Monday, April 21, 2014

It’s a Dog’s Life

Last week, our dog died.

It was a rough week, to say the least. Our nine-month-old puppy Bingley died quite suddenly, after a week of being mysteriously ill. He progressively got weaker and weaker, had trouble getting up and lying down, and seemed to be constantly in pain. Our vet and his colleagues were mystified, as were we. It was harrowing to watch our lovely Golden Retriever, who had been so lively, rambunctious, and playful, start acting like a dog ten years his age with an advanced case of arthritis. After only a couple days of being ill, we realized that we might have to put him to sleep, which only increased our distress. We ended up not having to put him to sleep, because he died before we could get him to the vet last Monday.

Last Monday was one of the most painful days in my life. For people who have never had a dog, this might sound strange. For a long time, I was one of those people—a dog-free person. I had always liked the idea of a dog, but I’d never had the chance to own one. I grew up dog-free, as my father was adamantly against having a dog or a cat in the house. While I longed for a cat or a dog, until I had my own, I didn’t quite understand how people grieved over the death of their pet. Until you are a pet owner, you don’t really understand how animals affect our lives.

K. and I adopted Calliope in 2010 when my desire for a pet reached a fever pitch. She was a kitten and utterly adorable and kooky. Everything she did was delightful. I was genuinely surprised to notice that she had facial expressions, that she could look bored one minute and alert or playful the next. She would come down the stairs in our apartment on Long Island to greet us when we got home. If I was in one room and K. was in another, she would frequently nap in between the two rooms, as if trying to share her presence with both of us (or guarding us in case we unexpectedly decided to feed her, I suppose). There was nothing better than when she would deign to come and sit on my lap while I read and nothing worse than when she got occasionally sick. The thought of having to put her down would immediately sicken me and raise a lump in my throat.

I had a similar experience with Bingley, though in some ways, getting used to having a dog was a much larger hurdle than a cat. Except for the nighttime crazies that occasionally caused Calliope to wake us up repeatedly in the middle of the night, her behavior and habits were easy to get used to. When we got Bingley in September, it was a whole different ball game. Bingley was a puppy, only eight weeks old, and he seemed like a being from another planet.  People warned us that a puppy was a lot of work, but I thought if I prepared myself mentally, it wouldn’t be a big deal. I was wrong!
At first, Calliope and Bingley did not get along.
Gradually, they struck up a tentative detente.
After one week with Bingley, K. and I wondered if we’d made a mistake. This was a lot of work. It was a lot of work, and despite his cuteness, sometimes it felt like there was little payoff. Puppies that small don’t really relate yet to humans; they are still more attached to their siblings than their owners. Part of socializing a puppy is making him aware of humans and their responsibility towards loving those humans. Gradually, Bingley figured this out and became more interested in us. He also got house-trained and learned (sort of) how to walk on a leash. As he grew, he only got handsomer, his fur got softer, and, with some puppy obedience courses, learned how to sit, lie down, shake, and stay.
Tiny Bingley pup at 10 weeks!
Even more so than Calliope, Bingley could imitate human expressions. Apparently, this is something dogs learn to do by watching us. Dogs have been living with humans for many more thousands of years than cats, and they have evolved to be human-oriented. They can read our faces and expressions, they can follow a finger to where you are pointing (a cat will just keep looking at your finger), and they want to please you. Bingley, being a Golden, had this last quality in spades. He was still a puppy, so naturally he goofed off a lot, but he really did want to please us. And he could manipulate us a little, too. He had eyebrows he could move up or down to look sad, confused, hopeful, and happy. He could move his ears to look alert, relaxed or playful. I swear, he could even smile.

Any of this stuff sounds like hocus pocus if you are not a dog person. Until you live with a dog, you can’t understand what us dog owners are talking about. But once you have a dog, you create a dog-shaped space in your life and in your heart, and you start loving other people’s dogs, too. You start to appreciate the animal-human bond that enhances so many of our lives. Even going to the zoo or seeing animals in nature has taken on a new vibrancy for me. Suddenly, these animals seem more alive and more important to me than before I had a cat or a dog. My childhood pets (2 somewhat boring guinea pigs) could not prepare me for the love I would gain for animals once I had Calliope and Bingley.

When Bingley was sick, Calliope started acting funny. First, she didn’t seem to realize that anything was wrong; instead, she noticed that Bingley no longer chased her if she tried to drink from his water bowl, so she started drinking from it. But when he got a little sicker and it was more obvious that he was in pain, Calliope starting acting anxious too. She kept approaching him, as if waiting for him to start playing with her. If he started whimpering at night, she would race around the house or jump on K. to wake her up. She could sense something was wrong; she was not just some dumb animal.

Of course, both she and Bingley are “dumb” in the sense that they can’t speak to us in words. One of the most frustrating things about Bingley’s illness was that he couldn’t tell us how he felt, where it hurt, or when it had started hurting. He could look into our eyes, but we could only guess what he would tell us if he could speak. Sometimes, I think that because animals can’t speak, we underestimate them. Maybe everyone should be a pet owner at some point, because it teaches us humility: just because a being cannot speak, doesn’t mean it can’t communicate, teach us something, or enhance our lives.

Despite all my initial fears when we first got Bingley and the little daily frustrations about how many toys and doormats he destroyed with his voracious chewing abilities or the cost of boarding him when we traveled, there is no doubt that Bingley enhanced our lives. He made me get out of the house in the mornings even when it was 20 degrees out, because I wanted him to have his daily walk. He encouraged me to go for more walks and hikes. He allowed me to be friendly to strangers. He helped me make friends. He showed me that I had infinite amounts of love to give. When he died, I felt like a part of me died, because he had changed me and my life so much for the better.

He was my first dog, but I don’t think he’ll be my last. I’ll always remember him, but now that I have a dog-shaped space in my life, I don’t think I can manage to stay dog-less for long. Now that I’m a “dog person,” being without a dog doesn’t make me feel dog-free; it makes me feel dog-less: I’m somehow less for being without a dog.

RIP Bingley: July 17, 2013 – April 14, 2014. You were a good dog, and you will be missed.

Our happy pup, the day before he started getting sick.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! Well said. I especially like your dog-free vs. dog-less bit.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Sorry for your loss and the necessary adjustments to your daily life.
    Glad you are a dog-person now,