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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Lessons from the life of a dog

The absolute worst argument over religion I ever got into wasn't over gay rights or abortion or any other of the "hot button social issues" religious zealots get dogmatic about. It was about whether animals - dogs, in particular - have souls. I don't remember much of the argument nor the scripture my opponent quoted to justify his position, but I do recall it being particularly nasty and ending with my pronouncement that if my dogs didn't have souls, they were certainly welcome to mine because they were a damn sight more worthy of an eternal afterlife than the vast majority of humans I'd ever known. Unknowingly, I was echoing Will Rogers' sentiments about dogs and the afterlife: "If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went."

A decade ago I wouldn't have engaged in such an argument. I'd always been a cat person. Cats are low maintenance. Make sure they have food, water and a reasonably clean litter box and you've handled your cat duties admirably. Cats were the perfect pet for apartment dwellers.

Then I bought a house and suddenly had the option of having a great big fur-shedding dog to romp in the yard and serve as an early warning system when someone was approaching the front door. Actually, it wasn't long before there were two dogs in the house. I had Sheldon, a collie/samoyed mix, and my roommate had Bubba, a German short-hair pointer.

Then along came Gypsy.

While we had picked out Sheldon and Bubba, Gypsy was the one who picked us. Shortly after I ended a brief, tumultuous relationship Gypsy showed up at the house one Saturday afternoon. She was a pure white German shepard, but starved to the point where her ribs showed under her skin. She carried a scar across her muzzle and the bottoms of her paws were raw and tender. It was clear she had seen better days.

Thinking she had wondered off from her owners, we fed and watered her and my roommate set about finding where she had come from. What we found did nothing to raise my opinion of humanity. A neighbor of her former owners told how Gypsy's owners grew tired of her as she grew too large for their apartment and chased her away with rocks. So we ended up with a third dog.

That was six and a half years ago. She remained ours until last Friday when, after watching her decline as her hips began to give out, we took her to the vet and bid her our last good-byes.

Looking back on Gypsy's time here, it's amazing the lessons a dog can teach.

In the wake of my recently ended relationship, I joked with friends that from now on I decided to give up adopting stray men and would stick with stray dogs. It was later when I realized that was part of Gypsy's first lesson for me: Sometimes it's worth the risk to bring a stray home and give him or her a chance.

Of the three dogs in the house, Sheldon was the resident genius, picking up tricks and commands with very little effort; Bubba was the exuberant clown; and Gypsy ... well, she was a bit of the problem child. As Dr. Phil might say, she had trust issues. Sometimes it would take close to an hour to put ointment on her ragged paws and I quickly learned to raise my hand to pet her slowly so she wouldn't cringe at the memory of being hit. But the worst times were the frequent Midwestern spring storms when the sound of thunder sent her into near panic. I discovered this in the middle of the night waking up to find her standing on top of me, her face inches from mine, and staring into my face with a wild-eyed canine version of "Make it stop!"

While I was powerless to control the storm, the next best thing was for me to get up and go the front room while she impatiently waited for me to move my recliner enough to allow her to squeeze in between it and the end table. Then, hiding her head beneath the endtable, I'd go to sleep sitting at an uncomfortable angle so that I could drape my hand down to rest on her side to reassure her that I was there.

That was Gypsy's second lesson: In the middle of life's storms, it's OK to ask for a little reassurance.

Eventually Gypsy got over her skittishness around people, though it required a lot of patience. While she never quite got over her fear of thunder, it was rewarding to see her learn to trust again. While Bubba and Sheldon liked to jump on me when I'd walk through the door at the end of the day, Gypsy would hold back waiting her turn for attention, wagging her tail and uttering an "arrroo!" which I took as her best approximation of "Hello!" For all the exuberance of the other two dogs' greetings, Gypsy's was gentle in comparison. She'd wait until I was sitting down then use her muzzle to lift my hand and get me to scratch her ears and rub the sides of her face. That would inevitably be followed by a lick, the canine equivalent of "I love you."

That was another of Gypsy's lessons: A hearty lick can make a good day better and even the worst of days tolerable.

I'm convinced beyond all doubt that if more people started and ended their days with a kiss from a dog, wars would end and psychiatrists would be taking their meals in soup kitchens where they could wile away their suddenly abundant spare time debating the canine psyche.

We never really knew how old Gypsy was. She was fully adult when she arrived. From the loose bag of bones that could slip between narrow gap between the house and the gate to the yard when she first arrived, she blossomed into a 90-pound magnificent specimen of her breed with broad, muscled shoulders, ears that stood erect and attuned to any sound and clear deep brown eyes that seemed to connect with me soul to soul. It was in those moments that I hoped I'd one day be as good a person as my dog seemed to think I was.

Over the years Gypsy began to show her age. First it was the "hopping" motion she'd make with her back legs while running, a sign of impending hip problems. She still maintained her puppy-like behavior at times, playing tug-of-war with the other dogs over a toy or expressing puppy-like wonderment at whatever caught her fancy at the moment. But it was apparent that her health was failing. She developed a benign fatty tumor on her side. Sometime it would take great effort to rise from her favorite spot by my bed in the morning. Her walk became wobbly.

A couple of months ago she was unable to get up from the hardwood floor where she would sleep while I worked on my computer. Her front end made a valiant effort but her back end wouldn't cooperate without assistance. Between jobs at the time, I still managed to scrape together enough for a expensive prescription to try to stave off the inevitable and even bought her a hideous fuzzy, orange-colored bathroom rug to lay on by my desk to keep her comfortable on the cold floor. While I would have chosen another color for purely esthetic reasons, the rubber backing worked to keep the rug from sliding on the slick hardwood floor.

Gypsy had good days and bad days after that. But when the bad days began to outnumber the good ones, I knew that the time was short. As much as I didn't want to let her go, the pain of watching her try to walk only to collapse after a few steps outweighed the hope that there were still a few more "good days" left.

Late Friday afternoon my roommate and I loaded Gypsy into the car for a last trip to the vet. We stayed with her, stroking her fur and rubbing her still-scarred muzzle while the vet gave her a sedative and then administered the drug that would end her suffering. We were still petting her and telling her how much we loved her as she breathed her last and that massive chest rose and fell for the last time.

It didn't occur to me until later that even at the end Gypsy was still teaching us. Her last lessons were these: It's OK to let go and it's OK to cry.

Several weeks ago I happened across a quote by cartoonist James Thurber, himself a great dog lover. "If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons," he wrote. That pretty much sums up my beliefs as well.

Gypsy may not have been my whole life, but she shares with most members of her species the ability to make our lives whole.

Some people claim when we die there's a tunnel with a bright light at the end where we're greeted by long-departed family members or maybe religious figures. Others claim that those experiences are merely hallucinations caused by powerful drugs and chemical reactions in the brain. I'm not sure which version I believe, but when the time comes I hope I'm greeted by a big, beautiful white German shepard who comes bounding out of the light to meet me.