Just a Dog


Like most dog adoptions, it began with an ad: “Lab puppies.  Akron.  $150.  Call 970-xxx-xxxx.”

So I brought him home, without a name, a black lab.  Not only without a name, I realized as I pulled into PetSmart.  Without a bed, a collar, a leash, food, bowl, or toys.  That first night, he slept in  cardboard box, padded by shredded newspaper, in the unfinished basement of the house I was renting.  He went to sleep crying, and woke up crying.  At 4:00.  This was a dog who had spent his first three months on a farm, never even coming indoors.  Suddenly, he wakes up in a room, in a strange house, no mom, no Man Who Milks the Cows, nothing familiar.  Alone.  Last time that happened, I can promise you.

Thus began an 11-year friendship, familiar to all dog owners.  Eleven years, dozens of trips, hundreds of days in the car.  Hiking, snowshoeing, carrying bags, swimming, camping.  Sage probably saw more of the western half of the country than most people who live here.  His last trip, a day trip over July 4th weekend, we took him swimming at Jefferson Lake.  He could barely make it around the block for the arthritis, but he could swim for 15-20 minutes straight.  God, how he loved to swim.  Took him a year from puppyhood to learn to stop wading, but once he did, there was no stopping him from chasing the thoroughly unconcerned ducks.

He wasn’t a big fan of the rides, never did like to hang his head out the side, and hated, hated off-road travel, although the destination was usually to his liking.  Once, on a shelf road down Comb Ridge in Utah, he almost got us both killed trying to climb into the front seat with me.  I had to leash him to the Jeep’s frame in the back to keep him from trying it again.  In fact, he was sort of an all-around coward; for a gun dog, he couldn’t stand fireworks.  When he heard the vet’s voice, he scampered under the seats in his exam room.  That’s a trick for 110-lb dog.

Like all dogs, he was a bundle of paradoxes.  He could break a marrow bone in half, but carry a balloon across the floor without busting it.  He was a coward who took our mutual defense pact seriously, and jumped in-between my father and me when I asked Dad to fake a punch, to see what would happen.  (Wednesday morning, with only minutes to live, he rose unsteadily to challenge the intruder who was there to help.)  He loved to eat, but waited for permission.  He took a long time to get used to the car, but put his head in my lap as a puppy when we were diving late at night.  His was the model for the dog-squirrel relationship in Up, even though he only got in-between a squirrel and its tree once.

He got used to the fact that most of life was outside his control.  We went camping one time, and when a wind came up and I had to lean into the windward side of the tent for half an hour to keep it earthbound, he just crawled over to a safe part of the tent to daven in his doggie way for the weather to clear.  We took him to the Sand Dunes, and when wind kept blowing sand into his eyes on the way back, he just looked over to make sure I appreciated the sacrifice.  When he went snowshoeing for 5 hours – about 3 hours longer than intended – he carried the food, treats, and water, and never complained.  And when, on that last trip, I needed him to make it back to the Jeep, he did, even though he really wanted nothing more than to lie down in the cold, cold runoff for the rest of his life.

If you’re the unsentimental type, the type that would need a scientific, rational justification for the human-dog connection, let Temple Grandin provide it in Animals in Translation:

Basically, two different species with complementary skills teamed up together, something that had never happened before, and has never really happened since.

Going over all the evidence, a group of Australian anthropologists believes that during all those years when early humans were associating with wolves, they learned to act and think like wolves. Wolves hunted in groups, humans didn’t.  Wolves had loyal same-sex and nonkin friendships, humans probably didn’t, judging by the lack of same-sex and nonkin friendships in every other primate species today.  Wolves were highly territorial, humans probably weren’t – again, judging by how nonterritorial all other primates are today.  A lot of the things we do that the other primates don’t are dog things.  The Australian group thinks it was the dogs who showed us how.

…Fossil records show that whenever a species becomes domesticated its brain gets smaller.  The horse’s brain shrank by 16%; the pig’s brain shrank by as much as 34%; and the dog’s brain shrank by 10 to 30%….Now archaeologists have discovered that 10,000 years ago, just at the point when humans began to give their dogs formal burials, the human brain began to shrink, too.  It shrank by 10%… And what’s interesting is what part of the human brain shrank.  In all of the domestic animals, the forebrain, which holds the frontal lobes, and the corpus callosum, which is the connecting tissue between the two sides of the brain, shrank.  But in humans, it was the midbrain, which handles emotions and sensory data, and the olfactory bulbs, which handle smell, that got smaller.  Dog brains and human brains specialized: humans took over the planning and organizing tasks, and dogs took over the sensory tasks.

Sage’s and my teaming up came to an end last Wednesday.

Tuesday morning, he was fine, except for his arthritis.  Tuesday evening, he was sick.  Wednesday morning, we didn’t even need to put him down; I just asked him – gave him permission, really – to go to sleep, that when he woke up, we’d go for a walk, maybe even go to the park to go swimming.  I left the room to call Susie, and as soon as I did, he went to sleep.  I was told there was nothing to be done, but he saved me the doubt.

Good boy, Sage.  Sleep tight.