The Meaning of Dogs
Throughout my early boyhood our family had a succession of German Shepherds, all of whom perished prematurely because of disease and whom I only vaguely remember. First there was Caesar, and then (a second) Brutus. (My family, I realize in hindsight, had a thing for Roman history.) I don’t remember much about these animals except that they were black and tan and inexplicably frightening to strangers. Despite the pain of losing two magnificent dogs within a three-year span, my father wanted to get another German Shepherd. After failing with Brutus the Beagle and Sheba the Schnauzer, dad had finally gotten the knack of training dogs, and he came to realize that a well-behaved dog in our home was akin to having another member of the family, a son and a brother and a father confessor on four legs.
Dogs, I came to understand, were a requisite part of life, as essential as a roof above one’s head and as inevitable as growing older. They were playmates and protectors, constant companions and an unpaid claque. You could do no wrong in a dog’s eyes. No matter your failings as a father or son, no matter your faults of character, no matter your misdeeds and mistakes, you were still a hero to your dog.
A dog reminded everyone who lived with him that goodness was extant in the world, that redemption was available every time you walked through the front door.
Dogs helped teach me what love means.
Our next German Shepherd, and the one who would accompany me through much of my boyhood in Fox Point, Wisconsin, was Mooshka, a big and regal beast with the eyes of a warrior and the temperament of your favorite uncle û the one whose inscrutable eccentricities make you love him all the more. Mooshka’s great peculiarity was that he insisted on passing through the doorway between our kitchen and our dining room backwards. He could be running at full gallop, but when he got to this one portal, he stopped abruptly, replaced his head with his rear end, and scurried through the entrance in reverse. I remember being fascinated not by the fact that our family dog had an unexplainable compulsion, but that he could swing himself around at such high speed, almost like a pirouette, and never bang his long muzzle on the doorjamb. In fact, one rainy day when I wasn’t allowed to play outside, I called Mooshka back and forth between the kitchen and dining room to conduct a “scientific experiment.” I discovered that no matter which direction he started from or at what speed he turned himself, the tip of his black nose always avoided a harmful collision with the wooden walls by less than an inch, as though our German Shepherd was really part bat and navigated his way around the house by echolocation.
When he sat, he was nearly as tall as I, and significantly more imposing. I recall strangers clearing a wide path when we went on walks, unaware, I reckoned, that he was about the sweetest dog on the planet. Indeed, his name “Mooshka” was supposed to be Polish, the language of my grandfather, for something noble and fierce. We subsequently learned, however, that whomever – I think it was a family friend — translated mooshka into English had either committed a joke at our expense or was woefully unfamiliar with the finer shades of meaning in Eastern European languages. Our noble and fierce beast was actually named something like “little black speck.”
Mooshka was the first real “people dog” I knew, the kind of canine who prefers the company of human beings to other dogs. Unlike our previous pets, he never ran away; he always wanted to be near me or my brother or my parents û so much so that he once followed my mom and me into the supermarket, having somehow extricated himself from the parked station wagon’s half-open windows. He found us in the frozen foods aisle, trotting toward us with relief on his face, glad to have finally located his “lost” family.
At the time, the early 1970s, German Shepherds were enjoying something akin to fashionableness in America; they were in vogue. I remember enjoying a series of British “young adult” story books about German Shepherds who worked as police dogs. (The author annoyingly referred to them as “Alsatians,” but any kid who had a Mooshka at home could see from the illustrations that he meant “German Shepherds.”) I was proud that the brave breed that brought justice and peace to the world was somehow connected to sleepy suburban Wisconsin, where police dogs were needed about as much as deadbolt locks and armed security guards. Sure, Mooshka preferred chasing squirrels to cornering bad guys, but still.
There was a Saturday morning kids show on the television called Run, Joe, Run!, a sort of canine version of The Fugitive, in which the hero, the eponymous German Shepherd, had to elude an Inspector Javert-type nemesis, a mean old man who blamed lovable Joe for the mean old man’s gimpy leg. Or something like that. Each week Joe would arrive in a town, perform various acts of heroism, profoundly touch myriad lives, and — just when some grateful little boy was adopting Joe as the bestest friend he ever had û the peripatetic Joe would be forced once more to hit the road, his evil pursuer sure to follow.
I came to understand the plot conceit of Run, Joe, Run! as a tidy allegory for the relationship between a boy and his dog. The dog quickly proves his sublime wonderfulness; you immediately fall in love with him; he must eventually go.
Mooshka was epileptic, and eventually the pills our family stuffed down his throat no longer controlled his seizures, the onset of which I came to associate with the horrible sound of his claws maniacally scraping against the hardwood floors, vainly searching for balance and comfort. He would “awake” from these episodes with foam around his black lips and a glazed, uncomprehending look in his brown eyes. I wanted to so badly to somehow make him understand that he was still my good boy, my protector, my friend. But no amount of childhood adoration could cure my beautiful German Shepherd. One day, when my dad was away on business, Mooshka’s seizures occurred only minutes apart, putting him a nearly constant state of agony.
He was five and I was maybe 11. My mom and I drove Mooshka to the vet. And it was on that day that I became a man far sooner than I had planned.
My mother was too devastated to leave the car, so, in my father’s absence, the awful deed was left to me. Even though the tears streamed down my face as I handed over my greatest pal to the vet, even though I was sure from the look in his eye that Mooshka was thankful I could bring him peace, even though the smells of antiseptic and the sounds of yelping filled my senses û I still spent the next few months utterly unconvinced that he was actually gone, as though I was in the grips of some sort of post-traumatic syndrome, a disbelieving fugue state. Previously, when Brutus and Sheba and Caesar and the other Brutus died, I was too young to fully comprehend the finality of the loss. Death was a theoretical concept.
Now I knew. I knew that no matter how much you loved a friend, a cherished member of the family, no matter how deeply you cared nor how passionately you expressed your devotion – and no matter how passionately they reciprocated – death would eventually take them away.
Which was why, I quickly learned, you had to love your dog (and everyone else you adored) with all your heart before it was time to say goodbye.