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Dad Next Door: Leader of the pack

Beautiful large red Doberman Pinscher dog with docked ears, close up on white with room for text

Dad Next Door: Leader of the pack

A dog's patience, persistence and unshakeable faith in her family

When I was a kid, my parents only allowed us to have low-maintenance pets—the kind you don’t get too attached to. Mostly it was a succession of goldfish, whom we invariably found belly-up in their bowls after a few weeks, and flushed unceremoniously down the toilet. Once, though, we had a little turtle who liked to hang out under the plastic palm tree on the island in the middle of his tank. When he died, it took us days to realize he wasn’t just sunbathing.

My favorite temporary pets were the perch and sunfish we’d catch on fishing trips and bring home in a bucket. We’d fill up the bathtub and let them swim around for a while. Then we’d kill them and eat them. 

So, years later, it was new territory for me when we got a dog. My daughters had been lobbying hard for one for a long time, but I’d resisted. Having small children was enough of a challenge already, thank you very much. I wasn’t looking for another mouth to feed, or anyone else’s poop to clean up, and I just wasn’t convinced that it would be worth all that time and effort. Eventually, though, I gave in.

We got Java when she was just a puppy. She was a standard Labradoodle: a little black ball of curls and energy and sharp little teeth. As advertised, she didn’t shed, or trigger our allergies, but she did gnaw on the furniture and poop all over the yard, and she barked at every dog who passed within a hundred yards of our house. We tried to train her, with mixed results, but after a while it didn’t seem to matter. Little by little, she became part of the family.

As she grew older, and much bigger, she developed a mischievous streak. Combined with her inherited poodle talent for standing on her hind legs, it allowed her to surreptitiously poach any food we carelessly left within her reach. Once we found an empty bag on the counter which had recently contained an entire loaf of bread. There was not so much as a crumb of evidence at the scene of the crime, but her skulking demeanor when we confronted her with the bag told us all we needed to know.

In truth, though, she was the least problematic member of our family. The rest of us, with our endless capacity for selfishness and self-absorption, were always disappointing or wounding each other, as humans do. Java, though, was all about our pack. When we walked in the door, she’d greet us as if we were conquering heroes, and when we got out her leash for a walk, she’d shower us with unbridled gratitude and joy. Her love was pure and uncomplicated in a way that ours could never be. There were no strings attached, no simmering grudges, no unspoken disappointments to temper her devotion. In the evenings, when we were all home under one roof, she’d lie at our feet and bask in the contentment of having her pack reunited. That was all she ever wanted from this world.

Java developed bladder cancer when she was nine years old–not a pup by any means, but still in her prime. It was too soon–we weren’t prepared to let her go. When the time came to put her down, we took her to the vet, and each said goodbye to her in turn. We fed her treats, and stroked her fur, and hugged her against our chests. She was wagging her tail, clearly enjoying all the love and attention, but I’m sure she was confused by our tears. She could always read our collective emotions like a book, and our grief must have been as clear to her as the neighborhood news she read with her nose as she sniffed through her morning walk. 

It’s easy to make fun of people who anthropomorphize their pets. Who really knows what a dog thinks when we dress it up in a tiny sweater, or what a cat feels when it insists on going in and out of the house a dozen times in an hour? We see ourselves in them, and we interpret their behavior in terms of our own customs and ways. But what we often forget is that they are watching us from their own perspective as well. 

Java’s lifelong project was to transform us into a proper wolf pack. With patience, persistence and unshakeable faith, she kept showing us the power of unconditional love. And though we never met the standard that she set for us, I like to think she trained us well enough so that, in the end, she felt we were worth all that effort and time. 

Jeff Lee is still trying to learn new tricks, in Seattle WA

Read more Dad Next Door:

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Dad Next Door: The Importance of Being Earnest

The Dad Next Door: A Moveable Feast

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The Dad Next Door: Fahrenheit 451

About the Author

Jeff Lee, MD

Jeff Lee, a family physician, lives, works and writes in Seattle.