As some of you already know, last week, our beloved black Labrador, Archie, had major surgery for liver cancer. On the day his tumour was identified on scan, I sobbed. When his diagnosis came through, I sobbed. On the day his tumour was removed, I sobbed. And I continued to sob on the days in between. Dog owners and dog lovers would simply get it. And though there are many ‘nons’ who wouldn’t and who might suggest euthanasia as an appropriate solution, I feel no anger towards them. Instead, I’m simply sad that they haven’t experienced the strength of love that a dog inspires, or the utter loss their death provokes when their bowls and beds are tearfully packed away, and their lead is taken down from its hook because its sheer presence is too painful to bear. I love Archie, I mean I REALLY love him. And during the last few weeks I’ve started to wonder what it is about our furry family members that induces such passion in us, and if, in fact, they are part of the bigger plan.
I’ve heard it said many times, and my case was no exception. Archie chose me. From a litter of seven bitches and one dog, I was adopted by him the moment I entered his world. Archie or ‘Shuttlegate Sebastian’ as he is identified by the Kennel Club, came from pedigree stock. Subsequently the list of interested potential owners was long. Yet he came to me – the only one on the list who wasn’t going to show him or to breed him. I knew nothing of owning a puppy, so I read how-to books and spoke to lots of people. I took three days off work when he first came home, and crept around the house as he slept, fearful of waking him. On his first few nights, I laid down next to him and held his paw as he cried. ‘Bang the edge of his crate with a rolled-up newspaper when he starts whining.’ I was told. ‘He won’t do it again.’ Needless to say, that advice, along with several other gems, was dismissed with the same degree of disgust as a BNP leaflet. In the end, I just went with my gut and that’s always been ruled by my heart.
As a pup, Arch was hilarious. He would fetch me the blankets from his crate when he felt they were dirty. He would ‘help’ me take the washing off the line by hurling himself at the garments on the whirly. And he would sit on my lap as I worked at home, licking my nose as I tried to type. Arch was smart and loved by everyone who met him. But he was also easily bored and knew how to communicate it. His crowning moment at puppy-classes was meandering into the middle of the ‘sit, down, stay’ obedience circle when he’d had enough, rolling on to his back, and sticking his winky in the air! I couldn’t stop laughing. The officious trainer, however, didn’t start… Arch & I left.
Archie is now eleven and a half, which in human years is 80, and I’ve sadly watched him age before my eyes; the greying chin, the slower pace… He comes to work most days, has his own email address, his own Swiped-On in our entry software, and can normally be found sitting regally on the welcome mat in front of our reception desk. My employees love him and affectionately call him our Morale Officer! He’s still funny and still smart. But as the years have passed, he’s become something else, too. On the evening my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he paced between ours and the guest bedroom where my brother slept, all night, just keeping watch. On the days that I walked with him weeping about my dad’s death, or my infertility, or any of the other stuff that has been part of my growth, he hasn’t left me to sniff, or to play, or to run. He has stayed by my side, glancing upwards every now and then. And those times when a family member has been poorly, he has laid down beside them and checked them frequently with a wet nose on theirs. I’ve often read that the people with whom we spend our earthly lives are pre-selected before we are even born and I’m beginning to wonder if this process also includes our beloved pets. However, though the metaphysical school of thought suggests that this pre-selection process, grouping us with personalities that we adore and despise, furthers our growth, I can’t help but to think that perhaps the role of our furry friends is something more beautiful altogether. I fell in love with my bundle of fluff the moment he reached up for me on our first meeting, and I have continued to fall. And for someone with whom I have never had what might be termed a ‘normal conversation’, Archie’s company is one I actively seek, and really miss when we’re not together.
Having watched two separate friends lose their beloved dogs in as many weeks, I thank the grace of God that there don’t go I. Yet I know Archie’s time will come. However, even if he makes 15, surely a life of 15 years is still too short? I look at my constant companion, my furry ‘son’ who arrived just before life really got interesting, and I wonder. I wonder about the times just being in his presence made me feel better. I wonder about the healing properties of those daily early morning and late evening walks by his side, and I wonder about those cuddles, and the times just his warmth and his companionship stopped my tears. And I wonder, with dread and guilt, what effect this all had on him. The beautiful empath with the listening ears, the wagging tail and those endless brown eyes who never left my side: has he knowingly and willingly absorbed my shit, my negative energy, to help further my journey? Was that why he chose me? Was I always his destiny?
If I were to describe my relationship with Arch, I would probably say it’s the most enlightened relationship I have ever known. Not once has Archie made me feel jealous, bitter, angry, insignificant, worthless, or unauthentic. In addition, Archie allows me to nurture and care for him in a way that never prompts criticism or rebuff from him. On the odd day that other worldly frustrations lead me to be short with him, Archie doesn’t retaliate. And that unspoken forgiveness immediately leads to an instant, regretful apology on my part, and inspires my determination to do better.
During the last few weeks, having come close to the possibility of losing our beloved Archie-Onion-Belly-Rub, I’ve formed something of an opinion. It is my suspicion that, to the detriment of their own life-span, our dogs willingly share and take on our burdens. They are part of our bigger picture, arriving just when they are needed. By the very nature of their utter trust in and love of us, they show us the simplicity of peaceful, fulfilling relationships – a greeting at the front door, a kiss whenever possible: gratitude for the smallest of things. Our dogs teach us the benefits of fun, exercise and fresh air. They show us that being with those we love should always be a source of joy. They illustrate perfectly the advantages of mindfulness; that living in the here and now, chasing that ball, snoozing in the sunshine is really all that matters. And they show us that even when we might feel like failures in other aspects of our lives, when it comes to our interactions with them, we are doing just fine.
Spiritual books often say the following; that in giving we receive, that to love is to be loved in return, and that the here and now is really all that matters. We invest so much time, angst, money and heartache in seeking contentment, and yet perhaps many of us are already living alongside the greatest spiritual teachers we will ever know – the ones who were assigned to us; the ones who recognised us as soon as we met.
Our dogs demand very little, and yet most responsible dog owners don’t bat an eyelid about fulfilling those demands and would willingly fulfil a thousand more. With our dogs we effortlessly succeed where we mostly fail in our human interactions, and perhaps that all comes down to this. By the very nature of the purity of their hearts, the simplicity of their demands, and the unconditional authenticity of their love, our dogs in turn bring out the very best in us – they show us how absolutely wonderful we can be. Perhaps they are trying to urge us that if we would only mirror this behaviour – both theirs and ours – with our fellow human beings, our continued evolution would be assured.
I’m pretty sure there’s more to our dogs than we’ll ever know, and if their example, their teaching and their ultimate sacrifice isn’t the action of a heavenly being then I really don’t know what is… Angels really do exist. And they’re rather partial to the odd sausage!