Dog was My Copilot

My first encounter with the midsized catahoula mix was very nearly the last. I was headed home after work, taking the back way as usual, eyes focused on the middle distance, thinking about nothing in particular, when a sudden movement from the right caught my attention. The movement continued rapidly onward, directly across my path, on a collision course with 4500 pounds of moving metal. Without thinking I jammed on the brakes, just in time to avoid hitting the errant canine, so fixated on something on the opposite side of the road that it had not taken notice of my approach. Lucky for you, I have really good reactions, I thought, after uttering the obligatory expletives.

Our second encounter, some weeks later, went a bit more smoothly. I was on a morning run, rounding the corner from Cinnamon Path onto Kinney, when I spotted him, running loose once again, crossing my path from right to left once again, a couple hundred feet or so from the site of our near-disastrous initial meeting. He glanced my way, seemed friendly, so I hailed him with a whistle and he bounded right over. Checking him for signs of ownership, I saw that he had a collar but no tags. After a minute or two of concentrated attention, I bade farewell and continued on. But in that brief time some kind of connection must have been forged, because he followed, insistently. With minor encouragement he stuck close by for the duration, all the way back to my shop about a half-mile away.

He was a handsome, well-fed specimen of indeterminate age, neither young nor old, neutered, obviously belonging to someone, who was probably getting worried right about now. So I took a digital snap and used it to fashion a “found dog” poster, which I posted in a prominent spot near the place of our meeting.

Not an hour passed before a call came in from a woman, who said “That looks like Deacon.” She lived just a few blocks away, and my guest, as it turned out, belonged to her next-door neighbor, a fellow by the name of Phillip. The caller knew Deacon well because, she explained, he was quite the social butterfly, frequently out and about, making the rounds, schmoozing it up.

There was a backstory, though. “Just between you and me,” she went on, “Phillip really isn’t the right person for Deacon,” a casual aside made less so by the note of obvious concern that had crept into her voice. Phillip, it seemed, had a well-kept yard, and wanted it to stay that way. So Deacon was routinely restricted to a tiny, un-kept, part of it. Frustrated by the confinement and lack of attention, Deacon had taken to escaping almost daily. “Phillip is a good guy, but he knows Deacon needs a better deal, so if you’re interested, you can probably work something out.”

This was not entirely welcome news because it forced a decision. I already had two dogs, large ones, older and set in their ways. A third might be a little more than they, or I, could tolerate. But Deacon was a charming fellow, obviously very bright, and made himself right at home right away. To return him to a dismal situation seemed unthinkable.

With some trepidation I introduced Deacon to my two other canine companions. There was was a tense moment or two as 250-plus pounds of doggage very energetically descended upon the newcomer, who was momentarily intimidated but held his ground. To my relief, Max and Mollie accepted Deacon without hesitation. A quick, pro forma inspection and the deal was done. In under thirty seconds it had all been worked out; the pack order was established, and Deacon was in.

Early next morning, Phillip called. He admitted ownership immediately, and by way of introduction told a meandering tale of how he came to possess the curious white-and-brindle beast. Quite by chance Phillip had found him, about four years earlier, roaming free deep in the woods of far East Texas, apparently living on his own. At the time, he was running with another dog, but at the sight of a human, that dog scampered off, not to be seen again. But the young catahoula, curious and friendly, seemed approachable. With a little encouragement he popped over for a chat. A little more encouragement and he hopped into Phillip’s truck, and off they went. The hound’s home, such as it was, seemed to be the grounds of the little rural church where Phillip had first encountered him, a happenstance that inspired his name.

From the opening moments of our conversation, it was clear that the earlier caller had been correct. Phillip exuded ambivalence; he was obviously having doubts. Sensing his mood, I let him do most of the talking, and he soon segued into a monologue, thinking out loud, weighing the pros and cons, at the end of which he came, reluctantly but firmly, to a decision. “He’s a good dog, but he deserves better than I can give him.” The silence that followed contained an unspoken invitation: Deacon was mine if I wanted. And by this time I did, the few minor uncertainties having been vanquished in the interim.

The wisdom of this decision was ratified when, three or four days later, Phillip showed up unannounced at my shop. Deacon was dozing on the couch when he came in. On seeing Phillip, Deacon instantly sat bolt upright and locked eyes with him, suddenly intent, the very picture of defiance. “What are YOU doing here?” read the thought bubble above his head, in neon letters you could have made out a block away.

It was an electric moment. Dumbfounded at this raw display of very obvious displeasure, I glanced over at Phillip, who literally winced as though he had been slapped. “Doesn’t miss me much, does he,” Phillip said, gamely, but with scarcely concealed disappointment. “I just came by to make sure he wasn’t tied up in the sun, but he looks pretty comfortable. Looks like you got yourself a dog.”

Deacon’s astounding, almost human-like reaction to Phillip was like a lightning bolt. In an instant I realized that this fellow was probably way beyond merely “bright.” It occurred to me that I might have some kind of canine prodigy on my hands. Everything that followed reinforced this impression. It soon became clear, for example, that Deacon grasped the purpose of human speech. He understood that when humans made those odd modulated tonalities at each other they were actually communicating. So he decided to take a stab at it himself. One day I was in the middle of a conversation with someone when Deacon interrupted suddenly, babbling in a way that was clearly an attempt to communicate. This was accompanied by an intensely earnest expression, as though he was pleading to be understood.

Making light of the interruption, other party to the conversation said something like “Isn’t that cute!” I had a very different reaction. To me it was yet another electric moment, evidence of an extraordinary intelligence asserting itself. I shared Deacon’s palpable frustration at not being understood, and in compensation gave him my full and sincere attention so that he knew he was being taken seriously. Deacon repeated this performance a number of times. But at some point he must have realized he wasn’t getting through, and being a sensible sort, decided to move on. But if Nature had only cooperated and supplied Deacon with the physiological tools of articulation, I don’t doubt for a minute that he would eventually have learned to form simple, coherent beginner sentences, on the level of a young child.

Catahoulas, a loosely defined breed descended from working lines, are native to Louisiana, but have spread to surrounding states. They are also sometimes known as leopard dogs or cattle dogs. One source describes them as “energetic, social, highly intelligent and vocal.” Bingo.

When Deacon wanted your attention, which was pretty often, he would treat you to an array of vocalizations, depending on the urgency of his need and the responsiveness of his audience. There were the standard whines and growls and whimpers, “Time to get up,” “Let’s go,” “Let me out,” “Hey that’s mine!” But his vocabulary also included a collection of signals uniquely his. There was an abrupt huff signaling “enough.” A short, upward-tilted “what?”  Sounds that clearly conveyed affirmative and negative. Five or six different sounds signaling irritation or impatience. The signature “bark,” go-to for many dogs, was employed by Deacon with relative rarity. But when it was it got your full attention, as it was intended to. A solid, muscular 60 pounds at his peak, Deacon’s bark was that of an dog easily twice as large. He applied his entire body for this purpose, the sheer force of the effort flinging his front end off the ground a good six inches with every repetition, like a miniature rearing horse.

Some dogs are easy company, promiscuous with their affections. A scratch behind the ear, a friendly word, a proffered treat, and they are all yours. Deacon wasn’t like that. He gave affection carefully, sparingly; you had to earn it. He was quick study and would size you up in an instant. If he found you interesting, he might engage. If not, you were passed by, politely but firmly, with few second chances. But those who made an impression he seemed never to forget.

I respected this quality because in many ways I am similar. Though outwardly friendly and engaging, and affectionate by nature, I give of that affection very sparingly, a tendency born of the lingering effects of high-order childhood trauma, fortified by an unsteady upbringing and one too many disappointments. In many ways, dogs have become my surrogates for human relationships. A dog loves you unconditionally, is sincerely devoted, and rarely lets you down, something not generally true of humans.

If you’ve ever known a working-type dog, such as an Australian shepherd or border collie, you realize right away that they do not suffer from a lack of energy. If anything, they have too much of it, at least from their owner’s standpoint. Start a game of “fetch” with one and you have committed to a marathon. You’ll wear out long before they do. But Deacon, ever the outlier, wasn’t like that. Though he very much enjoyed chasing and fetching and jumping and running, about the time you’d be ready for a break, so would he. Your “enough” was also his.

Deacon basically had two settings: “on” and “off.” His “on” state was genuinely impressive. He was a spectacular, powerful runner, and could reach top speed, somewhere around forty, in about five strides, and hold it for longer than you would think was possible. The first couple of times we played “fetch” on pavement the pads of his feet actually rubbed raw from the sheer force of his acceleration. He had phenomenal concentration and reflexes to match. If a human experiences the world at twenty four frames a second, Deacon’s frame rate must have been two or three times that. He missed nothing, ever. In its own way, Deacon’s “off” state was equally impressive. In less than a minute, he could be fast asleep, and often slept so soundly that he could be nearly impossible to rouse. In the early months, before I figured out his pattern, there were a couple of times I thought he had actually expired.

The new guy always goes to the back of the line, at least for a while. Which was a foreign concept for Deacon, who, because of his history of frequent impromptu outings, was accustomed to being the center of attention. There was much jostling for position, and occasional squabbles. But dogs have a way of working these things out. We settled into a pattern, with each pack member alternating with the others as Official Shop Dog. Deacon soon had many friends, and it was a regular occurrence for people to drop by just to check on him and give him a pat on the head.

But just as a parent develops a favorite child, often without even realizing it, I began favoring Deacon with more than his share of time and attention. Over time he became a constant, to whom my other companions took a back seat. Being low-maintenance types, old and settled in their habits, they didn’t seem to mind.

Inevitably, time took its toll. A few years in, Mollie, enfeebled by heart problems, began to resist all excursions. Not long after, Max, hobbled by bad hips and knees, followed suit. Soon both left me altogether. Mollie went first. After a few months of fading slowly away, one day she declared “enough,” began refusing food, and was gone within 48 hours.

Deacon witnessed the entire process. He saw the living companion falter and then go still, saw the master, in torment, clawing at the earth, tenderly placing the inert form in the hole, filling in the hole, weeping bitter tears all the while. And it affected him.

The death of a sentient creature leaves a void, a small tear in the fabric of the universe, which other sentient creatures may detect. The effect is magnified if the departed was a loved one. Deacon perceived this, I believe, and understood, as a child one fateful day understands suddenly and in a single calamitous instant the awful, gut-punch finality of death. For weeks after Mollie’s death Deacon was bereft. He paced restlessly. He howled. He stared at the fresh scar in the earth. He focused that laser gaze upon me as if to say: Will I be next? When Max died suddenly a few months later it was almost more than he could bear. The light just seemed to go out of him, and there was faraway look in his eyes. After a month or so the old Deacon returned, mostly, but he was never quite the same again.

But there is always an upside, even in death. Although two of my three companions were gone, so was the balancing act required to keep them all happy. As if to fill the void created by their departure, Deacon and I forged an even tighter bond. From then on, he basically never left my sight, and wherever I went, so did he.

In biology, there is a type of symbiosis called “mutualism,” in which unrelated species form a permanent interrelationship that benefits both. The human-canine partnership is one of these. Unless you’ve actually experienced it, you cannot understand how deep is this connection. We feel it in our bones, as we should, because thousands of generations of intertwined coexistence have inextricably bonded each to the other. Dogs are an integral part of every human society on the planet. From the human perspective we have bred these descendants of wolves into useful workers and agreeable companions. But from the canine perspective, they have bred us; we have become their guardians and sponsors, eager providers of sustenance, shelter, and companionship. Sometime in the far forgotten past, an orphan wolf pup wandered into the firelight of a paleolithic camp and changed everything, forever. Had that fateful meeting not occurred, we humans might still be dwelling in caves and scavenging for our food.

One year one of the tenants in our business park decided to fold up his tent and head home to Amarillo. This meant disposing of a 30-year collection of assorted stuff. Much was given away, and we all had a go at it. My take, among other items, was a half-scale plaster statue of a dog poised in mid-leak, rear-right leg raised. It was pure kitsch but also not a bad likeness, with a lifelike paint job. At a glance it looked passably like the real thing. The statue found a place in my waiting room, on a shelf right below the shop stereo. The first time Deacon walked by it he did a classic double take, and then stopped to stare. There is absolutely nothing in a dog’s experience that prepares it for something like this, and for a moment, Deacon was flummoxed. You could see the wheels turning: Well it looks like a dog, but what’s it doing up there? It isn’t moving or responding and doesn’t seem to be quite the right size. What the hell? After a few seconds of assessing this oddity, he huffed dismissively and moved on. He never again gave it so much as a glance.

Dogs are all about the go. They don’t care where you’re headed or how fast you’re getting there as long as there is forward motion and changing scenery. Deacon was as enthusiastic a rider as you might find. In acknowledgement of this arrangement, my girlfriend gave me a bumper sticker reading “Dog is my copilot,” which I dutifully applied to the backside of my daily driver, a mid-90s Nissan pickup truck. One day Deacon and I were waiting at a stoplight. Idly glancing out the passenger window, I saw that the driver and passengers of the car alongside were all looking in our direction, pointing and laughing out loud. They had noticed the bumper sticker and then pulled alongside to see Deacon sitting in the front seat, riding much as a human passenger would, rear end flat on the front seat, posture upright, eyes forward, alertly scanning the road ahead, just like a real copilot.

To climb aboard my truck, a four by four model with hefty ground clearance, is a feat for any dog, even one as fit and athletic as Deacon in his prime. And as the years piled on doing so eventually became a challenge. One day he launched himself in the usual way, only to fall short. He hung there for a long second, almost but not quite there, and then slid clumsily to the ground, limbs flailing, his face bearing a pained expression. After pausing a few seconds to consider this awkward turn of events, he mustered the nerve to try again, this time making it, but barely. This unaccustomed failure seemed to unnerve him, and he spent the next couple of hours in a funk, resistant to all attempts to cheer him up. Perhaps he realized, as I did, what this lapse portended. Before long he was missing more than he hit. So to spare Deacon further trauma, we switched to one of my other vehicles, a lower slung sedan of easy access. Eventually even that minimal exertion became too much for Deacon’s arthritic knees and hips to handle, so I elevated my old GMC van to Active status, placed a comfy dog bed in the back, and fashioned a ramp that he could use to enter and exit with minimal assistance.

Some dogs attack their food as though they’re afraid it might try to get away. But Deacon, the ultimate eat-to-live type, approached every meal as though it were a sketchy proposition requiring careful evaluation. If offered something new, an elaborate pantomime would ensue. He would walk up to whatever it was, give it a thoughtful sniff, back off half a step, tilt his head one way and then the other as though to examine the thing from different angles, and then think for a bit. Some fraction of the time he would decide “no,” and turn away. And that would be that. But if whatever it was passed initial scrutiny he would, after a suitable pause, approach it once more, sniff it again, carefully, for another second or two, and ponder the go/no-go dyad for a bit before either committing or bailing. If “go,” a tentative, exploratory bite would follow, then another moment or two of consideration, and finally, full engagement, but at a pace so leisurely you’d think he was paid by the hour.

As Deacon aged, his pickiness escalated, and the range of acceptable foodstuffs narrowed accordingly. Eventually, even the high-end, expensive gourmet brands with the satisfaction guarantees wouldn’t cut it. So I had to get creative. Through trial and error, I discovered a formula that met with his approval. It evolved over time into an elaborate, high-calorie affair involving chicken thighs, cooked whole in their own juice, lots of bacon, meat scraps, carrots and potatoes and peas, and rice for thickening. The process took of making it took three to four hours from beginning to end, but produced enough stock to last for a week. Deacon’s approval was a moving target, though, and to keep him happy it became necessary to tweak the recipe regularly. Toward the end, getting Deacon to eat became a daily struggle, and seeing him take that first tentative bite became the highlight of my day.

But there is only one possible outcome to these stories. After a couple of years of gradual decline, hope alternating with rising despair, Deacon turned the final corner. After months of stubborn resistance, he surrendered quietly. The end came about noon on a Monday after a final restless night, as I lay next to him, stroking his head, murmuring comforting nothings. It was mercifully brief.

Equally mercifully, for the first time in my life, I was ready, practically if not emotionally, having had the sense to prepare a final resting place in advance. It’s always a grim task, but this time was especially difficult. Weakened by a recent case of flu, hollowed out by grief, this awful thing that normally takes but a hard couple of hours, something I had done many times, almost got the better of me. Seeing my difficulty, a young friend came to my aid, and between us we finished just in time.

It’s a good place, well-shaded, deep woods close by, birdsong in the breeze. Like his predecessors, Deacon’s place is marked with a simple headstone. He has much company. I have lived long enough by now to have had many canine companions. Each shared my life for a while, became a part of me, as I became a part of them. And each, in their turn, has left, taking with them that part of me so fondly given. Each has been like a chapter of my life. Some have been brief, others longer, but none ever long enough. By the time of his passing, Deacon had been with me for nearly a quarter of my existence. When we met, I was on the outermost edge of youth. By the time we parted, I was on the threshold of old age. Now the shadows have grown long, and not many chapters remain to be written.

In contemplative moments I like to imagine that the Universe has arranged for those we love in life to be forever with us, and that in that final moment before we pass into eternity we are all reunited and made whole. I should have quite a pack waiting for me when my time comes.

Every relationship has a beginning and an end. Today marks the second anniversary of Deacon’s passing, and the endpoint of a life-changing relationship that began with a chance meeting thirteen years, seven months and twenty nine days before.

What begins with joy, ends with pain in equal measure. But it is in those hours of pain that we are reminded, once again, that grief is the price we pay for love.

 

 

© 2021 by Scott P. Snell
Right of reuse is freely granted with proper attribution

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One Comment

  1. Wow, you are an amazing author. I not much of a reader but I clung on every word to the very end. You are an amazing man Scott and I am honored to know you. Donna

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