We grew up on a small farm and raised chickens. Whenever a new bunch would come home, they’d stay inside the house under warming lamps until they were big and strong enough to go out to the coop. Our feral black barn cat would just lay next to their little box by the fireplace and ensure their safety from both my little brother and our newest little kitty. He’d often get accidentally locked in the chicken coop with the hens and would just sit patiently by the door until we got home from school to let him out. Never once laid a paw on those birds.
Until I was 28 years old, I’d never had more than barn cats or chickens as pets. And they were, as we caustically described them in our family, “disposable pets.” I don’t mean that we got rid of them willy-nilly. I mean that we knew they were all outdoor animals and that nature would eventually have its way with them. We were just okay with that. Circle of life, or whatever. It was still very upsetting when, one day, a cat wouldn’t come home for dinner. We knew it was over for him. We’d developed an understanding about how life worked for our pets, but that didn’t make it hurt much less when their time finally came.
When I was 28, I adopted two small dogs from a weird little rescue center south of Denver. The dogs were perfect! I went in wanting only the one and wound up walking out with two. They were best friends and I couldn’t bear the thought of separating them. It just seemed mean.
It’s been eight years since I first brought them home and I’ll be the first to tell you: I did not think they’d still be alive! One suffers from massive seizures and, until very recently, had a mouth full of rotting teeth. The other is old, was horribly abused, was fixed after she had a litter of pups (so her teets never receded), and now has only three teeth left. They have been known to eat things like full bags of Hershey’s kisses, tape dispensers, a small deep fryer’s worth of oil, a chocolate orange, a marble rolling pin, a compact disc…I legitimately have no idea how they’re still alive. Their doctors have told me recently that, aside from their teeth (which are now all better), they are basically as healthy as puppies. I call them my robot zombie dogs because NOTHING WILL KILL THEM.
I’ve learned a lot about pets and life in the last eight years. My dogs are remarkably intuitive. I’ve gone through some hard and painful things in the last five or six years and they’re been far more sensitive to me than I ever imagined possible. When I was angry, they’d get riled up which would force me to walk them to calm them (and me) down. When I was sad, they would snuggle up against me and just be. And the few times I hit the bottom and was crying on my bedroom floor drinking wine straight from the bottle, they’d sit next to me and lick my face every so often as if to say, “It’s okay to be sad, but you need to eat…and so do we.”
When I was pregnant with my first baby, Leo was somewhat annoyed by the fact that my lap was quickly disappearing; Suki took to cuddling my belly like a champ. “Been there, done this, mama!” Once the baby came home, Leo was constantly at her side. If she cried, he would come to get us (he still does this, nearly two years later). He’s very protective (even if a bit over-zealous sometimes) of our little Godzilla. Suki was a little more withdrawn at the sight of a real baby. I wonder if she was sad because she never got the chance to snuggle her own babies? She’s warmed up to the now-toddler and readily welcomes her snuggles (however unintentionally not gentle they may be).
On top of all that, they have welcomed my husband as their “pack leader.” That’s never been me. I’ve never been strong enough to take on that role for them. I’m lucky they’re well-behaved animals (for the most part). But when he came along, he loved them like they were always his and I think they felt that. They knew he was going to be around for the long haul.
It’s amazing the things I’ve learned from my two mutts in almost a decade. They have taught me to take the time to be silly. I’ve learned (or am better learning) the fine art of acceptance. I am far more protective of “my own” after having them.
But more than anything, I think the one universal lesson that dogs teach us is that of unconditional love. It doesn’t matter how mad or depressed or upset I get (at life, at myself, at them), they will always be happy to see me. Their kisses and snuggles don’t have strings attached. All they really want is a couple meals and a place to call home…and isn’t that much of what anyone really wants in life?