We Cleave to Our Dogs


I just left my friend Michelle’s house. We took her dogs out just before I left. It’s almost gotten to the point where Roxie, her black standard poodle, needs to be carried down the stairs. The arthritis in her hind legs makes each step treachery.

I don’t mind carrying her down. I’ll carry that dog any day of the week. She’s the Roxie, the queen dog at Michelle’s castle. She is as much the heart and soul of that home as Michelle and her son, Sam are. Roxie has been a witness — to discord, disruption, disappointment, knowledge,wisdom, joy, hard work, frivolity, friendship and growth, both physical in Sam and evolutionary in Michelle. Now, I said we took her dogs out, because there’s a new one on the block, Sophie. She’s the blonde to Roxie’s jet black, the vanilla to the chocolate, the ivory to the ebony, the youthful pounce to the stiff-legged memories of a dog who’s watch is nearing its end.

Sophie, lots of blonde moments ahead.

It’s the very same opening act our golden, beautiful, Libby played to Pete’s closing soliloquy. Over my fierce objections, made like so many pillars set in sand, we brought home Libby, (we’d gone to the shelter seeking a cat, came home with a puppy) in the winter of Pete’s 13th year. He was mildly disdainful, but too decrepit to put up much of a fight and Libby, she was a vixen!  She pranced and knelt and chewed and taunted and raced circles around Pete to his everlasting dismay and determination not to concede even an inch of his dominion over 1231.

Pete, the King of Dogs, 1994-2008

1231, that’s our address. 1231– it’s a central character in our ensemble cast performing the long running play called our lives.  Our dogs get top billing too, not relegated to supporting roles. Front and center, that’s their place come curtain call. Front and center, unless Louie’s still around in which case he’ll be in the mosh pit.

Louie, worn out from moshing

Worn out from the mosh pit.

A few days ago I was in San Francisco working a freelance video gig. I rented a car and drove up to the lake to see an old friend. We had history, me and Sue. The little black Hundai with my name on it was gassed up, shined up, ready to go, cute, and sporty. It was an odd feeling after I cleared the Bay Bridge, where greens turn into gold, round hills. I looked into the backseat. No Libby. The last time I was on U.S. 80 eastbound from San Francisco towards Lake Tahoe was August of last year, in the last few days of my road-trip across the country, you know, that trip I took to write a book.  From the midwest to the east coast, through the deep south, the nation of Texas, the desert southwest, all the way to northern California and back to moist St. Louis, Libby was my witness, I was her mutineer. She never complained, never hesitated to jump back into the car for destinations and distances unknown. Libby was my savior — my shrink, my crying towel, my thrill seeker, my protector, my foil, my calling card, my golden guardian and my best friend.

Libby Leaving San Francisco

Look westward, angel. Leaving San Francisco.

I guess you could say I’m a dog person. I come from dog people. We have always had dogs, generations of dogs. Long before I buried my nose in the puppy bliss of a eight-week old, pudge of a pup named Bowser, (we got him when I was nine, he passed when I was twenty-eight) my mama had Polar. She wrote stories about Polar when she was a little girl in Sayre, Oklahoma. Then came Fiel the Doberman, Bowser, the Chow/Shepherd mix, Poke the Boxer, and Oso — a frenetic, sharp eyed bundle of black fur who kept my mama company until she had a stroke sitting in her gold velvet rocking chair, never to come home again. Then there’s my brother’s dogs: Augie, Baby Girl, Lola — they’re as much a part of my extended family as my over-extended family is part of me. We call the roll, because their attendance deserves recognition. Even my friends and their dogs — Cooper, Albert, George and Ruthie, Natalie, Sadie, Trash Dog, Roxie, and now little sister, Sophie  –we all cleave to our dogs.

Now, more than ever. A recent survey by the American Pet Products Association (okay, I know, not exactly unbiased) reports that pet ownership in this county is at an all time high, some 72.9 million households have pets. Sixty-percent of people who own their own homes have a dog, sixty percent! And twenty-five percent, one out of four dog owners, take their dogs with them on overnight car trips, rather than boarding their dog or hiring a dog sitter. Libby and I were hardly trendsetters.

We cleave to our dogs. For so many of us, at a time when much of what we thought we’d have by now– a steady job, security, money to take a trip now and then, a way to retire before we’re ninety– at a time in this country where so many of the things we counted on, as ticket holding believers in the American dream, have been yanked from our hands and torn to shreds, there is one thing we can count on– our dogs. They don’t have a bad day. They don’t give us the pink slip. They don’t quit. They don’t leave. They don’t lie.

Yet, they have no idea the comfort they bestow.  How can they even begin to comprehend their importance in our lives?  How can they know?

In the void which we’d like to fill with certain knowledge that our dogs do indeed understand, what else can we do but trust that they do? We’re left to trust. That’s all we can do, is trust that we don’t need to bark to be understood nor do they need to speak human words. We trust. We simply trust that the bonds we feel transcend the limitations of the voice of our species.

There is a bittersweet mystery in traveling across America with just your dog — a trip that not only measures miles, but a lifetime of emotion. How many times have I looked into Libby’s penetrating Cleopatra eyes and asked her, “do you remember?” Do you remember, Libby, the smell of the pine trees when we drove way down that gravel road in Flagstaff to pee? Do you remember the wild mustangs? How the dust from their hooves on the sun-draped mesa, raised sand colored clouds around their lithesome legs?  How we heard them! We heard them thundering through the ravine below us, running, out of site, under the cover of trees next to the riverbank. Do you remember? The seagulls, the pigeons in the park, the donkeys, the first time you ever saw a cow? The first time you went to ocean and ran toward the water, racing through the sea foam, free. Running free. Do you remember? Enter trust. Why not? Dogs do it.

Libby, Huntington Beach, CA, August 2011

When I am ninety two and I check out, hopefully collapsing on the dance floor of some shanty bar, dancing in the arms of a handsome man, here’s what I want you to know:  My dog goes to the funeral. I will have a dog or two until the day I die. And when I do, my dog gets a front row seat with the rest of the family.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. From the first day I met you, Jean, at a Cinema St. Louis board meeting, I knew we had something in common. At first I thought it was love of good films. Then I thought it was a cool attitude towards life. Then I thought it was advertising, video production, show biz. Then I thought it was that edgy sense of humor. Now I realize what it is. Dogs, pure and simple. And that’s the best of all. So here’s the deal: If at 92 you’re not dancing in the arms of a handsome man, you can dance in my arms, and both our dogs will be at our memorial service, right there in that shanty bar.