I’ve had dogs all my life and can’t imagine living without one (or more). I’ve had cats, too, so I’m eminently qualified to say that dogs bring something to the party that cats don’t. For all you cat people out there (and I count several of you as my dearest friends), this is not in any way a “dogs are better than cats” argument. It’s a love letter to any animal you hold in your heart. In my case, it just happens to be a dog.
I grew up in the 60s in rural Georgia, out in the country on a farm. If you have any familiarity with this kind of environment, you know that there are always dogs around. Strays that live off the land or the kindness of strangers. They hung around humans for food and the occasional shelter under a porch or in a barn, but were not the kind of dogs you could pet or walk on a leash or play fetch with. They were primal, harkening back to their instinctive roots of early domestication. Humans provided food and if you stay out their way, they wouldn’t hurt you. Fifteen thousand years worth of trial and error.
Once one of these strays crawled under our back porch and had a litter of puppies. We fed the mama and I was so excited to hear the little muffled grunts of the puppies and couldn’t wait to see them. Daddy pulled up a floor board from the porch so I could look at them, but not touch. One day shortly after they were born, the mama dragged one little pup out into the middle of our backyard yard, dropped it there, and went back to her den. Daddy gently picked it up and placed it back in the den with the others through the pulled up floor board. Then the mama did the same thing again.
Daddy tried to explain to me that the mama knew there was something wrong with the little pup and he wasn’t going to make it. So she was trying to concentrate on her other pups and let nature take care of that one. That made no sense to me – if that one was compromised in some way it needed more care, not less. I convinced my parents that we should try to raise the pup. We made a nice, soft, cushy bed for him out of some old cloth and a shoe box and put him next to the water heater where it was nice and warm. I fed him some concoction that my mother made through an eye dropper. I named him Patches because his still unopened eyes had patches of light brown on his otherwise white fur.
He lived for three days and I grieved for him when he died. We buried him in his little shoe box in the back yard. I was so resentful of that mama dog for putting him out, like it was her fault he died. It wasn’t until much later in life that I could separate my own instincts of love and protection from the mama dog’s instincts of survival of the fittest. It still stings me a little to think about, but we tend to anthropomorphize animals. It’s our nature.
That was the beginning of my bond with dogs. After that, my parents got me a series of truly domesticated dogs that lived to please me. My best friends, each and every one of them. I would tell them my secrets and cry into their fur, their velvet muzzles nudging my face as if to say, “it’s alright, I’m here”.
A Dog’s Life
Whoever coined this phrase did not know my dog. In fact, if there is such a thing as reincarnation and I get some say in the matter, I want to come back as a dog like mine. Millie came to us two years after we lost our beloved Harry. We were so heartbroken after Harry’s death at 18 that it took that long for us to think we could ever replace him. Not surprisingly, it was I who first got the itch for another dog.
I convinced Steve to go to pet adoptions and we looked and looked to no avail. Finally, one Sunday at the Petsmart on Ponce in Atlanta, we found Millie. She was sitting in her crate, face pressed to the front, with her front paws pointing out like a slightly pigeon-toed child. She looked like a perfect little lady. I opened her crate and she tried to bolt, but I scooped her up and held her little emaciated 10 pound body up to my face. I scratched her chin and she gently turned her head to me and gave me a kiss. Her eyes closed as I soothed her and she had my heart in its entirety from that moment on.
Her transition with us was not an easy one. She was about 10 months old and was found by the shelter on the street. She had a slight limp in her back right leg, the source of which could never be found. To this day, 12 years later, she favors that leg. She had the most sensitive stomach imaginable and it took us months to find the right food. She also had intense separation issues that caused her to think every time we left her we would never return. She whined at night until we finally relented and put her in our bed, where she still sleeps.
We spend so much time and money trying to figure out why we (humans) do what we do. We see counselors, read self-help books, and blame our parents for everything from choosing the wrong mate to obsessing over the toilet being clean. But our dogs come to us with baggage that we can’t begin to know, especially ones like Millie whose provenance is unknown. What happened to her in those 10 months before she found us? Was she a stray or someone’s beloved pet who lost her way? We’ll never know the answers to these questions so we take her peculiarities as they come and try to understand her fears.
The Italian Dog
Millie has adapted to Italian life better than I would have ever imagined. She’s already taught us the meaning of home and parades around Anghiari like she owns the place. Dogs in Italy are revered and are welcome almost everywhere. Almost everyone has a dog and if you pass by someone walking their dog they always allow them to sniff. They also always ask “maschili o femina” (male or female). Two males or two females aren’t allowed the sniff test, but a male and female – perfetto!
I’m not entirely sure what it is about Italian dogs that are different from American dogs, but Millie is much more at ease with them. Often in the US she would growl or bark at another dog (and they her), but here she is open to sniffing and usually ends up playing for a bit. I really think it’s the attitude of the owners. Italians are true dog lovers and love to see their dogs play. They don’t mind if their dogs take a little detour to mix it up with another dog. They smile and talk about how much they like each other. Once in Atlanta we were walking Millie and came upon a family with a dog. Millie was intrigued and wanted to stop and sniff. I was letting her go up to the other dog when the man said to me, “If your dog growls at mine I will kick it – just want you know”. I said thanks and pulled Millie away, proceeding on our way. That kind of sums it up, don’t you think?
The Heart of a Dog
Loyal readers of Sprezzatura, Yall (both of you!) will know that we’ve taken Millie to the vet here several times. (The Italian Vet, The Italian Vet, Part 2). Her long-time heart murmur has progressed into the beginning of congestive heart failure. There’s no cure for this – it can only be alleviated by medication. She’s now on four different medicines. She’s doing much better now that the medication has been adjusted and has taken root in her system. She went through a very scary time before that, though. She had trouble breathing and had a few fainting spells when her heart just couldn’t keep up. Now we watch her like a hawk and keep her out of situations that stress her. We limit anything that strains her heart. We dote on her more than ever before – which is a lot.
I look at her now and know that her time is limited. I try to memorize every look, every expression, every yip. I look at her Yoda ears and rapidly graying muzzle and smile. I wonder if she knows something is happening to her, just like that mama dog knew her pup was not going to make it. Dogs have so much more wisdom than we do, so much more patience than we do, and so, so much more love than we do. Maybe she looks at me and hopes that I will be OK without her and wonders how we will ever survive without her getting us out of bed at 6:30 every morning. And I look at her and think that the problem with her heart is that it’s just too darn big.