October 9, 2017

For the Love of Dogs

In life, there are different kinds of people. Cat people. Dog people. Iguana people (that's a thing, right?). I am a dog person. Cats are fine, but dogs are definitely my thing. I come from a long line of dog people, at least as far as I know.

I've heard stories of how, as a child, my great grandfather used to roll around in the dirt, kicking and squalling if a stray dog came along that he wasn't allowed to keep. His daughter, my grandmother, grew up on a farm, in a house that had a door in the floor. I've never been exactly clear on this, but from her description, it sounds like the door led into a compartment or cellar of sorts. She describes her childhood as having a steady stream of puppies always readily available. The mother dog would give birth in that compartment and my grandma, whenever she felt like it, would reach in and pull out an armful of puppies.

My mom had dogs from a young age too, including a beloved Saint Bernard (whose name escapes me) and a mutt named Mussolini. Some of my earliest memories are of dogs. My grandparents' beloved brown and white beagle mix, Inky and my great-grandparents' fluffy brown sheep dog Tippy Sue.

The first dog that belonged just to me was a little dachshund mix that I named Duke, after a dog in a book I loved.

When I was a teenager, my family got a black lab named Commodore who ruled the neighborhood. We defied all the leash laws, which allowed him to come and go as he pleased. This included adhering to a strict schedule of daily walks with many of our elderly neighbors who treated him to a slice of bacon or bologna afterward. Commodore died in 2010, on the same day as my great grandfather. They didn't really know each other but I loved them both so much that it was somewhat comforting to think they took that last journey on the same day, if not together.

In January of 2006, I brought home a shelter pup that would change my life and my heart forever. A black and white boxer/pitt bull mix, Leon Otis Spears was magical. I surely didn't deserve his particular variety of pure love and adoration, but somehow I was lucky enough to receive it for nearly ten years.

Some of the darkest days of my life were after Leon died. For nearly a decade, his had been a consistent presence that always made me feel safe and loved. I was devastated after his passing and it was nearly a year before I felt ready to bring another dog into my family.

When my husband and I adopted Ruthie, a special needs Yorkie from a local rescue group, it just felt like the exact right time. That was in January of last year and I can't imagine our life without her.

Later in the summer of last year, I saw a Facebook post by an acquaintance whose co-worker was fostering a tiny, ancient chihuahua. The photo spoke to my heart and we decided to adopt Sweetie, a twelve (maybe fourteen?) year old black and white chihuahua with spindly legs and bright, bulging eyes.

As I type these words, she is eating her dinner of ground turkey, peas and carrots and brown rice, which my husband prepares in the Crock Pot for her and her siblings.

She was cuddling with me recently and I remember thinking that I couldn't imagine our family without her. Even though she's only been with us a little over a year, it feels like forever. And Ruthie, who we've just had nearly two years feels like even longer.

After Leon died, I thought I'd never love another dog again. Ever. I was practically certain of this. And when we first got Ruthie, I thought I'd like her but I never dreamed how dear she'd become to me.

There are so many good life lessons to be learned from our experiences with dogs. What I'm starting to realize is how they change our hearts permanently. I haven't always been the best at giving or receiving affection. I guess it's just a defense mechanism of mine....a form of self-protection.

But with Leon, it was like I had a safe place to pour out my love and snuggles to someone who always wanted to be on the receiving end. He never pushed me away or acted aloof. He never rejected me.

Having that opportunity to practice acting out my affectionate side helped me grow more confident in that area. It might sound silly, but I know it helped me become better able to give and receive affection with people.

I got this image in my mind of the human heart, being sort of closed up at first until something powerful comes along and cracks an opening. It's not always easy to let love in, but then over time, the opening grows. That's why I think I've been so quick to fall in love with these most recent dogs. Because Leon split my heart wide open so there was plenty of space for them to find a place in there.

And that brings me to the latest addition to our little odd squad. A few weeks ago, the lady who works with the rescue organization that brought us Sweetie called me. I was at Wal-Mart, in the frozen food aisle, when she started telling me about this old ragamuffin dog that had been surrendered to the shelter. He was matted almost beyond recognition and they thought he had come from a hoarding situation. She thought of us because of our willingness to adopt older dogs and asked if we'd consider taking him.

It didn't take much convincing (thank goodness I married a dog person too) and the following week, she brought him over for a meet and greet. He's really old...we have no idea exactly how many years. And he's blind in at least one eye. We've been calling him Grandpa because so far it's the only name that seems to fit. He might live two more years or two more weeks, but we wanted him to have a safe, loving home where he could spend the rest of his life.

And we'll benefit from it too. Or at least our hearts will.