I have always been a dog person, even when I was child and “dog” was one of the only words I knew. Though I do love other animals, dogs have always been my favorite, hands down, and I have bonded with quite a few throughout my life. I have learned so much from living and working with dogs, such as the value of patience, keeping a routine, trying to understand others and their stories, the power of teamwork, and of course, the gift of unconditional love. I can say with all honesty that dogs are one of, if not the most, loving species on earth, and there is nothing like coming home and seeing your dog after a long and stressful day.
I think everybody (or at least, almost everybody) would agree that life really sucks sometimes: it’s harsh and exhausting and filled with people who care only about themselves and what they can get out of you. While this isn’t the case for all people obviously, it still rings true in many situations and in my opinion, it’s no wonder many of us prefer the company of our pets. While I don’t consider myself a cynic by nature, I do find it hard to trust people sometimes. Not only can I empathize with certain dogs, but I can relate to them to an extent. Looking after dogs has taught me to be careful and on my guard but also to keep my faith in others. It takes much more time and effort to build trust than to break it, and when the bond between human and dog is established, it makes the whole experience worthwhile. Most dogs only live to be teenagers, some don’t even reach that, which is such a shame because they leave an incredible impact on their humans. In this piece, I will be discussing the dogs in my life, what they meant to me, and what I learned from them.
Some of my earliest memories involve spending time at my grandmother’s house and playing with her dog Cindy. Cindy was a mix between a Rottweiler and a Doberman, two breeds that have gotten kind of a “bad” reputation over the years, as pushed by the media. Like pitbulls, they have been painted as “tough” and “aggressive” and in some cases, “beyond training.” It’s really frustrating that a lot of people believe this, just based on the news. Cindy was one of the sweetest and friendliest dogs I knew, the definition of a gentle giant, and even when I was five years old and all of three feet, I was never afraid of her. She was the sort of dog who just wanted to roll on the ground and have her belly scratched. She could knock me over in a second, but instead, she would rest her head on my knee, often bringing over her toys and dropping them on it too.
Cindy was a beautiful dog with a thick black coat and brown patches on her stomach, face, feet, and the underside of her tail. When she was sitting down, her Rottweiler side was more obvious with her floppy ears and broad frame but when she started to run, her Doberman side came out with her long limbs and agile movements, her head always high. Amazingly enough, Cindy got along with my grandmother’s cat too. Instead of treating Oreo like an oddity or an enemy, she would let him lie on her back and occasionally, against her stomach, almost as if she adopted him instead of my grandmother. Cindy had a maternal quality about her. Whether she was interacting with dogs, cats, or humans, she was always soft and protective and kept an eye on everybody. When I was really little, I tripped over her bed and instead of giving a start or growling at me, Cindy placed a heavy paw on my arm, almost as if to say, “It’s okay, small human. It was just an accident.” Cindy was the first dog in my life that taught me to be cautious, not flinch when I was around big dogs. Even now, I find myself gravitating towards big dogs because of how misunderstood they are. That’s not to say I go patting the head of every single one, I definitely ask for permission first, but I find most are really sweet and more docile than they look. When I was around nine or ten, Cindy passed away after a long illness but she was the first dog that helped me understand big dogs and know how to approach them, not fear them.
Unfortunately and ironically, I developed a fear of little dogs for a while. This was due to an incident that occurred when I was five. My family had just gotten a dog from a pet store at the mall, which, now that I look back on it, was not a bright idea. His name was Archie and he was a hyper little corgi. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Archie, as well as the rest of the dogs, came from a puppy mill, somewhere in the South. I can’t remember exactly what state it was or how long the mill had been in business but all the same, we wouldn’t have bought him if the pet store manager had been honest with us. We had Archie for about a week, not enough time to really get a sense of his personality. At first, there was no sign that he was a troubled dog and my family was prepared to train him and give him the best possible care. My parents knew Archie would require a lot of time and work and they made that clear with my sister and me. We hadn’t gone into this blindly, we knew about the commitment and responsibility and we were determined to give Archie a good life.
For the week my family had Archie, he was a bit difficult, but no more than the average puppy and we had come to expect that anyway. As a kid who loved dogs, I was looking forward to playing with Archie and teaching him all sorts of tricks. I knew how to approach him, I never played “rough” or yelled or did anything to freak him out, despite how young I was. My parents and grandparents taught me well, and it still pains me to think about what happened to Archie and what else could have been done to help him. I remember it was a mellow sort of day and we were hanging in the living room, my sister and Archie on the couch, me on the floor. I had drifted away from whatever game I was playing, getting up to pet Archie, keeping my hand out so he could sniff it, just as my mom had instructed. My motions were slow, tentative in a way, but for some reason, Archie must have felt threatened and he sprang after me. Before I could even react, he tore into my jaw, blood spurting down my face and on the floor, my sister screaming as she tried to pull him off me. It took her, my mom, and my grandma to wrestle Archie back into his crate and my grandma brought him back to the pet store.
Later, after getting seven stitches and waiting to be discharged, I learned that Archie was taken to the local animal hospital and put to sleep. In a way, I was relieved that he wouldn’t hurt me again or anybody else, but in another, I was heartbroken because I knew, even in my little kid mind, that it wasn’t Archie’s fault. He came from a bad place, I realized after talking it over with my mom, but he wasn’t a bad dog. As I grew up and read up on puppy mills, I knew Archie was a product of his environment. I can’t imagine what kind of conditions he and the other dogs lived in, how they were raised, and who was looking after them.
Every time I read a story about puppy mills and what people are doing to stop them or shut them down, I can’t help but think of Archie. I can’t help but think of what his life would have been like, had somebody rescued him from the puppy mill, before he was taken to the pet store. They don’t see the dogs as living and feeling beings, they see them as toys who can withstand anything. It makes me sick when I go into a pet store and the employees couldn’t care less about the dogs they’re looking after. To make matters worse, there’s always a bunch of people knocking on the glass and shrieking over the puppies, not knowing where they came from or how they were treated. Archie, at least on the outside, looked like a perfectly healthy dog, but we later found out that he was not vaccinated and had spent the first few months of his life locked in a cage. Even though I have Archie to thank for the scar on my jaw, I still mourn him and what might have been. One of my relatives, an aunt who delighted in stirring up drama, thought I had done something to provoke him, essentially blaming me for the attack. Fortunately, my mom and grandma were quick to shut her up. To this day, I don’t know what I could have done differently, wondering what would have happened if I stayed on the floor, but it was a harsh lesson learned.
At this point, Cindy was still a part of my life and while I wasn’t afraid of her, I made sure to be extra careful with my motions and my voice. I let her approach me, rather than the other way around, and she proved to be a big comfort when I was still in panic mode. However, my cousin’s dogs were not as easy or mellow as Cindy. Picture a couple of tan chihuahuas barking to no end and snapping every time anybody (besides my cousin, of course) went to pet them. At that time, it was only a year after my attack, and I grew to dread seeing those dogs because they weren’t trained at all and my cousin seemed to write off their behavior as a joke. They might have been small, but to six-year-old me with a scar on her jaw, they were anything but funny. I can still see them circling everybody’s legs, almost like a couple of tiny brown sharks, showing their teeth as soon as anybody got close to them.
I never knew what happened to those dogs, since my cousin was not the best owner around (and that’s putting it nicely), but between them and Archie, my wariness of little dogs grew more and more evident. I began to associate little dogs with horrible attitudes, an idea I look back on with shame and regret. It was wrong of me to stereotype little dogs like that and whenever I catch myself doing it now, I hastily correct myself. All dogs deserve a chance, no matter what size or breed they are or where they come from. A couple years after my attack, my family decided to get another dog but this time, we vowed not to buy it until we knew their background, how it was treated, and what its living situation was. Eventually, we found a breeder in New Hampshire who raised German and Belgian Shepherds and mixes and we paid her a visit, soon falling in love with a puppy. She was a German-Belgian mix, all black with a white patch on her chest, her chin, and around her backside and we named her Dominoe. (We added the E to indicate that she was a girl but in retrospect, it does seem a bit silly.) Dominoe was like a breath of fresh air after the attack and all the drama with my cousin’s dogs and she reminded me a lot of Cindy. Though she wasn’t a giant per se, she was certainly gentle and had a majestic air about her.
At first glance, Dominoe might have been mistaken for a wolf instead of a dog because of her height, her thick fur, especially around her head, and her intense dark eyes. That said, whenever she met anybody, all she wanted to do was jump on them, lick them, and nudge their hand so they would pet her. Dominoe was the epitome of sweet, her tail always wagging and her tongue hanging out, and she was a big fan of belly rubs.
She was tender with smaller beings, whether they were puppies or children, and when we got another dog, a shih-tzu poodle called Eddy, (her full name being Edna, after Edna Mode from The Incredibles), she became a sort of mother figure to her. At first, she wasn’t sure what to make of the tiny furball who looked more like a stuffed dog than a real one. Often, she would tilt her head and nudge Eddy with a paw and Eddy in turn would yap at her, all three pounds of her ready to scrap. Dominoe, however, was anything but aggressive, and she would lie down beside Eddy, letting her huddle against her stomach for warmth. Eddy was still teething and she would chew on pretty much everything, even Dominoe’s tail. Most dogs probably wouldn’t have stood for it, but Dominoe never gave any indication that it bothered her. In fact, it was common to walk into the living room and see Dominoe just lying there, seemingly contented as Eddy would gnaw on her tail the same way a baby would at a teething ring. It was both strange and adorable to see them together and how well they bonded, this big beautiful wolf-like dog and her small Ewok-looking companion.
Dominoe and Eddy were a massive part of my life and I can recall many afternoons, coming home from the hell that was middle school and never feeling better than when I saw them. To them, I was the coolest kid on the block and whether I was gone for five minutes or five hours, they were always happy to see me as I was with them. In those days, I didn’t have many friends, nor did I make much of an attempt to talk to people, fearing they would turn me away before they really knew me. My dogs helped me through a lot of rough spots, making me laugh and lighting up those dark days when all I wanted to was crawl in bed and never leave. Dominoe and Eddy were more than happy to crawl up there with me and keep me company. Even when I wasn’t having a bad day, they always liked to follow me and make sure they were in my sight.
Some people like to claim dogs are simple, one-dimensional animals who care more about their next meal or walk than anything else. While there have been many debates on this subject, some serious, some not, I find them to be more complicated than that. Dogs do have a fair range of emotions. They can know happiness and triumph as well as pain and grief. When Dominoe passed away, having succumbed to a heart tumor, I noticed a change in Eddy. She was far more quiet and solemn, as if she was wondering where her best friend went, wishing she would come back. Sometimes she would wait at the door, expecting to see Dominoe hurry through at any moment, other times she would lie at the top of the stairs, in the same spot where Dominoe liked to nap. Until that day, I never knew that dogs could mourn and the image of Eddy lying in that spot stuck with me for the rest of my life.
When I was a senior in high-school, I started working at a shelter for retired and injured racing greyhounds. The job included taking them outside, cleaning their cages, giving them massages for their ailments, and preparing them for adoption. It was an eye-opening experience, knowing how much those dogs have been subjected to, helping them regain their footing as well as trust. The topic of greyhound racing tends to evoke mixed reactions from people, not unlike the topic of horse racing. I could write another essay about the ethical problems of greyhound racing, but on a positive note, many people are out there trying to help the dogs and get the sport banned or the rules tighter. My boss, a greyhound breeder, taught me about these practices and I have been keeping up with the news about them ever since.
When the shelter closed down and reopened in another town several miles away, it pained me to say goodbye, but I had to commit to school and taking care of my dog as well. Eddy passed away back in September and I miss her every day, wishing she could have met my new dog Charlie.
Charlie is a four-year-old German Shepherd, and his story is a bittersweet one because although he came from similar situation to Archie, he was given a second chance. His original owners kept him in the cellar, rarely letting him out or feeding him and when the people at the SPCA picked him up, he was covered in dirt and his own waste, his ribs showing through his skin. Over the course of a few months, Charlie has made amazing progress, reaching a healthy weight and learning how to bond with other dogs slowly but surely. He still has separation anxiety, crying at the top of his lungs when I have to leave, associating it with abandonment. That said, as soon as I come home, he hurries right at me like Dominoe and Eddy, leaping up and licking my face. Like the girls, especially Dominoe, Charlie is a sweet and humble soul, still full of love despite his past.
Each of these dogs taught me an important lesson in life. Cindy taught me to be gentle and not to be intimidated by bigger dogs or people for that matter. Archie taught me to be understanding and sympathetic because you never know what somebody has been through. Dominoe taught me to be patient and not let the little things get me down. Eddy taught me that just because you’re small, that doesn’t mean you’re weak, and to not take crap from anybody. The greyhounds taught me to be careful and to lend a hand to those who need it. Last but certainly not least, Charlie taught me that everybody deserves a second chance and a loving home.