Dogs were not part of my world while living in the city. The idea of keeping an animal tied in the backyard all day while at work seemed cruel and pointless, so we had cats for pets. I smiled at the cute saying that “Dog is God spelled backwards,” but I had no personal experience with that kind of love, until we moved to the country in 1987.
Back roads are a dumping ground for unwanted pets and it seemed that the Universe hand-selected the perfect four-legged drop-offs that would best serve as our teachers and guided them to our door.
We made a home for ten dogs over the years , which means ten dogs took up residency in our hearts. The first one came months after moving in from one of Bruce’s co-workers who could no longer keep the dog in her apartment. Donut’s job was to break us in - exposing us to Dog’s highest kind of unconditional love. He dashed in, opened us up, and dashed out a few months later, run over by a tractor. This was our first experience of sudden death, feeling helpless with our hearts ripped out, realizing that the country could be a hard teacher and a cruel place to live.
Months later, the first stray showed up, answering my silent plea for protection after our house had been broken into. Kia, was clearly an Alpha dog, regal in his carriage and demeanor, winning me over with his fierce loyalty and ancient wisdom. He was followed a short time later by a puppy version of his Irish setter/Collie mix, who we called Sparky. The growing dog pack expanded a few years later to include two more strays coming a year apart. Neesa, a kind, black Lab that grew into her deep, loud bark, mothered all of us and then came Lexus, a magical, sprite child who was some kind of a cattle dog called a Catahoula with herding instincts who could see things no one else could. She jumped in the prairie grass like a kangaroo. Kia took Lexus under his tutelage, as if passing down his knowledge and grooming her before he fell ill and died. In coping with his death, I was being trained to see life from a new perspective, and being prepared for the continuous cycle of opening up and letting go. I didn't know then that the hole that seems to be created in letting go makes room for more love to enter.
Neesa was eight years old when she was diagnosed with liver cancer and a week later insisted on dragging herself outside to lie on the earth to die. As hard as it was to sit by her in a death vigil, we were somewhat prepared, compared to the shocking and unexpected loss of Lexus who broke her neck in an accident with a farming auger.
On the heels of one dog’s death, it seemed like another would arrive- inviting us to open more to Love, instead of the pain. The part of us that would want to say "NO- Go away," trying to protect ourselves from any future hurt and loss, would dissolve in the furry face of the new arrival’s unique personality.
My son, Adam was responsible for bringing the dogs to us that were not strays. Butch, was the runt of his liter and blind in one eye, but Adam who always wanted a Pit Bull took him in to the bachelor pad he was living in. When the neighbor’s complaints of Butch’s incessant barking required action, Adam brought him to us. We were to be a short term holding ground, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, Adam moved back home temporarily, bringing a new Boxer puppy named Daisy with him. His intention was to take her and Butch when he moved into his own place. At 8 weeks old, she instantly established herself as the alpha dog over Butch and Sparky and quickly became my shadow. By the time Adam was ready to move out, I was bonded to Daisy and Daisy was bonded to Butch. Adam went back to the Boxer breeders and took a brother and sister, Chief and Lady, from the next litter for his own.
Sparky, with his easy-going and passive personality, welcomed the new arrivals and remained with us for 20 years before his time came to leave-under the tires of a truck. Like the others before him, he was buried under the huge Cedar tree in the back yard- which had become our pet cemetery.
Last New Year’s eve, Butch joined Sparky when he died of cancer at age 10. We mourned feeling the loss of another member of our family, and so did Daisy who lost her only remaining dog companion. She was reserved for many months and quietly made room for Chief and Lady to move in when Adam was in another transition.
Then in mid May, during a rainy stretch, Bruce looked out the front door to see a stray walking down the road. Seeing his exposed ribs, it was obvious that he was starving. He poured some food for him –even though we know what feeding a dog means. Glad to be eating more than weeds along the roadside, he stayed glued to the porch and garage for the next rainy week. Anyone who saw him would comment on what a beautiful dog he was. The Vet told us he was about a year old Pit-Bull/Boxer mix. I was convinced that he had a little bit of each of our other dogs in him - along with some horse - because of his proud carriage and prancing gait. Because of this and the marking across his white back that looked like a cowhide, I called him Cowboy.
Bruce thought he should have been named “Outlaw” because of his over-zealous, mischievous spirit and his gigantic head and mouth. He had to mouth and chew on everything. As intimidating as it seemed at first, I grew to accept that this was his way to love. He was a trickster that teased to get you to play with him. He would grab things (especially Bruce’s things- shoes, slippers, gloves, hats, socks) and race through the house scattering every throw rug in different directions. He was a bull in a China cabinet and never tired of the chase game. The chase continued outside when he easily jumped the fence and could not be contained- doing some outlandish things that our other dogs never did- like tearing the drainspouts down and biting through the tin in pursuit of lizzards or some kind of critters that annoyed him.
He was bigger than life and wanted to be included in everything. He quickly took Butch’s place in accompanying Daisy wherever she went. They would race down the path into the labyrinth biting at each other’s necks which was her way to remind him that even though he towered over her head, she was still the alpha dog. He was an incredible exercise program for her, reviving her 8-year-old spirit as they would disappear into the fields chasing and exploring together.
Then days after Thanksgiving, they left on their run and an hour later, only Cowboy returned. I knew something was wrong. Taking Cowboy with me, I found her at the far end of our property lying in the dense grasses. She was shot in the left front paw by a shot gun and was close to going into shock. We were not expecting the Vet to tell us her leg needed to be amputated, but realized quickly that her survival depended on taking this action.
When she returned home, she was greeted by Chief and Lady and Cowboy who all stood in front of her shaking as they took in and discharged the trauma, reading the energy through the strange smells of everything she went through. It took about a week for Cowboy to return to wanting to rough house with her. It was clear that he didn’t see her as disabled or handicapped. And his attitude seemed to transfer to her and us. It helped her reclaim who she was- the alpha dog, still in charge. Because of his challenging nature, she adapted quicker, growing stronger every day, able to do all the same things she used to do, including running up the stairs, jumping in the truck and up onto our bed, greeting clients and staying at their feet through out their sessions, and digging holes for moles with only one front paw while managing to keep Cowboy at bay from her claimed "territory".
The more accepted Cowboy felt in being part of our home, the more endearing and possessive he became. He would crawl up on my lap at night, trying to make his big body small enough to sit by Daisy and me on the love seat. But he was also getting more aggressive with the Fed X, UPS and mail cars that came, following Daisy’s lead to bite at the tires and chase them as they pulled out. This was a trait passed down from the head of the "dog pack"- starting with Kia to Sparky and Butch who flattened the mail car’s tires so many times they made us move our mail box farther from the house.
Cowboy began to take up his post lying, crouched like a jaguar by the mail box waiting for worthy opponents (loud vehicles) to go by to race. His grey hound speed was a wonder to behold, but each time we held our breath, knowing country roads are not safe for chasing dogs. We attempted to keep him inside when we knew the mail was coming.
On an unusually warm January day, two friends who appreciated and loved Cowboy’s exuberance, came to walk the labyrinth. Cowboy accompanied them to the center and then bolted to the yard hearing the approaching mail truck - who was an hour earlier than normal time. No one could stop him from meeting his destiny.
In attempting to bite the tires, he was pulled under and ran over. Daisy was in close pursuit, but came back, whining to get me to come. Cowboy waited for me to get to his side and hold him before taking his last breath - crossing the "Rainbow bridge" finish line to freedom - joining the spirit dog-pack of those exhalted companions who went before him.
He was barely with us for 9-months, yet his impact was immeasurable. He was a puppy in a huge body that couldn’t contain his enthusiasm for life or his fearless nature.
Bruce and Adam and I were left mourning in another burial ceremony underneath the Cedar tree. Daisy laid on the pile of fresh dirt not wanting to move. Like us, she was resisting the finality of what just happened.
Over 24 years, 10 dogs have had us as their assignment. Seven have completed their missions. They remained for different lengths of time, yet each one had a unique and enormous impact on us - shaping who we are because of loving them. Each one expanded our heart space to make room for another level of learning ....how to stay open- while letting go.
I now know first hand - from the best teachers - that Dog is the perfect reflection of God.
The following was offered by Anita Slusher who was one of the friends in the labyrinth holding sacred space when Cowboy was killed.
My name is Cowboy…my Spirit name is One Who Opens Hearts. And I lived. I lived my joy.
I lived earth bound for only a short while, but I lived it fully. I came to teach, to teach about living fully. I came when I was needed and left when I was done. Those who encountered me, walked away with their gifts, even when the gift was not recognized. I chose to go when I did, because the right people were present. I needed them there and they needed to Know, each receiving their lessons and gifts, some of them the same and some different.
Come on, let’s play. Let’s taste the world. I love you by the way. I can taste your essence and it’s beautiful. You don’t know it yet but you are perfect and I love you for being here and living. Come on, let’s play. Let’s go into the prairie, there is so much to see and explore. Life is happening everywhere and I want to experience all of it…with you. You are beautiful and I love you for being born.
Come on, let’s play. Let’s run just to feel the air on our faces and feel the earth under our feet. Come on, let’s play. Dive into life with me, I want to experience it all. What does this taste like? Let me borrow your shoe and we’ll play hide and seek. And I love you for being you.
Come on, let’s play. Wrestle with me, I want to feel my muscles moving. I want to experience. Come on, let’s play. Release the fear. Feel the truth of yourself. Trust.
Come on, let’s play. Please allow my exuberance to infect you there is so much to see and experience. I want to show you the wonders of Creation.
I want you to taste, touch, hear, see and feel with me.
I love you.
Come on, let’s play.