There are more than 77 million pet dogs in the United States.
For many people, dogs are just part of what makes a "family" - Mommy, Daddy, two kids and a dog. Dog is loved by the family, but suffers what I like to call benevolent neglect. Dog has minimal training - a puppy course at the local big-box pet supply store is considered sufficient. Dog never misses a meal, but his kibble is whatever Daddy picks up at the grocery store on the way home from work. Dog is sometimes stinky, so he is shooed out of the children's rooms to sleep in the laundry room until someone finds the time to bathe him (usually with a chemical-laden grocery store shampoo or baby shampoo.) Dog wanders the house aimlessly while the family plays board games at the kitchen table or watches movies in the den. Dog is an extra, an accessory, a living peninsula to the continent of Family.
I'm glad my dogs know a different life.
Now don't think I'm advocating that dogs be treated like people - I don't anthropomorphize my pets. In fact, doing so is actually detrimental to a dog's psyche. My dogs are not children - they are powerful, domesticated predators that miraculously look to me for leadership and direction.
But that is not to say they are somehow "less" than me. On the contrary - spending most of my adult life in the company of dogs has opened my eyes to how flawed and how broken the human race really is. Shock! Horror! I can imagine some of you are recoiling away from your computer screens, aghast at what I'm saying. But that's okay - I'm not asking anyone to agree with me, and I'm not criticizing anyone for finding other things to be passionate about. I'm fully aware that most people don't share my beliefs.
I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist. One of the major principles of Unitarian Universalism is being allowed to embark on a 'free and responsible search for truth and meaning.' This meant that the congregation didn't tell me what to believe - they simply taught me all they could and gave me the tools to pursue my own spiritual growth. I visited the Mother Mosque, I attended Hindu festivals, I went to Christian Youth Camps, I participated in Wiccan ceremonies - all with an open mind. I enjoyed every minute of it. I was blessed to experience such a wide variety of human religious culture during my formative years... but still I felt an emptiness that I couldn't understand. Something was missing.
I was sixteen years old when I got my first dog. I'm sure my high school friends can attest that I became a different person after Ilsa came home. For the first time in my life, I felt complete. All this time I had been searching for spiritual fulfillment in and with other people, but with the help of one red puppy with pointy ears I discovered my truth.
Perhaps this is why all the other established faiths left me wanting something more. Most organized religion has that "human element" - a humanlike deity, a reverence for human interests, a preference placed on the human race. My life experiences had taught me that humans lie, humans scheme, humans deceive, humans cheat, humans abandon. Dogs are incapable of that.
The happiest moment of my life was spent with my dogs.
It was summer. We spent the entire day out at Peterson Pits, one of our favorite nature parks. We'd started on the horse trails, then circled over to the small lake so the dogs could barrel down the shoreline and crash into the water... scare the fish. Then we went west, thick into the woods, until the trail became so tangled with tree roots that we could go no further. The dogs had run running up and down the shaded ravines, their muscular bodies zipping through the shadows with silent grace. We turned back, and took the left fork to the creek so the dogs could chase sticks thrown into the gentle current. After shaking the sand from our shoes, we traveled north in search of the pioneer cemetery. The dogs took a detour so they could hunt mice in an ancient pile of discarded railroad ties, and play hide 'n' seek in the sand dunes. After finding the cemetery, we headed even further north, into the prairie. At this rate, it was doubtful we'd make it back to the car before dark. As the sun set, we watched the dogs trot through the grass about 20 yards ahead of us. There was a slight breeze, and it was quiet - save for the sounds of the wildlife settling in for the evening. And it was perfect.
The saddest moment of my life was spent with my dogs.
It was winter. February 6th, to be precise - the day before Ilsa's 7th birthday. And we were letting her go. She had osteosarcoma in her jaw, and it had spread to her chest... there was no way we could save her. Our vet let us come in after hours so we wouldn't have to see any other clients. It was a blur, but I remember the vet and the tech were crying too. Ilsa was uncomfortable, she didn't want to lie down. Forcing her down would stress her even more, so the vet gave her a fast-acting sedative that brought her down fast - right in my lap. I held her, hugging her and crying into her neck until she was gone. I took her collar off and we left. I learned a valuable lesson that evening - take the collar off before they're gone.
Every momentous and meaningful event in my adult life has been with - or because of - a dog. Every profound life lesson I've learned has come from a dog.
So the next time you're sitting down with the family to watch a movie, curl up with your dog. Feel how he leans into you, happy and content. The next time you go to the park, bring your dog along. Listen to her strong paws thud against the ground as she runs, tongue hanging out from a smiling mouth and a happy twinkle in her eyes.
And maybe, just maybe, you'll see a glimpse of what makes "just a Dog" so incredibly special.