Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A confession and a tribute

I recently met a Golden Retriever who seemed to me to epitomize what a Golden Retriever should be. For one thing, he looked so resplendent that I realized that Allie's overdue for some grooming. (Yes, I made the appointment today. The Golden girl will be beautified on Thursday.) Anyway, this dog was a joy to behold: happy, confident, compliant, incredibly precise as he worked. I was enthralled.

So I was a little surprised when I learned later this dog's owner apparently isn't all that crazy about him. She feels that he's not like the other Goldens she's had and that he's just not at the levels of those other dogs. Someone remarked that owners of show dogs are sometimes like that; they don't necessarily love or even like all their dogs equally. And certainly more than a few show dogs go to other owners when they retire.

And yet, I wonder, how different are the rest of us who have lived with and loved more than one dog? Can we really claim to love all of our dogs equally? Patricia McConnell speaks of one particular dog, Luke, as being her soul-dog. To me, such a characterization implies a kind of hierarchy of affection with respect to the other dogs who've been in her life. And author Jon Katz has made no bones about loving the dogs in his life somewhat unequally. On at least two occasions, he's placed those less-loved dogs in other homes because he just didn't feel as connected with them as with the other dogs he had. And I'm not saying I approve of Katz's doing that; just that he did it.

Even I am guilty of at least appearing to play favorites. As an adult I've lived with three dogs: Molly, whom I consider to have been the dog of my soul; Cory, whom I've characterized as the dog of my heart; and now Allie, whom I call the dog of my life. But while I fell in love with both Cory and Molly almost immediately after they came to live with me (and with Molly, that was a good thing, because our first year together was full of problems), I didn't fall in love with Allie nearly as fast. My relationship with her has been a lot more complicated than with the other two dogs I've lived with.

Allie was a challenging puppy--and even as an adult, she's not always easy. Yes, she's smart, loving and confident. But she also can be demanding, mischievous and stubborn. And she definitely has a mind of her own. I'd hoped that Allie would be a dog with whom I could learn to compete in a dog sport such as agility, obedience, or flyball. However, Allie made it clear that she wasn't interested in group training to learn any kind of sport or other pursuit. Even now, we still have some issues, particularly with respect to her behavior while on the leash. We're working on those, and are coming along well.

But in all fairness to Allie, we probably got her too soon after Cory's sudden death. That wasn't Stan's or Julie's fault -- the fault was all mine. Cory's death devastated me, and I could not handle being without a dog (how do you write full time about dogs without a dog nearby to inspire you?). Still, I'd find myself grumpy and angry at Allie simply for not being Cory--hardly her fault. It took me a couple of years to fully appreciate Allie for who she is and what she's teaching me (and continues to teach me). But up till then, I was uncomfortably aware that she had turned out to be *so* not the dog I wanted. And yes, I considered taking her back to her breeder. But I knew that if I did that, someone else would benefit from all the work that I was putting into helping her become the best dog she could be. Egotistical little so-and-so that I am (heck, I'm only human), I couldn't abide that prospect.

So when I was told that this other Golden's owner wasn't nuts about this dog, I not only was surprised, I was a tad uncomfortable. It hit a little too close to home. I remembered all the times I heard people exult over how wonderful Allie was and think to myself, "If only you knew." I remember wondering if I would ever love her as much as I'd loved the other dogs I'd raised.

So, do I love her as much? Yes, I do -- now. Did everything work out? I think so. For one thing, my trials and tribulations with Allie have inspired some of my best writing. And when friends see us together now, they marvel at the bond we have. Their reactions help me to look at our connection anew. I'm not sure what made things all work out in the end. Time? Probably. Maturity? Certainly for Allie, and undoubtedly for me, too.

When I was in college and given to self-important pronouncements in an effort to affect a wisdom I'd had yet to earn, I defined love as the ultimate form of acceptance. Actually, even now, I think that's not a bad definition. Now, when I look at my Golden girl stretched out on the same old sofa that Molly and Cory loved, I feel the same degree of love for her that I did for those other two dogs. But I love her for who she is: a loving, feisty, intense, persistent, intelligent companion who very much has her own ideas. Today, my bond with Allie is no less strong than it was with Molly and Cory. It just took a whole lot longer to build.

With Allie, I've learned that you may not always get the dog you want, but "if you try sometimes you just might find, you just might find" (thank you, Rolling Stones!) you get the dog you need. She was and is the dog I've needed, even when I haven't known it -- and I love her for that, and for so much more.

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