Just weeks ago, Blue, the treasured canine companion of Bob Bickford, my Facebook friend, and an accomplished author, died of complications of old age. A master of the written word, he expressed his grief simply yet profoundly with mental images that let us feel his loss:
“I never met anyone who just loved living the way he did. He loved his baths, and he loved the snow. When he got a treat, he took it to his bed so he could lay down and really enjoy the hell out of it. He loved hot dogs the most, but every meal he got served was delicious. He loved the cool tile floor. He loved sleeping, usually under my desk. He claimed to hate cats, but he just loved barking. He stayed as sweet as sugar, every moment of every day of his life.” Bob Bickford
It takes a great deal of grieving and acceptance to move beyond the loss of a dog that claims so much of our love. I suspect people who are not so owned by love of dog may find this bond hard to accept. See it as frivolous in light of overwhelming tragedies we witness in everyday life. I thought about this after Blue’s death and while gazing at my own best friend, Murphy, who was, as usual, gazing back into my eyes. So, here are my conclusions based on personal bias and legit research:
On the companion level, a dog is constant, fairly predictable, affectionate, protective, and not very demanding. Our dogs love us if we are crabby, smelly, sick, neurotic, or too busy to play. We grow to know their distinct personalities and appreciate them for their quirks and predictability. Each is unique in behavior and traits, and we can largely trust we know them as authentic individuals. The pandemic has perhaps heightened awareness of the dog as best friend since we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time together. Mine, Murphy, sits on his own office chair next to me as I’m writing this - as he does every day.
He’s only eight years old, but nonetheless, I mourn and hold him close as I read Facebook messages saying goodbye to dogs lost by people I’ve never met. I wondered why I do this. After all, I never think about the death of my children because natural rule is that they will outlive us. But the longevity limits of dogs are known and even breed-specific. We are forced to contemplate that time in the future when we must say goodbye. And that hurts a lot - even years before it happens. As it will.
I love my dog. You love your dog. And they (at least their ancient ancestors) designed our relationship to be that way. Seriously. Research into the evolution of dogs from wolves about 40,000 years ago shows that ancient humans did not simply domesticate wolves. The Director of the Duke University Canine Center calls it “Survival of the friendliest.” He says we never tamed wolves. Instead, their brains developed to maximize their relationship with early hunter-gathers and human groups that followed. Princeton University researchers report there are specific canine genes that evolved to develop people-friendly behaviors like hunting, fetching, protecting, and the ability to recognize clues from their humans.
There’s plenty of evidence that bonded, deep relationships with our dogs are far more than fanciful thinking and anthropomorphism. Forty thousand years ago, dogs were already on their way to hacking the human brain. We only think we’re in charge. For folks who don’t understand why dog owners (maybe a misnomer because I think Murphy owns me) grieve so deeply, I hope this bit of evolutionary science provides some understanding of the inescapable bond between us.
If you’re a dog parent, you already understand that your heart (and brain) have been hijacked. It’s not entirely your fault, though it is your responsibility. And it’s one we seek, knowing full well that one day in a foreseeable future, we will shed a river of tears, say goodbye, but never forget our best friend ever.
Darby Lee Patterson
Thanks for spending your time with me. You inspire me every week to remember, sort out thoughts and memories, and write - no matter what else might be demanding my attention. Please let me know your thoughts and responses!
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