For years, I was a cat lady, but that changed when I married a man with cat allergies and we adopted My First Dog. No fluffy, cat-sized critter for me, I chose the biggest guy at the shelter, a sweet-tempered 8–month old black lab mix, 75 pounds, all tongue and tail. In gratitude for giving him a home, Heathcliff rewarded us with his eagerness to work. The first night and every night thereafter, he slept between the door and us, instinctively guarding with hackles-up, deep-growl, mission-driven vigilance. But like many young rescue dogs shunted from one owner to another and treated like accessories, Heathcliff struggled with stress and housetraining. Several times in the next few months, we returned home to ears-back body-slumps instead of happy-to-see-you, trying-not-to-jump dances.
Since he was My First Dog, we enrolled in Charm School where I learned to think like a dog and assert my humanity in ways that I had not previously explored. “Sit-down-stay, come-touch-ok, heal and hurry up, Heathcliff! Good Boy!” During our walks, I helped him solve problems. “I’m supposed to walk by your side, but there’s a cat, bird, squirrel, bunny, another doggie – whoa, that scary snowman wasn’t there yesterday!” As he matured, we discovered that Heathcliff is winsome, curious and nurturing: he stops to smell peonies in bloom, playfully chases moths, worries his nose over injured birds and listens intently then matches pitch to passing sirens. Even though he loves the change of scenery, smells and sounds during car trips, two walks and two meals establish the rhythm of our days, and Heathcliff reminds us if we get off schedule. Always on duty, Heathcliff’s best sleeps are during the evenings when we curl up to watch TV in the safety of the basement, his big head resting on my husband’s lap like Beauty’s had rested in mine during her last moments. Heathcliff will probably die before my husband and me, because that’s the way it is with dogs and humans.
When Walter Breuning the oldest man in the world died recently, he was much quoted for his tips on life: “Never be afraid to die because you’re born to die… embrace change… eat two meals a day… work as long as you can… and help others.”
I wonder if he ever had a dog.