Thursday, August 21, 2014

Missing Dog: Why Having Pets is Horrible, and Why Everyone Needs One.

Tracker had his share of flaws.

I mean, sure; he's a dog.  And dogs, whatever their size or breed, come with a pretty large and distinct territory.  They can tend to be hyper.  In his youth, Tracker had preternatural wells of energy.  He had worn a running track along the edge of the backyard's fence, a bald patch of packed dirt where once had been soft grass.  He would lap around the yard's circumference over and over, a black and white blur against our white vinyl fence.  I often casually wondered what he was training for.  a greyhound may have been able to beat my little springer spaniel in a sprint, but I was pretty confident Tracker stood among the canine elite in endurance events.  He lived up to the aptly-named springer spaniel breed as well.  That dog learned how to jump our eight-foot fence, and was locked in a continuous man vs nature competition with my father.  Dad diligently devised new ways to improve the boundaries that kept Tracker in, while the dog always devised a new jailbreak to experience the world at large.

Tracker, like most dogs barked.  Incessantly.  His bark was impressively loud and persistent.  It led to more than a few awkward moments with long-suffering neighbors whose patience finally began to wear as thin as the dirt track in the yard.  The bark was fairly vicious.  It was a lie.  Were an intruder to build up the courage to face the dog with the ferocious, snarling bark, he'd find an enthused, overgrown puppy whose nubby tail was wagging so fiercely his whole body shook.

He was an impressive and efficient machine of destruction.  As kids, were we to take off our shoes and get on the trampoline, Tracker would respectfully leave them neatly where we placed them.  Until we went back inside. Any object left in the yard in our absence--cell phones, shoes, frisbees, lawn mower bags, footballs, sleeping bags, barbecue tools, etc.--were his to destroy.  And destroy them he did.  We'd find their remnants, impossibly tiny pieces, spread through the grass like mulch.

As Tracker aged and mellowed slightly, he still maintained his puppy-like excitement to see his People.  He would shake with excitement when we walked in, and thrust his head into our hands.  "Pet me!" he insisted.
We got Tracker as an imperturbably happy puppy when I was ten.  And I took his presence in my life for granted.  Although I had made all kinds of promises to the contrary, I rarely walked him when I was a teenager.  I let my parents feed and water him, and resented it when I had to scoop up the corner of the yard that served as his depository.

Gratefully, in my adult years, I came to appreciate his positive presence in our lives more fully.  I walked him and petted him, and threw his ball--which was whatever ball he hadn't shredded into confetti.  He would listen to me when I was vexed and depressed by life's complexities.  Always, he was unconditionally, unapologetically, selflessly loving.  As we aged together, Tracker started getting grumpy when he was tired.  If you woke him up by petting him, he'd let out a low, less-growl, more-grumble.  "Does sleep mean nothing to you, man?"  he would ask.  But he would often and roll over into my hand, all the same.  I was, after all, his Person.

Tracker aged gracefully.  But slowly, his wells of energy seemed to be drying.  His enthusiasm seemed to fade.  The light in his eyes flickered slightly.  One Christmas Eve morning, we had woken up to find that Tracker had prolapsed part of his bowel.  He was sick.  He wasn't going to get better.  My dad and I clipped on a leash for one last walk.  Our little springer was excited.  We took him to the vet, and he excitedly greeted the other dog in the lobby.

We were escorted to a backroom and I lifted and gently placed my dog on a table.  He was nervous and sick.  He placed his head in my hands and looked up at me.  He didn't break that gaze as the professional and kind vet techs shaved a small place on his arm, placed a catheter, and prepped him for that final medicine we had come to give him.  The tech helping us quietly invited us to say goodbye.  My dad and I kissed our dog--our brother and friend and guardian.  We were both choking on stinging tears and swollen throats.  Tracker, alone, didn't whine or sniff.  He simply looked at me.  "Here we go," the tech said quietly, and she pressed down on the syringe.  Tracker didn't move.  He breathed, locking his eyes in mine.  He breathed again, and in my hands, his body softened, his head grew heavy.  And Tracker closed his eyes.

Chelsea and I recently visited the Humane Society.  I like to go there periodically to pet the animals and take the dogs on walks.  While it's sad, you can't help but feel good upon leaving, having brought so much enthusiasm and happiness to them, for even a moment.  It makes me feel like I have a lot to offer, that I can make a difference in the life of a living thing merely by paying it a little attention.

Pets are messy, loud, hard work, costly, damage-creating, obnoxious, and often-smelly pests.  And inevitably, you will outlive them, and find yourself one day holding a living thing that's wormed its way into your heart as they pass out of life.  It is one of the most heart wrenching experiences I've had.

But I will always have pets.  Everyone should.  Here's why:
  • They are good for your health.  Decades of research have proven that owning a dog or cat lowers blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, depression, and other mental/emotional disorders.  They can even affect cholesterol levels and in turn, lower incidences of cardiac arrest.  In the event of cardiac arrests, survivors who own pets live longer after their episodes than their animal-less counterparts.  All said, life expectancy and, more importantly, quality of life increase significantly for those that have a furry friend. (Sources: 1, 2)
  • They train you. Pets force you out of bed.  They make you clean.  They make you wash and feed and walk.  They require a certain level of care that instills in us humans an increased sense of responsibility.  Having pets increases good habits.
  • They're living things. Almost universally, people love playing with kittens and puppies.  Why?  They're too young to give a lot of love.  The kittens don't purr, and puppies don't learn to lick or wag until the latter stages of their puppyness.  Yet we all turn to small piles of mush.  It's because they are living things, and we are conditioned by evolution to value life--especially young life--when we see it.  Their individual personalities and temperaments, their love and attention will weave into your family's fabric.  After Tracker, my parents adopted an adorable little hound/beagle we named Bailey.  We love her dearly, but the place Tracker left in our hearts will never be filled.  Both hold a unique place in our family.
Tracker is one of a number of pets that have left their unique prints in our lives. It hurts when they die.  Terribly.  But loss will always be a part of love; that pain has always been small price to pay for the enrichment and joy others bring into our lives--including pets.