Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Love of Dogs -- the Story of Jacob & Amos

I grew up always having cats, and for the first 31 years of my life I staunchly identified myself as a "cat person." The urge to adopt a dog inexplicably occurred in late 2002, and I started visiting the dog adoption section of the Washington, D.C. Animal Shelter web site ( in January 2003, right around the time I turned 32. It was kind of a whimsical thing at first -- a lunchtime distraction from my job, which was going through a boring phase -- but then I saw an adorable 4-month old shepherd mix named Santana. After seeing his huge ears, golden fur with black snout, and wise brown eyes, I knew I had to go meet him (plus I also wanted to meet whoever was naming these shelter dogs).

I'll never forget the first time I saw Santana in person. He was near the end of a long corridor of dog kennels, and getting to him involved going through a heart-breaking gauntlet. It seemed that every single dog in the NY Avenue animal shelter was barking at me as I progressed down the aisle, each pleading for me to choose it. When I got to Santana's cage, his kennel mate, a chow mix, immediately greeted me with the same desperate excitement of all the other dogs I had just passed. After mollifying the chow mix, I at last turned my attention to Santana, who in contrast to all his shelter mates had waited patiently and silently for me to come to him. He was now sitting calmly, gazing directly into my eyes in an unspoken communion of intelligent beast with intelligent beast. There was no doubt that he was asking to be adopted as well, but his was a quieter method which, in its confident and assured subtlety, managed to speak to me more powerfully than the incessant barking of all the other dogs combined. As I experienced seeing Santana’s golden beauty, feeling his calm but strong and happy energy, and looking into his disarmingly wise eyes for the first time, I fell completely and totally in love.

As I walked my new puppy out of the shelter a few days later, I turned to him and said, "Come on Jacob, let's go home!" He clearly needed a new name if he was going to fit in with the resident cats (Arthur, Thomas, and Leonard), but I'm still not quite sure where "Jacob" came from. He looked at me as I said it, though, as if signalling his approval of the moniker, so Jacob became his name.

Having a puppy was quite an adventure, seeing as I had never had a dog of any age before. I enlisted the help of a dog walker about 3 days after joining the dog-owning ranks (so much for my plan of going home at lunch every day to walk the pup), and I got a dog trainer not too long after that. Jacob grew from an adorable but naughty puppy into an amazingly beautiful and well-behaved dog. Man, is he handsome! -- I think he's a Belgian tervuren (I had never heard of it, either) mixed with a golden retriever, and he has the best of each breed. He is gentle, friendly, smart as a whip, and very protective of his people and his home. Although he has a stubborn streak that drove me crazy during puppyhood, now that he's grown many people share my assessment that he is "the perfect dog." This is evidenced by the fact that there's a long waiting list of people who would love to take him off my hands, so it's not just me talking here.

At first I was hoping that Jacob and the cats would become best buddies -- you know, take naps together, playfully tease ease other, share toys, etc. Two years after Jacob joined the menagerie, things were peaceful between the species but not particularly friendly, and I thought that Jacob needed more suitable company. I started thinking about getting a second dog in the summer of 2005, and this time it was Gennaro who gave me the "hi, Mom" look from his photo on the shelter web site (clearly the shelter's naming committee had not improved in the two years since I met Santana). He was another handsome shepherd, about 1o months old, and he had this pitiful look about him that just totally sucked me in. I tracked his progress on the shelter web site for about a month before I finally broke down and went to see him, thinking that his days were numbered.

He was cute as the dickens -- a smooth-coated collie or sheltie crossed with some other breed that gave him speckles on his white snout and legs. He was a little aloof when we went out into the dog run at the shelter together. I think that he was more excited about being outside than he was at the prospect of seeing yet another human, because I don't think his luck with humans had been too good up to this point. Gennaro was scheduled to go to a foster home the next day and his foster person apparently had a permanent adopter lined up, so my chances didn't look good. I had a feeling about this dog, though, and I didn't lose hope.

Two weeks later the phone rang -- the foster dad wanted to know if I was still interested because the adopter had backed out. So Jacob and I went to Dogs by Day, the doggy daycare on 14th Street, to meet Gennaro. I was getting this dog for Jacob, so I of course could not proceed without his input. After a few tentative sniffs and circles, the barrier between these two dogs broke and they played like the best of friends. When I sat down for a minute as I watched them chase and wrestle, Gennaro came over, sat beside me, and put his head in my lap. At that point it was all over but the renaming!

I went to pick up Amos, as I decided to call him, the very next day. My habit was to take Jacob to Congressional Cemetery twice a day for a large amount of off-leash exercise (don't worry -- this cemetery, unlike any other that I know of, has an organized dog-walking program), and I threw Amos into the world of off-leash graveyard walks immediately. I suspect, based on what I witnessed that day, that Amos had never been off-leash in an open area before. I will never forget seeing his eyes light up, about 10 seconds after he got out of the car, when he figured out that he was free to run. After this moment of recognition he bolted off to chase Jacob, who was leading by example and already an acre away, and didn't slow down the entire time we were there. I don't think I've ever seen a dog so happy, before or since, as he was during that first day of running, and he was crestfallen when I finally managed to catch him and leash him up. Don't worry Amos, I told him, we're coming back again tomorrow, and every day after that -- you're free to run all the time now!

At first Jacob was quick to bring Amos back when he strayed too far or for too long. After a while, Jacob stopped retrieving Amos, but he would discipline Amos on occasions when Amos did not come back promptly after I called. I already knew that Jacob was a great dog, but having a younger pack mate was bringing out a side of his personality that I had never seen. Amos's personality took a while to come out fully -- he revealed himself slowly but steadily over a period of about a year. At first he was shy and on his Sunday-best behavior -- I think it took him a long time to realize that this was his "forever home" and he could relax. I knew he was feeling at home the day I discovered that he had shredded my favorite dictionary to smithereens while I was at work. I am a serious word nerd (which explains why I have, or at least had, a "favorite dictionary," in case you thought that sounded odd), and it turns out that Amos is a big reader, too. After the dictionary, he "read" the Divine Comedy and Midnight's Children before I Amos-proofed my extensive book collection. He cracks me up everyday, this clever and funny little dog. Now that I know him better, in retrospect I sometimes wish that I had named him Slick.

Having dogs for the last 5 years has been one of the most rewarding, heart-warming experiences of my life. I can't imagine what my life would be like without dogs, particularly without these two dogs. When I think of what it means to be truly happy, I think of Jacob and Amos running toward me with their mouths open and curled into doggy smiles, the beautiful way they each smell when I bury my nose in their fur, the way Jacob looks so stunning when his golden fur is backlit, the way Amos has a special look that means he is up to something and I am soon going to get a good laugh, the way Jacob looks so wise and smart as he makes sure all his friends at the dog park are comporting themselves properly, the way Amos is so deeply tuned into human emotions, the way Jacob will shamelessly roll over for a belly rub as soon as he will look at you (and he won't get up until you deliver the goods!), the way Amos burrows into the bed and makes cow sounds in the morning as he wakes up my fiance. I obviously could go on and on (and on).

All this is a long way of explaining how a certified cat lady came to be a dog person. Although I felt like a dog person from the time Jacob was a puppy, I knew for sure that I was a dog person when I got them a car (a Honda Element, which they can get as doggy as they want -- thank you Daddy and Mother) in the fall of 2005. I still love my cats -- my fiance and I have 5 cats between us -- but my love for the dogs is something altogether different. They are my friends, companions, protectors, therapists, and constant entertainers. It is amazing how much of human emotion they understand, and how they always seem to know just what to do to make things better (except, of course, when what they do is roll in unspeakable things at the dog park, necessitating an emergency trip to the groomer).

I savor my time with these dogs. Each and every day I acknowledge how precious they are and thank the universe for blessing me with them. I grieved as two dogs in my neighborhood died earlier this summer (one at a ripe old age, another of acute illness at age 4), and another friend of mine recently has spoken candidly, and quite beautifully, about the decline of her geriatric dog. This reminds me that there will be a time when my dogs will cease to be. There was a time when such thoughts caused me great anxiety, and I lived in fear rather than enjoyment. However, now that I am more accepting of the impermanence of all things, thoughts of my dogs' inevitable demise, and indeed my own, make me feel more thankful than ever for the precious present, and I can greet each and every moment that we have together with joy and mindfulness. Fully inhabiting the present (which really is all any of us can do anyway) is especially satisfying on a beautiful day like today -- it seems that perfect September weather has come to our nation's capital a month early this year, resulting in an abundance of good dog-frolicking weather. Speaking of which, what am I still doing in front of a computer screen? It's time to go outside for a walk. Woof!


Barry said...

That was a beautiful post. I very much enjoyed reading it.

My brother's dog had kidney failure and had to be put down on Boxing Day (do you have Boxing Day in the states?)

Which reminded me that our dog is 9 and there will come a time. But one of the gifts dogs give us is the example of living in the eternal present.

So for now I am just going to enjoy her.

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