Friends frantically inquired about the health of the patient who had suddenly and unexpectedly been diagnosed with cancer. “Had it spread?” “What were the medical options?” “Who were the best doctors?” “Anything we can do for you?”
Calls came at all hours and emails were heartfelt. My husband is not prone to outward emotional expression, but in this case he needed and appreciated the support of his friends. However, the inquiries were not about my husband’s health but that of his loyal hunting dog, Rugby.
Rugby is a field golden, bred to be adept at flushing birds and playing with children. He is a spoiled indoor-dwelling dog who sleeps in our room and has cushy beds throughout the house. He would perhaps be a little embarrassed if dogs could actually suffer from peer pressure. After all, he is a working breed not a poodle.
The outpouring of emotion came as a bit of a surprise to me. Men stopped by to comfort Rugby after his heart tumor surgery and retold their own stories of lost canine companions. Rugby and his human friends have spent time together road-tripping to Eastern Washington, shivering in duck blinds and hunting pheasant. They spoke about their own deep grief and shed tears unashamed. It really made me think about the incredible bond between dogs and men.
I came to understand that for many, Rugby was an old friend in his twilight year. The bond between men and dogs is ancient and transcendent. Homer composed The Odyssey nearly 28 centuries ago. One of the more memorable passages in the epic is when Odysseus returns from 10 years in battle after being presumed dead. His loyal dog, Argos, immediately recognizes him as he enters his land. At this point in the story Argos is old and failing yet he still wags his tail at the site of his master. Even more telling, the great warrior Odysseus sheds a tear for Argos. If my memory serves me right, it is the only outward display of sorrow from Odysseus in the entire story.
More recently there is President Nixon’s famous “Checkers speech,” notable for the emotional mention of a little black and white dog named Checkers . Finally, there was a famous orator from the 19th century, George Graham Vest. In a closing argument to a jury in 1855 he said, “The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog. A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer. He will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings, and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.”
I watched in amazement as the profound human-animal connection emerged over the weekend in the next generation of our family. While it had not occurred to me, the possibility that yesterday was Rugby’s last hunt was not lost on my 18-year-old son who is off to college next fall. He scrambled to find time to spend with Rugby in the field in the closing hours of sunlight. My son returned home with a picture of he and Rugby with a look of deep satisfaction and a bit wistful. Clearly there is a special closeness between dogs and men with permission to lay emotions bare. Man’s best friend indeed.
Carol Lewis Gullstad January 28, 2013