love you” or a nice thing about her. If he ever told me he loved me or hugged me, I do not remember it. I was never daddy’s little girl. He was not violent, but he was sarcastic and passive aggressive. Archie Bunker, literally, was his role model.
Our family dog, a German Shorthair, was the only living thing with whom he could express physical affection. He took every and any opportunity to show her his love. On a table next to “his” chair — where he drank, read the newspaper, and watched endless hours of football, golf, boxing, baseball — he kept a bowl of hard candies.
He fed Belle hard candies and made sure she had a pillow when she cuddled up in front of the fire, which he made in our fireplace, seemingly just for her. It got to the point where she would only go outside to the bathroom if he took her. In the morning, she accompanied him to the our large bathroom upstairs, where he would turn on a space heater for her as he listened to the radio, shaved and showered.
He adored that dog. I resented my father for many years for not showing my mother and me as much attention and affection as the dog. But in hindsight, I am very glad he had Belle. Without that dog his life would have been void of any physical and emotional affection.
I inherited my father’s alcoholism and passion for dogs. Throughout most of my life I have felt as though I did not fit in. I felt safe when I was alone, but I hated the loneliness. As a teenager, when my depression and alcoholism hit their stride, Belle was always there for me.
Once, when I was very angry, I slammed a door on her tail. It bled for weeks. I still have not forgiven myself for hurting her, even though she forgave me immediately. During the last 10 years of my drinking career, as my depression worsened, my dog became my best and only friend. I often drank alone as she watched. I blacked out many times but always woke up safe. Although I had no memory of what I had done, I believe she took care and protected me from harm.
Four years ago, in my last major depression, my dog was my confidant. Without saying a word she knew what was going on. She insisted I get up and take care of her. When I could not sleep, she roamed the neighborhood with me in the middle of the night. Sometimes she ignored my hopelessness, as if saying, “What you are going through is not the real world — it is only the world you see when the chemicals in your brain are out of whack. THIS is the REAL world,” and then she would deposit a toy on my lap.
When I was in my depression, I believed I had let down everyone in my life — I was a disappointment. But not my dog. Her eyes always said, “What’s up with you? Come on, throw the ball.”
As I slowly crawled out of my black hole, I realized that I could not give — and had not given — my dog what she needed. Belle, a Weimaraner, needed room to run and play. My best efforts were not enough. And so one sad morning, I took her to the park, threw the ball with tears in my eyes, then drove her to my brother’s home — where she would have 5 acres and three Labs to play with.
It was the first loss I had experienced after crawling out of my depression and I was afraid it might push me over the edge, back into my black hole. But it did not. My medications and therapy had given me a solid floor and I could stand, with tears in my eyes, and embrace my sadness without fear it would kill me.
All this is why I love dogs. And this is why yesterday was one of the happiest days of my life. High in the mountains of Wyoming, beyond the reach of any cell phone, I stood on the back of a sled, pulled a team of dogs hellbent on taking me to a sacred place. For ten miles, the team trotted at an even pace, unaware of the blue sky, breathtaking mountains and silent woods.
They were not bulky huskies or Malamutes. They were simple, kind of scrawny looking dogs, bred for generations by the Alasakan Inuit to pull. Some had run the Iditarod, the dog sled equivalent of the Tour de France but in subzero temperatures. All these dogs asked for was food, love and a harness.
Finally, they ran to the bottom of a hill and stopped. Above us a ribbon of hot, steamy water rushed down the side of the mountain into a pool of clear water. I undressed, walked into the pool and floated on my back. The dogs waited below, napping and cuddling with each other. I dressed, ate a lunch of fresh grilled trout and played with the dogs.
They pulled us back with the same determination, trotting quietly and evenly along a river bank. As we approached the yard, about 150 other sled dogs barked and howled with envy. I bent down and thanked each of the dogs that pulled me to the hot spring. I walked through the yard, stopped, bent down and nuzzled other dogs that looked longingly at me.
Then I left, very happy, very grateful and very blessed.