In the 1940’s a little boy had a dog—a large Chow named Lucky. The boy and dog went everywhere together. Lucky was protector and friend. At ten years of age, Lucky ran across the front yard to greet the little boy’s father as he pulled up into the driveway after work. In mid-gallop, Lucky’s heart stopped, and she died. The little boy never had a chance to say good-bye to his best friend.
I always thought I was a whole person, all my human parts are accounted for. What I realized, after a session with a pastoral councilor, was the deep hole in my heart left by the death of my best friend, a dog named Beau who died 24 years ago. Beau was a special friend, part German Sheppard and part terrier. He had the heart of a German Sheppard and the brain of a terrier, but he was the most loyal, forgiving and loving of all of the many non-human lives that have crossed my path. (My husband Jim being the exceptional human in my life) After Beau’s death, our many future dogs came in diminishing sizes until our current tiny Pomeranian Puffy. I missed hugging my big dog Beau and often became filled with sadness when allowed to hug someone else’s BIG dog. The hole in my heart would open afresh even when I hadn’t realized that the hole was still there. Consequentially, I avoided big dogs and the hurt I still felt inside.
When I read Kinship with All Life by J Allen Boone, I became aware of that hole in my heart. Boone’s story is about a German Sheppard superstar dog named Strongheart. This book profoundly brought a change in the way I view pets and animals of all sizes, from dogs to bees. Although I already had the concept that all life is sacred and we are not owners but guardians of all forms of non-human companions, Boone set me straight. I was viewing these non-human companions with labels: dog, cat, rat, and mouse. I was not seeing them as individual living things with souls, created by God (or divine influence) with their own intelligence and purpose. The labels set up a barrier of hierarchy that stood in the way of really understanding and respecting all life. I could never understand the person(s) that say, “A dog is just an animal,” to justify their cruelty toward it until I realized they were seeing the world through labels. Dehumanizing a person or a race of people by giving them negative labels is another example of this concept.
When I received an email from the foster coordinator at animal control I noticed one dog I thought Jim and I could foster until an adoptive family came along. The entry read, “Oliver is a medium older chow chow mix. Very laid back and minds his own business – he is lingering – not getting attention – we all feel bad for him and think fostering would really help market him for a home.” I looked at his picture. He looked like a small dog, the size of our Puffy. I began to think how Puffy could use a playmate. We immediately went to animal control to see Oliver. Surprise! Oliver was the size of a standard poodle with huge paws and the mane of a lion.
One trick I learned in photography 101 is depth of field. Focus downward from a tall height to shrink a subject. In my old days as a photographer, I used this trick to make large people look thin and large noses smaller. Using depth of field, Oliver had shrunk in his photo to the size of a small dog. After readjusting preconceived ideas about Oliver, Jim and I spent time with this gentle giant and decided to foster him. Puffy was not in favor of our decision, but Oliver gave Puffy enough space that he did not feel threatened.
I immediately went to the pet store and bought a large pillow bed, special dog food, treats and a dog bowl for Oliver. Oliver was ten years old, had cataracts, stiff joints and needed doggie dentistry. He had been at the shelter for a while without any interest in him. Being a large dog with black fur, I felt he would spend his remaining senior days with us. Dogs and cats with black fur are hard to get adopted due to “black fur phobia” among the public. As I sat with my hands cupping the furry mane of Oliver, I looked into his eyes, and felt a sensation I had kept locked away for 24 years. He stared back at me with twinkling eyes and accepted my hug with a soft lick of his tongue on my chin. I was finally ready to face why we only had small dogs after Beau died. I was still grieving Beau, my large, huggable, irreplaceable dog, and I had denied that feeling in my heart for years without consciously knowing it. Now I held the head of a large dog in my hands and I was finally alright with it. I could let that hole in my heart begin to heal.
A few days later, I received a phone inquiry about Oliver. A couple that had recently gone through the death of their Pomeranian were interested in Oliver. I explained that Oliver was a large dog, and thought of the deceptive photograph on Petfinder.com, which made him look like a small dog. We agreed to meet on so the couple could see Oliver. My heart immediately sank. It is hard to foster any animal and then turn them over to a forever home. It can be a heartbreaking experience. I did change the photograph on the website to a more realistic image of Oliver showing his true height and weight in order to alleviate any further misconceptions.
Oliver had an appointment with the dog groomer on Thursday and I took some glamor shots of him, not knowing if he would be adopted on Saturday or not. Jim said a prayer that God would choose what was best for Oliver. That night we received another phone call from animal control. A volunteer at the shelter wanted to adopt Oliver. My heart sank again as I saw my long-term plans for Oliver crumble. Then ironically, the first couple called and backed out from adopting Oliver. I felt relieved. Whatever happened to Oliver, was still in God’s hands.
On Saturday, the volunteer showed up to adopt Oliver. We held onto Oliver until the adoption papers were signed. Jim took Oliver’s face in his hands and said good-bye. Oliver kissed him with three little licks on his face; I said good-bye to Oliver and he gave me one small kiss on my chin. We had fostered Oliver for only four days, but it had taken just a few minutes to fall in love with the big dog. It was a bittersweet moment that all fosters experience. It is happiness and sadness all rolled together.
Jim and I shed tears and wondered if Oliver would be alright with his new guardian. After several days, we discussed what Oliver meant to us and what he brought to us. Besides joy, Oliver brought closure to Jim. He got to relive his life with Lucky, the Chow from his youth, and was finally able to say the good-bye meant for Lucky so many years ago.
Although my love for my long lost dog Beau will never diminish, Oliver showed me that I could love another big dog again without losing that special bond I had with Beau. Maybe one day another big dog in need will come our way. It’s still in God’s hands.