Heart of a Dog

Heart of a Dog

By the time you read this, my family dog will have been dead for over a week. He wasn’t that old, to me at least; he would have turned ten last Monday. But what began as a limp in his hind leg, maybe some arthritis or a sprain that wouldn’t heal, turned out to be bone cancer - an apparently common malady for greyhounds like him. And given that the leg could go at any time, leaving him in a great deal of more pain, it was decided it would be better for him to go peacefully, now, before that kind of calamity could occur.

He had been a racing dog. He had a teal barcode tattoo on the inside of one of his ears, his long, floppy ears that he could position at all angles, like the directional antennae which submarine captains dramatically raise upon surfacing. I saw the video of him once, from back in Florida, locked in the paddock with the muzzle on his face, and then, RIIIIIIING, off he galloped, chasing that little electric rabbit.

People apparently think greyhounds are speed machines all the time. I probably thought so; nope. Just as the cheetah must rest half the day, conserving their energy for chasing antelope across the serengeti, so too must the greyhound sleep. About nineteen hours a day. They are gentle dogs that just want a bed and some peanut butter, and who are good with children, and very gentle.

But get them in a field, or a nice, enclosed area like a baseball diamond, and let them run, and….well, only cheetahs and horses are faster land animals than a greyhound. They were bred as hare coursers, chasing rabbits at high speed into the brush. And it’s something else to see the couch potato, asleep in the living room most of the day and whimpering for milkbones, turn into a banshee so fast that all four legs leave the ground mid-gallop, like some nobleman’s favorite hunting dog.

I have read, or absorbed through some sort of media, the idea that early humans and wolves reached some sort of understanding in prehistory. I like imagining the first feints toward such friendship, at the dawn of humanity.

One night, a caveman ate his day’s hunt by his fire; a wooly mammoth steak, or a sabre-tooth tiger leg, something like that, roasted and charred and sort of edible. Looking beyond the reaches of his camp into the dark night, wiping his hairy face with the back of his hand, he saw an enemy - the wolf - sitting in the dust. Bathed in shadows, the light from the crackling fire glinting across his face, the wolf did not move. He was just watching. What to do? The wary caveman resumed eating, his eyes fixed sidelong on this furry interloper. But nothing else happened. Off our caveman went to bed, his thoughts drifting to that strange wolf as he fell asleep, under his favorite cave painting.

The next night, another mammoth steak - but no wolf, our caveman’s face greasy and glistening and peering through the dark for a reappearance. Nor the next night did the guest return. But that following morning, there were no scraps left around the fire - the remains of last night’s dinner had been gnawed of all gristle and cartilage, teeth marks set deep in the bone.

One night, the caveman looked up from his dinner to hear yipping and scratching. He knew it was his wolf. But he also knew some of those discordant growls and snarls were not a wolf. Something else was out there in the dark, something worse. Whatever it was, he never saw it, as night beyond his camp grew silent again. That night, the caveman threw his drumstick into the dust beyond what he could see. And the next night, the wolf was visible again - closer to the fire.

As the days and nights wore on, some grudging, unspoken concordance was reached between these two rivals. Perhaps it can be dryly classed as some evolutionary strategy, some symbiosis which allowed each creature to survive a little longer than they might have otherwise. I don’t think that captures the full breadth of what it means to have an animal help you stay alive. I think that is called love.

This dog did more for me than I did for him, and he never even knew it. How could he? Once, my parents brought the dog to a kennel while they went on vacation. When they returned, he seemed slightly shocked to see them again; he assumed he had, once again, been left behind, that his peaceable existence of warm beds and table scraps had been an interlude, nothing more, and had concluded. He had returned to his cinder-block existence, and that was natural to him. But it was terribly sad to me; how do you tell a dog his life matters more than he thinks it does?

He was only ever doing what he thought was natural for a dog of his stature - evincing a stately kindness, stretching his skinny legs to get up to greet me at the door, or leaning his long horse body against me while I patted him. Arriving home once, after he’d gone to bed already, I was told that the first thing he did the next morning was rush into the living room, enlivened by the sense that something was different today, sniffing my coat in excitement that I was home, as his nose had suspected.

A decade ago, now, I was in Egypt, in the Valley of the Kings, in the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, looking at the statues that had survived thousands of years. And who did the kings of ancient Egypt want to be sure were memorialized for all eternity - even accompanying them into the afterlife? Their dogs. Paws stretched out ahead of them, sitting patiently, their stone dogs looked no different than mine.

So regal, but unlike us humans, they know no kings - which makes their elegance all the more impressive, unforced as it is. Every dog is a king, at least in how they comport themselves. In the time it took for millions and billions of grains of sand to cover up these vast monuments, how many such dogs lived and died and were loved by us, humans, too lucky for words to have had such companions?

My family dog was rescued as a former racing greyhound - they make great pets, even in apartments, and have wonderful, calm personalities. If you are looking for a dog, please consider rescuing a greyhound from one of these helpful organizations.

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