Big Dog

I never planned on posting the following (originally being a class assignment), but after my dog Lou passed away this morning I feel like I owe it to him:

I’m sitting on the big leather recliner in my family’s living room. My mother is reading the latest issue of Better Homes and Gardens, and I am sitting there doing nothing (at age seven, even doing nothing is better than doing homework).

“Mom, I want a dog,” I said.

My mother’s eyes eventually looked down into mine.

“You’ve already got a dog, baby.”

My eyes then fixated on the small mound of gray fur pinned firmly against my mother’s thigh. One move from me would undoubtedly unveil that Yorkie’s pearly whites and, quite possibly, trigger a full-on attack. I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow in response.

At that, my mother set down her magazine on the glass end table next to her and placed a pair of folded hands in her lap. An explanation was needed, and fast. I proceeded with caution.

“I…I want a nice dog! An…actual dog! A…a big dog…”

As long as I can remember, I wanted a big dog. Thanks to movies such as Old Yeller Balto, and Where the Red Fern Grows, this seed had been planted in my head from a very young age. I didn’t need a Great Dane or a Mastiff to make me happy—just the average Labrador would do. My mother, on the other hand, would not allow any kind of dog into her home that couldn’t fit into a purse. Ever since she was attacked by a large Doberman as a child, she’d get extremely nervous around any other dog about that size, no matter the breed. Pickles felt only bitter hatred towards my sister and me, but with my mother she was always as sweet as pie (probably because we accidently sent her flying down our staircase a couple times too many as kids).

Later that year, we ended up packing up all of our belongings (including our “dog”) and moving to the Rockies of Colorado. Here, dogs were everywhere. In fact, dogs practically ruled the tiny town of Crested Butte. If they weren’t wearing vests and booties, these pooches would be seated at restaurant patios eating organically grown dog treats in their very own chairs (when I got a little older, I had to constantly remind myself that I wasn’t sucked into the realm of George Orwell’s Animal Farm). Only Labs, Huskies, and Saint Bernese Mountain dogs (and the occasional mutt) were ever seen roaming around town with their people, no tiny toys like Yorkies…

It was only after my mother was literally thrown into the world of big dogs and convinced herself that she could at least coexist with them when she actually started considering granting me my childhood fantasy. At first, she was subtle.

“That dog over there didn’t growl at me.”

A little further down the road, she would eventually speak the sentence that is still one of my favorite childhood memories:

“If you were to get a Lab, what color would you want?”

I never got the chocolate Lab I wanted named Snickers, but I did end up with a Vizsla named Lou. While Mom was thumbing through a bird dog breeding catalogue out of sheer boredom during one of Dad’s infamous five hour Cabela runs, she spotted a breed that looked a lot like that of a Labrador. According to the catalogue, Vizslas were a little thinner and taller, with larger ears like that of a hound dog. The coat color appeared to be a rich red copper, which ran completely flush from their eye color all the way down to the color of their toe nails. I’m not entirely sure which of these features worked their magic the most, but from then on my mother wanted my first big dog to be a Vizsla.

After my mom’s extensive online search, my dad finally prepared to bring me home the big dog that I had always wanted. That morning, I rose with the sun and planted myself squarely on one of our white front porch rocking chairs until the blessed puppy was projected to arrive (practically all day since Dad had to retrieve him). But when Lou was finally handed to me through the open driver’s side window of my dad’s big black truck, it felt like I had only been sitting there for a minute or two. At that moment, I had just made contact with my best friend.

The next few years in Crested Butte were like a dream. Lou and I did everything together, from hiking in the wilderness to curling up together whenever he got the least bit tired (which was often). Being a breed with above-average intelligence, Lou took to every single trick I taught him like a duck to water. Lou even got to the point where he would turn the situation around and start to do tricks on his own in order to accomplish his own desires (sitting turned into “feed me, please” and laying down translated to “I am most definitely not going outside”). Any time my family and I took him out on the town amidst the other big dogs, he was the only one of his kind. People never failed to take notice, and would often inquire about his breeding and origin. I went from the new girl from the South with a little pet Yorkie to the new girl with that “super cool dog” whose name no one could pronounce. As a young girl, I literally felt like I was living the dream. It wasn’t the altitude that kept me short of breath, but the presence of my dream dog in my very own reality.

Mom, however, may have felt a little differently. When Lou was a puppy, my mother never could bring herself to play with Lou. When we were children, Mom would always tell my sister and I that we were to never to touch a dog’s ears unless we wished to get mauled. With my little sister being born two years younger than me with an inherent love of doing things her own way, she quickly broke the rules. But, no matter how forceful the touch or tug, Lou remained perfectly docile. This genuinely shocked my mother, and from that point on she had to rethink everything she had ever thought about bigger dogs.

Although affection via physical touch was almost never given, Mom did grow to enjoy taking over Lou’s mealtime. My mom was a stay-at-home-mom for as long as I could remember, and having another kid to feed was the most joy Lou could have ever given her. Lou may have been mine, but Mom was always the one that ended up taking care of him, and caring for others was definitely her love language. Mom continued to watch out for Lou even after our sudden move from the mountains back to Oklahoma thanks to the recession of 2008. It was only when her physical health was in decline many years later when she finally bequeathed me the title of Lou’s sole caretaker.

Up until the end, Lou had always had a special bond with my mother that no one else seemed to have. Don’t get me wrong, Lou loved me unconditionally, but not the same way as my mother. On Mom’s crummiest days, Lou would act as weak as a kitten around her, softly whimpering as he gently laid his head in her lap until she started to feel better. Lou could always tell if someone was hurting or broken, and these were the only times you could find him not smiling. When waves of anxiety would come over me shortly after Mom’s passing, Lou would resume his position just as before and would patiently absorb every ounce of pain, however long that took.

Growing up, I liked the idea of dogs having emotions, but I never could bring myself to believe it. I always figured that this ideal was just something that people thought up because that is what they wanted to hear, to believe. I always saw dogs as devoid of emotion. Sure, most dogs appeared to be overtly happy on the outside practically every second of every day. But if happiness is in fact the only “emotion” they ever feel, could one really go as far as to say that dogs are in fact “emotional”? When someone is described as emotional, one doesn’t automatically picture a purely happy-go-lucky individual. When I am emotional, which is unfortunately rather often, I experience feelings such as fear, panic and anger. To me, that is what comprises true emotion, feelings such as these. If a dog were to appear to have any of these emotions, it was thanks to their inherent instincts to survive, not to make an emotional statement (obviously a dog would appear angry if it were attacking another dog over food or fearful if it was the one being attacked). Dr. Jakk Panksepp, mentioned in Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human, brings up the apparent appearance of rage, fear, and panic in animals (included in his list of what he calls “The Blue Ribbon Emotions”), and he agrees that all three of these moods are triggered whenever survival is threatened. The core emotion of rage? “Evolved from the experience of being captured and held immobile by a predator.” Fear? Felt “when their survival is threatened in any way.” Panic? “Evolved from physical pain.” If what an animal is “feeling” is just what they had been forced to experience thanks to evolution, is it really an emotion?

It wasn’t until my dog Lou started expressing what appeared to be emotion for no reason or benefit of his own that I began to see just how much he trumped the emotional capacity of even most humans. Not everyone would go through the trouble to get up when one wasn’t feeling well just to see if they were okay. Not everyone would just sit there for hours on end until your sides finally stopped heaving from panic. Being around people mentally or physically crippled is rarely enjoyable; it actually never is. The whole time you are thinking of their once normal self that used to do things for you but no longer can. For a dog, it makes absolutely no sense evolution-wise to continue to be invested in an individual who no longer gives you any tangible benefit, instead costing you your time and energy. Although Lou shouldn’t, he strongly desires to comfort others hurting through physical touch in an attempt to help absorb some of the pain (kind of like osmosis). Which made me wonder, why would Lou do this if he gets absolutely nothing tangible out of it?

The only conclusion I can come to on that point is that, like people, Lou has the capacity for sympathy, there is a harmony or an agreement in feeling between two individuals. In order for a dog to be sympathetic they must possess their own feelings which they then mirror to yours. Dogs gain absolutely no benefit from doing so, yet they persist in the desire to struggle alongside you. It doesn’t matter how many times you revert to feeling down, a dog will be ready to take the long trek down to the bottom of the steepest slope you’re at just to struggle and traverse their way back up alongside you as your spirits eventually mount up to the peak again. Who knew my big dog would also become one of my biggest role models?

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