As a child I decided that Christianity wasn’t for me because in the bible there was no mention of dogs or horses going to heaven. And I believed then, as I still believe now, that a life (or an after-life) without animals is not much of a life at all.
I was speaking with a wise friend of mine the other day about ageing. He said, “I’ve probably only got another dog, or maybe two, left in my lifetime.” I’ve thought a lot about that and I’ve decided that for those of us who love them, there’s probably no better measure of our own existence than the number of dogs whose lives we have shared.
For thousands of years dogs have lived amongst us, their dog years spinning out like ours, but in fast-forward. We watch them grow from first puppy waddles into big pawed adolescence and from there into confident maturity and finally into fragile old age. Living their lives with joy in the simple things and with an endless supply of love for the people who care for them. They are a daily reminder of how we should live. And their much shorter lives teach us that nothing is forever, no matter how much we wish it could be.
When you say goodbye to a much loved dog a small piece of you goes with them. You might look for that part of yourself in the corners where they used to lie – in the living room where the early winter sun warms the rug or in the cool jade stand of kikuyu underneath the plane tree. But that part of you has gone and you’ll always feel that missing, even when the next dog comes along and your arms are full of licky wriggles and the milky smell of puppy breath in your face.
The last time I said goodbye to a dog I cradled his soft, grey head in my lap and told him that he had been loved every single day of his life. Even when he dug up the garden or chewed the children’s shoes into slobbery leather lace, he was loved. He may not have been perfect but we loved him and he loved us right back. Because dogs love as we should. They love us at our worst, without question, without qualification. They are loyal, joyful and totally honest. By loving a dog we commemorate what is best in our own hearts.
I think that it is perhaps one of humanity’s most redeeming features that we unconditionally love our dogs, knowing from the outset that one day they’ll leave us broken-hearted. One day your dog will take that small piece of you to a place where you cannot yet follow.
But it seems a very small price to pay for a lifetime of love.