A writer shares the life-affirming and earth shattering lessons she has gained from a life lived with dogs
It seemed like it had only been a few years ago that Indigo, our black Lab, had first barged through our door. Her underbelly showed the signs of the litter she’d recently delivered, and between the wise, droopy face and the swinging dog teats, she was a sight to behold.
She had a nose for trouble. On one occasion, I had come home to find that she’d eaten a five-pound bag of flour. She was covered in white powder, and flour paw prints were everywhere, including, incredibly, on the countertops.
I asked the dog what the hell had happened, and Indy just looked at me with a glance that said, I cannot imagine what you are referring to. Time raced by. Our children grew up and went off to university.
The mirror, which had reflected a young mum when Indigo first arrived, now showed a woman in late middle age. I had surgery for cataracts. I began to lose my hearing. We all turned grey: me, my spouse, the dog.
In August 2017, I took Indigo for one last walk. She was slow and unsteady on her paws. She looked up at me mournfully. You did say you’d take care of me when the time came, she said. You promised, Jenny.
She died that month, a tennis ball by her side.
Not long after, I got a call from the Bed ’n’ Biscuit, our dog daycare. One of their customers was dying, and her dog, Chloe, needed a home. Given our recent loss, they asked, might our family be interested in adopting her?
I told the Bed ’n’ Biscuit we were sorry but we wouldn’t be adopting any more dogs.
I’d owned a succession of dogs since 1964, each one of them a witness to a particular phase of my life. But with the loss of Indigo, all that was over. The days of my dogs, I now understood, were done at last.
Then one morning, as I was passing the Bed ’n’ Biscuit in my car, I pulled over. I could at least lay eyes upon this Chloe. What harm could it do?
She had a soft face. When Chloe entered our house, she was cautious, uncertain. She spent hours that first day going to every corner, sniffing things out. Finally, she sat down by the fireplace and gave me a look. If you wanted, she said, I would stay with you.
Everything I know about love I’ve learned from dogs. But everything I know about loss I’ve learned from them, too. They fill our hearts. They leave floury paw prints all over the house. They lick the tears from our faces. And then, in what seems like no time at all, they’re gone.
It reminds me a little bit of what people say about childbirth: if you really remembered how difficult it was, you’d never go through it more than once. And yet, year after year, dog after dog, I’ve forgotten the grief of losing them—right up until the moment they give me that look with their grey faces: Jenny, you promised.
The pain of their loss doesn’t seem to be lessened one bit by the fact that many of the dogs I’ve owned have been kind of terrible. My first dog, for instance, was a bad-tempered dalmatian named Playboy, a resentful hoodlum who loved no one but my father.
"The pain of their loss doesn’t seem to be lessened one bit by the fact that many of the dogs I’ve owned have been kind of terrible"
We lived in the farm country of eastern Pennsylvania then, and Playboy had no qualms about chasing donkeys, cows and even, on one occasion, a leather-jacketed Hell’s Angel racing by on a Harley. That dog once stole the Christmas turkey right off the table. He bit people. There were times when my sister and I hated his guts. We were fairly sure the feeling was mutual.
And yet he was devoted to my father, a soft-spoken man who had always wanted to be a medieval-history professor but who wound up working at a bank instead. At the end of the day, Dad would come through the door with the Evening Bulletin and tug off his tie, often with an air of grim exhaustion. Then he’d sit down in a leather chair and Playboy would lie down at his side and roll around until his paws were in the air.
My father would rub the dog’s belly. “Who’s a good boy?” he’d ask. “Who’s a good boy?” It was a good question.What did I learn about love from Playboy? That it is perfectly fine if everyone hates you, as long as you are deeply loved by one person.
In adolescence, I had another dalmatian—a sad, overweight blob named Sausage. I got her for my 11th birthday, and for several years I adored her, carrying that dog around like a Raggedy Ann doll. Some nights she slept in my bed, her head upon the pillow next to mine.
“I’ll always love you,” I told the dog. “We’ll always be best friends.”But the promise I made as a child was hard to keep once I became a surly teenager and Sausage developed some obscure condition that caused her to lose the hair on her tail. An unsettling brown goo oozed out of her eyes. Friends who came over to my house made fun of Sausage. They said my dog was gross, and they were not wrong.
More unforgivably, though, my dog was uncool, a reminder of the nerd I myself had been not so long ago. So I turned my back on her. I made other friends, some of them boys who owned hot rod cars with T-bars.
It was from Sausage that I learned this awful truth: sometimes love fades, and as you age, it can be hard to keep a promise you made when you were young.
Matt the Mutt
At the end of her first year of uni, my sister brought home a terrible dog named Matt the Mutt, who’d been raised in her dormitory. She handed him over to my parents—he’s yours!—and headed west. Just like that, the reign of Matt the Mutt began.
For the next eight years, the dog bounced around the house, lifting his leg pretty much wherever he pleased, knocking people over, barking incessantly. Anyone coming through the door—including my tired father with his briefcase and his newspaper—would be instantly assailed by the bouncing, howling creature.
Matt the Mutt was a love machine, a regular Pepé Le Pew. He would copulate with pretty much anything: furniture, the postbox, even the now-geriatric Sausage. Above all, he lived to make love to my grandmother’s leg. Which was fine, I guess; my grandmother thought it was funny. “He’s got more spunk than your grandpa!” said she. From Matt the Mutt I learned this: sometimes the happiest people are the ones who make everyone else’s lives impossible.
When I was in my twenties, my parents got a Labrador named Brown. This time we swore—just once!—we’d own a dog that was not completely insane. In this our hopes proved nugatory.
Brown developed a strange addiction to running water. She would move a kitchen chair to the sink with her snout and open the tap with her teeth. Then she’d stand on the chair, biting the running water. Later, the dog became obsessed with chewing her own paws, something the vet described as a lick granuloma.
We’d hoped that this time we’d have a normal dog. But from Brown I learned, instead, that sometimes people who seem the most normal turn out to be the craziest.
Still, it was Brown who provided me consolation when my father died of melanoma. As I sat in a chair in my mother’s house, weeping, the dog came over and put her head in my lap. Do not be dismayed, for I am thy Dog, she said. Whoever lives in love, lives in Dog, and Dog in him. Brown looked at me with steadfastness and adoration, and her tail thumped against the floor. There had been scars on her legs. Maybe, with time, they could be healed.
I got married just after I turned 30, and we moved to a farmhouse in central Maine, where I got a job teaching English at Colby College. There we were joined by a yellow dog I bought from a pig farmer. We called Lucy—a Kennebec Valley flycatcher—on account of her fondness for biting flies right out of the air. Sometimes she’d look at me as if to say, They might be flies to you, but to me they are sky-raisins.
Lucy would give me other looks, usually in shades of disdain. When my daughter was nine, she wrote an essay for school: “Our Dog Hates Us.” It was true, too. Everything about our family seemed to annoy Lucy. For a while, this made me feel a little puny, until at last I realised that Lucy was just lonesome for the place she had loved first: our neighbour’s pigsty.
And so from Lucy I learned this: sometimes all people want is the thing they had when they were young. Each of these dogs had taught me something about the perilous nature of devotion. Some people will tell you that the magic of dogs is that their love for us is unconditional, but I’ve never found this to be the case.
"And so from Lucy I learned this: sometimes all people want is the thing they had when they were young"
What’s unconditional is the love we have for them. At 60, I’m pretty sure that if there is any reason why we are here on this planet, it is to love one another. It is, as the saying goes, all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
And yet, as it turns out, nothing is harder than loving human beings. That’s where dogs come in. It’s in our love for dogs that we can most express how hard it is to be human, how glorious and how sad.
After Chloe joined us, I had hopes of having a conversation with her previous owner, the woman who’d been laid low by cancer. I wanted her to know that her dog had found a good home and that we’d take care of her. When I finally got through, though, I learned that Chloe’s owner had died.
It snowed that night, and I woke up in a room made mysterious by light and stillness. In the morning, I sat up and found that Chloe had climbed into bed with us as we slept.
Well? she asked. I touched her soft ears in the bright, quiet room and thought about the gift of grace. “If you wanted,” I said, “I would stay with you, too.”
Illustrations by Kendra Huspaska
Adapted from Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs
Read more: 20 ways to beat the cost of living crisis
Read more: 10 Essential Steven Spielberg films
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter