New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – “Goin’ to the Dogs”

    Rev. Bob Johnston

Now that sufficient homage has been paid to Valentine’s Day, it is time to celebrate another steadfast bond, that deep relationship between man and dog. To be more specific, consider the love affairs between Bob and those canines who have enriched his life since childhood.   Readers need to be warned; each story ends sadly.

 

Laddie, my first dog, arrived as a Christmas surprise. As a five year old boy, I had searched in vain around the brightly decorated tree and amid the unwrapped presents for the one gift I still desperately hoped for. Seeing my growing despair, Dad finally relented and directed me to go to our dusty basement. There, nestled in his cozy box, was a fat-bellied, collie-mix puppy. I instantly fell in love and soon learned to be responsible for the care for a dependent animal. A too-short six months later, my father gently told me our family would have to move from our Whitmore Avenue bungalow in Toronto to a larger house which, unfortunately, could not accommodate Laddie.

My friend, Charlie, who lived down our street, managed to convince his parents to adopt my dog and shortly after, I said a tearful farewell.

A few years later, we moved into the country to a small farm in North York. We shared an old red-brick house with my grandparents and five other extended family members. Barney had been Gramps’ dog for a decade, and was now skillfully helping me herd the cows home to their stalls each night and stalking unsuspecting groundhogs with me when he wasn’t on duty. Barney was an orange and white, midsized collie-mix, mostly unfazed by country life except for his unusual fear of guns and loud noises. Lightning would send him scurrying to the basement. Whenever I got out my bb gun for target practice, (before the police confiscated it), he quickly slunk away and hid. I never did figure why.

I killed Barney—but certainly not on purpose! One muggy August day, my aging dog lay sprawled across the stable floor, trying to find respite from the oppressive heat. On my way to get a bale of hay for the horses, I stepped across Barney’s body. Except that I misjudged the distance and landed my booted foot on his front paw. Although the pain quickly seemed to ease, within a week an infection developed which eventually led to gangrene. My father took Barney to the veterinarian where a decision was made “to put him down.” Over six decades later, I have almost forgiven myself.

Then there was Mike, a faithful companion throughout my difficult adolescent years. He was a black and white border collie who loved to hike with me through the maple and cedar forests along Black Creek (where Pioneer Village now stands.) As the 1950s expansion of suburbs gradually replaced productive farm fields in Downsview, we eventually lost access to our forest adventuring. In 1959, I left for an American University and said goodbye to my canine friend, who would never understand my prolonged absence. When I came back for Christmas, Mike was gone.

In later years, settled In Peterborough and now with my own family, we brought home one day a little pure black German shepherd whom we naturally christened “Beauty.” She quickly became an integral part of family life, willingly pulling the kids on their sleigh across my winter backyard ice rink and gleefully joining their baseball games in summer. One April day, she ran off with a little mutt named “Pirate” and returned tired but happy the next morning. She was only nine months old, and now pregnant. Still only a teenager herself, Beauty instinctively took on the awesome task of producing and caring for her eight balls of fur. We never saw Pirate again.

Inevitably, the time came when Beauty’s quality of life was severely diminished. As the “man of the house” I was assigned the terrible task of taking her to the vet’s to be euthanized. Three times I approached their office door leading a trusting Beauty on her leash. Three times, my eyes blinded by tears, I turned around before I got there. On my fourth attempt, I made it inside.

Gruber was a liver-spotted and white English setter, a dog imprisoned for many long weeks in our local humane Society kennels. When my son and I went to find a dog to rescue, almost every caged animal began to bark excitedly and leap against their wired enclosure walls. Except for Gruber who sat forlornly in the back of his cage, but stared directly at me. When the young woman volunteer coaxed him out for our closer inspection, the quivering dog came to me, leaned his body against my legs and wouldn’t move. No contest! He instantly won our hearts.

We welcomed Gruber’s arrival into the active life of our growing family. For an initial three days he remained docile and mute. On that fourth morning he must have realized that he actually belonged with us and, barking loudly, sped in circles around the grassy backyard in celebration, a long red tongue hanging out of his dripping jaw.

I have already mentioned that dog stories inevitably end badly. Canines are genetically designed to live lives of much shorter duration than their human family members. We could easily avoid the pain of those terrible losses by never falling in love with a dog companion. But, by doing do, we would also rob ourselves of those years of unconditional joy and memories they gift to us—and without expecting chocolates and roses each February 14th.