Growing up, I enjoyed reading James Herriot’s wonderful books about his experiences as a country veterinarian in Yorkshire. To this day, my favorite stories in those books are about dogs and the peculiarities of their human custodians. The titles of Herriot’s books were taken from the refrain of a lovely hymn written by Cecil Frances Alexander.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
They sang that hymn in church last week. It was “Care for Creation” Sunday and the theme was the responsible stewardship of all of God’s creatures. I’m glad I was there to hear it. I think it helped provide some comfort to me and my wife Stephanie in what we had to do just a few days later.
My dad told me that having put our family pet — a purebred German Shepherd with hip dysplasia — to sleep was one of the hardest things he has ever had to. I thought that was quite a declaration from a man I knew had faced many tough decisions in his life. On Tuesday, I understood all too painfully what he meant.
After months of putting up a good fight against advanced lymphoma, we said goodbye to our Baxter boy. A large bulldog mix, he lived long enough to celebrate his 13th birthday last month.
We hoped we would have a few more good weeks to enjoy Baxter’s company, but the medication could no longer hold back the inevitable. His eyes told me what I needed to know. It was time to let him go.
I’ve had many conversations with Baxter over the years. A lot of men talk to their dogs when they think no one is around to eavesdrop. Dogs are usually pretty good listeners, and there was never a more sympathetic freckled ear than Baxter’s.
Dogs are not judgmental and are quick to offer sympathy — even when you don’t deserve it. Most animal lovers understand this. That’s why so many of us tear up whenever we hear of a lost dog or an orphaned puppy.
One of the best orphan dog stories was featured recently in The New Yorker. Susan Orlean wrote a piece about an American soldier who found a sickly puppy on a battlefield in France during World War I. Leland Duncan brought the German Shepherd (who was the offspring of a German army dog) back to the United States and named him Rin Tin Tin. This little war orphan would become the hero of countless books, motion pictures and TV shows.
Baxter’s own story is almost as compelling, even though it doesn’t involve war or success at the box office. I first met Baxter after he was tragically separated from his mother in 1998. A man had discovered his adult dog had brought home a freckled brown puppy. He did not know where its mother was, nor who might own the little pup.
He decided to take the little fellow to the Johnson City/Washington County Animal Shelter where, as fate would have it, I had stopped by just to see how things were going.
I knew I would be adopting the puppy as soon as I reached down to pet him. He licked my fingers and yelped loudly. That was our first conversation and he was extremely persuasive.
I know there are some readers at this point who would like to tell me: “Geez, it was just a dog. Get over it.” I feel sorry for those people. Obviously they have never had a truly soulful conversation with a dog.
They will never know how uplifting it is to have one of God’s most beautiful and brightest creations tell you he is glad to see you — regardless of what you called him after he tried to eat the frame off the back door.
Yes, he was just a dog. But he was our dog. He looked to Stephanie and me to take care of him.
We were there in his last moments to comfort him. It would be wonderful if all God’s creatures could expect the same.
And there are two important things about taking care of a dog: It affirms your humanity and gently reminds us of our own mortality.
I‘ve had tearful conversations with the other canine members of our pack — Bonnie Kate and Billy Piper — to explain what has become of Baxter. Their eyes told me they already knew. Their extraordinarily keen beagle noses most likely made the diagnosis long ago.
Nonetheless, they miss Baxter just as I am going to miss my talks with him.