“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” —Roger Caras
If you’re a dog lover, like me, life just isn’t the same without one. It’s like having a little bit of essential wildness around you, a reminder that the world isn’t just for us humans. Unlike most pets, dogs get us outside, where we truly belong.
Since I was a boy—as far back as I can remember—I’ve had dogs. There have been a few years without for various reasons, but for the most part…dogs, just a part of my life. They’re all singular, with unique personalities, but through the course of a life surrounded by them, special ones appear that can change your life.
The runt of her litter, she was the one unwanted, headed to the pound with a fair shot at a home, maybe. Here in southern Nevada our shelters put down over 900 animals a week. Anyone who’s had a Jack Russell Terrier can sympathize with what that first year was like—total destruction: a sofa, drywall, doorstops, shirts, underwear, sheets, blankets, linoleum, any toy or anything that moderately resembled a toy, not to mention the wholesale destruction of the backyard. Even 5+ mile hikes only calmed her for a little while. I thought I’d brought home a demon, and started calling her that. If you haven’t raised a JRT, check out this short video of Biscuit to see what I mean:
But after that first year everything changed: as if she burned through her teenage years over seven months and matured instantly. Her loyalty was almost obsessive, keeping her always close by. She still had that terrier intensity but it was directed into an observant intelligence that missed nothing. She was so smart I had to get three backpacks: one for errands by bike, one for the gym, and one for our hikes, because when she saw the one for hiking she went berserk. She never quit, so our weekly hikes turned longer and longer. There was nowhere I could go that she wouldn’t follow, whether across ridges miles long or up the tightest southwestern slot canyon. She was fearless and would jump from rock to rock, just like Biscuit, figuring her way out of tight spots, squeezing through places I couldn’t follow and looking down on me from above, impatient—tail like a metronome marking the time it took me to catch up.
When we camped she would circuit our spot, making sure all was well, chasing away squirrels or field mice or curious birds, marking territory while I raised the tent—if I raised the tent because often we’d just sleep on open ground under the clear Nevada sky. She’d dig down to the bottom of the bag and curl around my feet, just like at home.
Over the course of our time together I figure we hiked between 6 – 7,000 miles of Wild Nevada. If you think that seems like exaggerated it’s not: we hiked at least 5 miles a week, one of those hikes being the 22-mile loop of southern Nevada’s highest peak, Mt. Charleston, just under 12,000’. Here in southern Nevada our easy winters rarely fall below freezing—our wild backcountry is open year ‘round, and being out there kept her hearty and hale for almost 14 years.
This past summer after a third surgery for skin cancer the vet told me it had metastasized and moved internally. By the end, a dog that could cross miles with her tail up and eyes bright had a tough time making it to the mailbox. So a few weeks ago I wrapped her in a blanket and took her to the vet. I spoke of all our adventures together: like cutting her paws on the sharp rock of Virgin Peak so I had to carry her down; her running for two miles with a cactus ball hanging from her lower jaw with me chasing her to get it out; and the huge raven hunting her in the Rainbow Mountains Wilderness until I chased it away. I held her until eventually the doctor came and we gently put her to rest. I sat there for a long time, wanting my face to be the last image in her eyes and mind, my warm presence the last embrace. When I stepped outside, crying, it was raining. We get four inches of rain a year here and to me it felt like the desert mourning with me for that little soul whose touch it had felt for so long, and now no longer would.
I’m taking her ashes soon to a place we often hiked, a spot where she would stand and look out over the wild splendor that we both loved so much. Don’t try to tell me dogs don’t understand a vista—oh, they do, as well as us if not better. To me, what a dog really needs is open space in which to run, and a panorama worthy of eternity—and that’s what Tink will get. It’s a richly deserved reward for all the loyalty and devotion she gave to me. And if all dogs do go to heaven, they better be ready for one half-angel, half-demon.