Dog Years

Ranger3I aspired to be a scientist, once: I was a genetics major at a western university, way back when. (To show you what a cerebral nerd I was, the most exciting class I ever took in college was Calculus.)

If you had asked me in those days what I thought went on in an animal’s head, I would have related the majority view of the day: the most you could say about an animal was that they “exhibited certain behaviors.” There was no evidence for the presence of feelings, or anything resembling thought. Animals were little more than clockwork mechanisms, without love, or grief, or any other of our familiar human passions.

And then I got my German shepherd, Ranger. I picked him up from a kennel in Riverside, California back in March of 1986, at the age of ten weeks. Twelve years later, on a winter’s day, he died.

I wish I could relate to you all the good times we had together in those years in between. Some of the highlights:

I drove draft horses on hay rides and sleigh rides for eight of Ranger’s years, and he came with me on every one. He ran alongside in obvious joy, sometimes leaping up to make mock bites at the horses’ annoyed noses, frequently dashing off to check out interesting smells or wildlife, always coming back to check on me, making sure I was there, and pleased with him.

We went for hikes twice a day, almost every day of his life. We hiked along clear mountain streams, where my four-legged friend could cool off on those hot summer days. We passed through clean, green mountain meadows, and Ranger would flop down and wallow luxuriously in the grass.

As a special treat for him, some nights I drove to a nearby gravel pit, shining my car lights across the flat expanse to spotlight lanky rabbits. Ranger would spy them and charge out with an unbelievably graceful  long lope, happy carnivorous thoughts driving him to his limit – which was never fast enough. But he dearly loved the chase, and it made me happy to see him happy.

For about the first three years of his life, he was with me every second, and he got to run free all that time; he was well over two before I even bought him a collar. He lived most of his life as a mountain dog, able to roam loose over vast expanses, but he almost never took advantage of his freedom. He was a compass and I was his North Pole, and the whole of his life was being with me. Some late winter nights after I put away my big draft horses Duke and Dan, and went into the ranch house for dinner, Ranger would circle the house and somehow locate me indoors, sitting outside on a snowbank and peering in through the window nearest me. The guests would sometimes startle at the sight of a huge wolfy face looming out of the darkness.

I surprised myself by developing a fierce protectiveness for him. Somebody asked me once if he was a guard dog, and I said, “No, he’s a guarded dog. If somebody tries to hurt him, they have to answer to me.”

One afternoon as we walked along a street in our little mountain town, another German Shepherd, larger and heavier-bodied, bolted out of a yard in our direction, in full attack mode. I pushed Ranger behind me and stepped towards the dog, perfectly furious, ready to wreck him. I can remember his eyes, aimed ferociously at Ranger for the first half of that charge, all intent on mayhem, then suddenly switching to me as I moved into his way. He skidded to a halt with a shocked look, then backed off into his own yard.

Ranger was always, always either there with me, or there waiting for me when I came home. How do you deserve devotion like that? I don’t know. But in twelve years of unceasing effort at canine affection, my friend worked a gradual and permanent change in me. This animal which I would formerly have said was without feelings of his own was the catalyst for working a transformation in my own human heart. By being there all the time, he forced me to notice him and his feelings – and, by extension, the presence and feelings of others – in a way that I doubt I would have on my own.

I still appreciate the objectivity of science, the necessity of standing back and waiting until you get a lot of evidence for a hypothesis before you allow yourself to embrace it.

At the same time, I know for myself that each of us is trapped in the cage of our own heads, and the only key to that cage is the learning that we’re not alone. We share in this world the experience of others, human and animal both. And those feelings – of loneliness and pain and fear, but also of playfulness and joy and warmth – are as real as anything we’re capable of experiencing.

Oh, how I miss my dog. My teacher, my example. My best and forever friend.