Half the time I’ve been walking this earth, there’s been a dog walking next to me. Gracie and Joker, both female, are my two constant companions these days. They’re both mutts, both were rescued and we got them about a year apart, Gracie first in 2007, making her the Alpha Female. At 55 pounds, she’s 15 pounds heavier than Joker. Gracie is a Lab, all black with a white beard, a tiny white blaze and two white socks on her rears, while Joker looks a bit like “Pete,” the sock-eyed dog from the 1930’s Little Rascals movies and 1950’s television show. You know, the dog that Target remade into one of their logos? That’s Joker.
Growing up, I took my dog everywhere. If I biked, he or she ran alongside. When I played in ballgames, they would sit near the sidelines or go play with other dogs. In 7th and 8th grade, in then-rural Abington, Massachusetts, there wasn’t a day I walked all the way home from school without Queenie, my German Shepherd, greeting me somewhere along the shortcut I took through the woods. When I started to drive my own car, my dogs rode shotgun. I could take them into stores and banks and all sorts of businesses without a bother to anyone.
Most of my friends had dogs, so paying a visit usually meant bringing along a playmate. Collars and tags? Sure, my dogs wore collars and tags. Their tags had their name on one side and my name, home phone number and address on the other. My Dad always kept up with all our pets’ shots, for their own good, not for any law or rule. But leashes? Never. Maybe I was lucky growing up, but I never owned a “bad” dog, one who would not stay, sit or come on command. Those are the three easiest things to teach a puppy, even a child can do it. And puppies are as eager to learn as young children are. My pups and I taught each other good manners, and with love and affection we learned what pleased each other. I’ve yet to take a dog to training, for anything, but I’ve known a lot of dogs – and dog owners – who needed training!
One of my earliest memories is riding on our Great Dane, Valorie, like she was a horse except I’m hanging onto her underside. According to my sister, Valorie taught me my first steps. I was rarely sick as a kid and allergic to nothing until I was teenager. Having my own dog at age ten, I learned early on it was a lot of work. It was a chore to groom, feed, pick up poop, pick off tics, de-skunk and clean small cuts on their noses from cat fights. But they never seemed like chores, and they were always bracketed with playtime.
When I started owning a home, I would leave one outside door open so my dog, or dogs, could come and go without disturbing me all the time. Jarvis was the biggest wanderer. Living in rural Northwestern Connecticut, he would roam for miles and be gone for hours. More than once, we got a call from a friend who lived about five miles away saying Jarvis was over there, playing with his dog, who happened to be Jarvis’s brother. Fine. He knew his way home, too.
And I’ve lost dogs before their time. Accidents. Sometimes with cars, sometimes with poisons like antifreeze. Queenie just vanished one day, that was the toughest of all because there was more anxiety in not knowing. It’s never easy and my initial, gut reaction every time is that’s it. No more dogs. No more heartbreaks. That would only last about two or three nights before I’d go puppy shopping.
Today, it’s different. Gracie and Joker have the run of the house and an 80 x 100-foot backyard to patrol, but they are never off the property without a leash. Except at the park, at sunup, most mornings, before the joggers are out. It makes my day, watching the sun rise and the dogs run. I’m not alone. The park is about 1,300 acres and often there a dozen dogs or more, running free. Not a leash in sight. Not on the dogs, anyway. Our town has a leash law, so all us owners carry leashes. Ironically, we wear them around our necks in case the nice policeman happens into the park.
Here, the dogs have the run of the wild. There’s a river that runs through it, and a pond with ducks to chase, and lots of natural woods and brush to explore.
I know all the dogs’ names but their owner’s names I sometimes get confused. All the canines get along, from Nadia, the Great Dane, to Taco, the Chihuahua, they play and scout together or just ignore each other. There are very few fights. When they do get gnarly, we give them a few seconds to solve it on their own, and they usually do. I can’t remember the last time we had to break up a dog fight. Us owners get along, too, as long we stay away from politics. We’re a mix of nurses, lawyers, bikers, shop owners and retirees. Some of us get together a few times a year for pizza and beer, but, really, we all have very little in common aside from our love of dogs.
Lately, I’ve had three dogs home with me a few days a week, including my son’s Maltese – Shih Tzu mix, “Trixie.” She’s a 14-week old fluff ball who is still finding her legs. She hops more than runs and can walk a few steps on just her rears while begging with her fronts. Trixie is as cute as a button when she does this, and at just three pounds she’s not much bigger! Gracie and Joker are very careful around Trixie. Gracie has adopted a motherly attitude, wagging her tail playfully as Trixie tries to catch it, and she allows Trixie to climb all over her. Trixie may be small but her little teeth are sharp. When she gets too friendly with her mouth, Gracie lets her know it! Joker is afraid of her unless Trixie is in my lap. On the floor, Joker runs away whenever she approaches. Joker likes to roughhouse and I think she knows Trixie is too fragile for her usual antics. Joker’s the same way with all the puppies at the park, too, regardless of size. Funny how they know.
Trixie has her own bed but prefers to sleep on a human, on my shoulder to be accurate. While I’m watching TV, she’ll fall asleep and snore in my ear, which makes me laugh. My laughter wakes her up, then she licks my ear and falls back asleep, and it starts all over again.
If they don’t allow dogs in Heaven, then, when I die, I want to go where they go.