Life lessons from best friends

Reposted from E TN newspaper article I wrote after untimely death of beloved rascal of a dog…

When a beloved pet dies, we grieve. Our suffering takes many forms, and there is no statute of limitation regarding the length or depth of mourning. If we’re very lucky, our pet dies like Margery William’s Velveteen Rabbit, having lived long and been loved so much its “fur is rubbed off in spots and it may be missing a button.”

Regardless of the number of previous losses — human or pet — each time we grieve we must learn the meaning of “gone” all over again, the saber sharpness of silence and the weight of our mortality.

My pet left no will, just a raggedy assortment of gnawed marrow bones, chew toys and a trail of paw prints, slobber and, yes, poop. He was a scamp, a super strong dog that leaped over tall fences and pried open doors. He loved sweet potato skins, frozen blueberries and a dab of whipped cream or peanut butter on the nose. He fetched newspapers and groceries, swiped steaks from the counter, liked to snuggle in your lap and snore and joyfully greeted everyone to come through the door.

One of my dog’s breed served in World War I and received a medal for valor and the title, “Sergeant Stubby.” My dog’s breed was the mascot for Buster Brown shoes and peered inquisitively at an old RCA Victor phonograph.My dog’s breed counted Helen Keller, Teddy Roosevelt, the Little Rascals and Fred Astaire as a few of its caregivers. My dog’s breed counts the molossus, the mastiff and the Staffordshire bulldog as its ancestors. It was originally used as a guard and herding dog, and in recent centuries, as a war dog, bull and bear baiter and cherished family pet.

It’s a myth that some dog breeds have locking jaw — none do — however, it can tolerate pain better than many other breeds, has an enormous affinity for people and its endurance and tenacity enhanced its desirability for criminals. Today, selective breeding and irresponsible ownership has put this breed on the “most likely to be killed” list. A 2014 New York Times article states pit bulls are responsible for “60 percent of dog attacks since the 1980s, and represent 63 percent of dogs put down in shelters.” On the American Temperament Test, PBs score an average of 86 percent, about the same as an American water spaniel or the Bassett hound.

More than 25 dog breeds are typically involved in dog and human attacks. The top 10 include pit bulls, Rottweilers, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers and Siberian huskies. As a lifetime dog lover and rescuer, I’ve been bitten by a cocker spaniel, Weimaraner, poodle, dalmatian and a Jack Russell terrier. The breed that mauled a woman so badly she required a face transplant was a Labrador retriever.

So what caused a beloved breed of the first half of the 20th century to be vilified? Like certain newsworthy celebrities, stories have been spun with the truths. A German shepherd or Rottweiler expends far more bite pressure per square inch than a PB. Some cite selective breeding and inbreeding for fighting, especially in the South. Some speculate interbreeding is to blame — that creating new mixed breeds creates health and behavior problems. Others say PBs rescued after Hurricane Katrina were sent to shelters nationwide and were adopted by owners that didn’t know to manage PBs, especially if it had been mistreated.

After an unexpected loss, we scramble for meaning. We slide sideways, pick at Promethean scabs and struggle to regain a pre-loss feeling of well-being. I want something positive to come from this loss, other than sincere gratitude that the dog my dog fought will heal, and the owners of the other dog are compassionate, dog loving people too. I am very grateful to neighbors that let me know when my dog got loose or brought him home on a leash. When you walk your pet, take a few precautions. I have seen feral cats, raccoons, startled deer and foxes, as well as loose dogs in Tellico Village. A small squirt bottle, filled with vinegar or Citronella spray may distract or dissuade an animal that comes too close. Aim for the nose. Learn about the seven warning signs of aggression.

Do not run, scream or flail limbs, as this may further stimulate an excited dog. Some dog trainers say it’s helpful to blink your eyes, lick your lips or yawn several times, which are calming actions, but don’t stare down an excited dog. Speak in a soft, firm, monotone voice — like “go home” or “good dog, leave” — back away slowly and look for cover.

If the dog owner is near, ask him or her to call their dog but not to approach. Carry treats and throw the treats as a decoy. If you walk at night, a small flashlight or cellphone light feature may be helpful or a sharp whistle. Never forget the most dangerous mutt is us. If we’re not all OK, or have lost sight of how to be empathetic, nonjudgmental, loving beings, how can our pets be OK?

I failed my dog. He got loose and fought with and injured another dog. He was euthanized. Please learn all you can about your pet, give your pet a hug from me and give yourself a pat on the back for being a loving, responsible caregiver to humankind’s best friend. 

These noble beings have served us for thousands of years, doing search and rescue, herding, bomb and drug sniffing, babysitting and guarding, pulling sleds, helping the blind and disabled and protecting and loving us unconditionally.

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