dogs_3.jpgNovelist Robert B. Parker (1932-2010) wrote widely popular, entertaining mystery books. Often I pick one up off the coffee table and gaze at the author photo on the back cover. There he is, a crusty, rugged fellow, with a face like your favorite L.L. Bean boot. Beside him, leashed, his handsome German Pointer. Parker loved dogs and included them in his 44 wonderful Spenser detective stories. They were always named Pearl and always seemed part human. Make that a human on good behavior.

            Humans, for all their miserable faults and catastrophic shortcomings, also have the ability to soar. Thank heavens. Twelve-year-old Makenna Breading-Goodrich was in the news recently. Single handedly, she solicited people in her Arizona community to donate their spare blankets and jackets to the homeless. She’s collected over a thousand items of essential apparel in her trusty Radio Flyer wagon for the Phoenix Rescue Mission. “Everyone should feel cared for,” she said. “If I was out there, I would want someone to care for me. We should care about those that are in need, like they would do for us if we were in need.”

            Empathy and caring, just because. Take these wonderful qualities, add a towering pile of often stunning attributes, talents, inner joy and more energy than an NFL wide receiver, and you get dogs. Humans and dogs go back a long time together, at least 10,000 and quite possibly over 30,000 years. The more we study dogs, the more amazing they appear. Nearly everyone knows that a dog’s sense of smell is far superior to a human’s, but some may not realize that people have about 5 million olfactory receptors whereas dogs have 125-300 million (depending on the breed). Translation? Dogs’ sense of smell is 1,000 to 100,000 times superior to humans! Dogs can detect cancer, find unexploded bombs, and locate almost unbelievably smelly (to them) humans from, well, inhuman distances. Perhaps no surprise given our long relationship with them, dogs can actually ‘read’ people and know how we’re feeling. Specially trained dogs take astoundingly good care of their special needs owners, often allowing them to lead near-normal lives.

            Jane and I grew up with dogs and have lived with them for many years. I’ve reached the point where it is nearly impossible to even hear about dogs being mistreated or in distress without my heart starting to race. We got a phone call last week from our friend René who was working nearby and blurted that she had a “medical emergency.” She explained that a cocker spaniel in the house, Daisy, had gotten into a bowl of bridge mix on a table and eaten some of it. Did we have any hydrogen peroxide? Sure, we always do, I said and we arranged to get it to her immediately.

            Thus began my pacing around, remembering the Christmas Eve about five years ago when our dearest Maggie ate some chocolate and got sick. Frantically, we called our vet who instructed us to get her to swallow some hydrogen peroxide and hopefully throw up the chocolate, which can be fatal. I didn’t want to interfere with Rene’s rescue effort but couldn’t resist calling for bulletins. Lo and behold, she managed to save the day. Daisy is fine, her owners are greatly relieved, and life goes on. Above and beyond my expectations, I found a lovely handwritten thankyou note from Daisy’s owner. She also stopped me a day or two later while I was out walking our Dixie to say thank you. In a crazy, unsettling world, I was especially gratified to know that Daisy was fine and all was well.

            Dixie and I continued our walk and talked about Daisy.

            “Hey, Dix, remember when Maggie ate all that chocolate and got so sick?”

            “Mm, Maggie. What’s chocolate, Dad?”

            “You know, candy, dark brown candy. People like it but it makes doggies sick.”

            Sniff sniff.

            “I thought so. Whatcha got there?”

            Sniff sniff. Crunch.

            “Hey whatchu eating, girl? Spit that out!”

            Crunch. Crunch.

            “Ooh, ick, what is that stuff? Maybe don’t tell me. Do I want to know?”

            “You’re funny, Dad.” Sniff sniff.

            “OK, let’s keep going. You would never eat chocolate, right Dix?”

            “I like a lotta stuff, Dad.” Crunch.

            “You crack me up, Dixie Doodle. You know that?”

            “You crack me up too, Dad.” Sniff sniff sniff. “21 dogs were right here, Dad. I smell them. Mm… 22.”

            “You can smell anything, can’t you, girlie?”

            “Like you, Dad.”

            “Huh. You’re a sweetie.”

            We have conversations like this all the time. I can hardly imagine my day without Dixie. Snuggled up to me on the couch or when we watch TV with Mom and her sister, Lady. On long walks down familiar paths, but not too close to boats. This always puzzles me, the boat thing. Also, her love of getting in the car but then fussing all the way to wherever we’re going.

            “Dixie, you must be the only dog in the world who doesn’t like car rides.”

            “I like car rides alright, Dad.”

            “Yeah? Then why do you fidget and whine so much. Why don’t you just poke your head out the window? Dogs like that.”

            “You never do that, Dad.”

            “I’m not a dog, silly!”

            “What’s a dog?”

            This reminds me that dogs don’t really seem to know that they’re dogs. Or how big they are. They’re often fearless, ready to protect you in the face of much bigger animals. I’m pretty sure if Godzilla staggered out of the marsh at us Dixie would bark like crazy at him and try to protect me. On the other hand, she loves meeting people. Adults, that is. Regular size. Anyone under five feet tall makes Dixie pretty squirrely. It’s like she doesn’t know that kids are people.

            Maybe she’s trying to tell me that children aren’t really people after all. They’re pre-people, perhaps, people wannabees. Better than people in many ways, but not really people quite yet. Hmm.

            In My Last Days as Roy Rogers, Pat Cunningham Devoto writes: “’So what if we only have one movie, Mary Leigh. Don’t forget we also got the cartoons, and newsreels, and serials, good stuff like that. A person can get a real education at the movies, you know . . . ‘Remember, Mary Leigh, that part of the newsreel they showed last week where the man with one arm biked all the way across the United States with his dog?’ Mary Leigh didn’t remember. I changed the subject.”

            I read passages like this often. If I wasn’t thinking about dogs already or had one of ours parked on me taking a nap or barking wildly at the heron on our dock, well there went that brief interlude. And I get to thinking, yeah, dogs will go anywhere with you. They don’t count your limbs. They may not remember every single thing every single time, but it’s fine. It’s really fine.

            And as with any real friend, a really, truly, fantastic friend, you can always change the subject with your dog. And take cues from your wonderful furry pal for the ages: enjoy the moment.

            Sniff sniff.