“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
– Anatole France
I didn’t have a pet growing up but always knew I was a dog person. I was ‘guardedly in like’ with all dogs I came across, willing to shower them with kindness and affection but on the ready to walk away if they turned nasty. Kind of like how I am now with people. I have vague memories of bringing home a stray and calling him Brownie, though I didn’t have the faintest idea how to care for him. Brownie because his hair was brown. It might have been white underneath, I didn’t have the chance to find out. When I came home from school the next day he had disappeared. My mom was suspiciously silent about the whole thing and my father distracted me with another Enid Blyton. I don’t think my sister was aware there was a dog.
Years later I gave birth to someone who was obsessed with animals. She taught herself everything there was to know about every animal on the planet by the time she was 5. I tried distracting her with sports and dance, but it was to no avail. Not because I don’t like animals. I’m your average run of the mill mother material, the kind who makes sure the kids have a full belly, a clean diaper, and if they must pick their noses, they don’t do that in the middle of a supermarket. The kind of mother who believes she’s doing a rather good job of it unlike the job she did trying to keep the house plants alive. You see, most living things don’t do too well under my care.
But the inevitable request for a pet became an incessant demand. So we got her a fish. She named it Killer. It didn’t last long and we got her a hamster. She named him Hamtaro. One day I found her searching for an eye because Hamtaro was missing one. I’m sure it was somehow my fault though I’m not sure how. Soon after, Hamtaro joined the house plants and the fish in a corner of the backyard. The child could not be thwarted. The wishlist kept changing and I found notes stuck inside my closet, the kitchen cabinet, on the TV. Once she asked for a bearded dragon and I imagined a fire breathing one perched on my roof. Turns out a bearded dragon is a large lizard with spikes, horns and smarts.
Now reptiles is where I draw the line and a smart reptile, my idea of a horror story.
It was a relief when she moved on to begging for a pet sheep, horse, koala, and eventually, a cat, bunny or dog. I got her one of each, the stuffed kind. She did not appreciate the humor in that. When I explained to her that the live kind stand no chance under my care, she insisted she would do all the work, that I just had to open the door to my home and my heart to the idea. Oh she was very good. Over the next five years she had got her father on board. Finally she decided a dog was all she needed to make her world perfect. My younger one takes after my sister and was probably unaware of the entire proceedings.
Like I said, I have always fancied myself a dog person. I started warming up to the idea though nothing would make me admit that out loud. I didn’t see a purpose to it. It was too impractical. We travel a lot- what then? Who would take the dog on daily walks? Who would pick up after the dog, because it wasn’t going to be me. Been there and done that with two little human beings, never going back. What about the expense? Will the dog expect to be entertained while everyone was away for the day? They had an answer to each of these questions except the last. To that, they just stared at me. Fair enough. I started to hesitantly dream of the ideal dog.
He would have to be a medium sized breed. A black/brown/white combination of colors, intelligent and perky eared. Maybe I would name him Pluto in honor of a cocker spaniel who lived across from us in Punjab, who I adored from far. If it had to be a larger breed then something majestic like a German Shepherd or a Doberman, loyal and courageous. He would be named Colonel or Shadow or Bagheera. Maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A dignified presence by my side, my silent guardian. His upright ears and keen nose would pick up any scent of danger and his yellow tinged black eyes would narrow fiercely as he got ready to protect me from all harm. His booming bark would be heard for miles around and he would bite but only on my command.
Switching tracks to reality took a moment and my dream dogs collapsed around me laughing uproariously. I watched Juliet bounding up the driveway, all jiggles and fluff. Her floppy ears flew up in the air and slapped back down on the side of her face every which way. Her face was set in the widest goofiest grin I’ve seen on man or dog. Something about the world- no, everything about the world seemed to make her very very happy. All 75 lbs of her came hurtling at me and it felt only right to give her a good cuddle. Underneath the cloud of fur she felt like a perfectly set pudding still warm from the oven. Colonel, Shadow, Bagheera and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle watched me turn to mush, sniffed in disdain and went poof.
Juliet was a fully grown 2 and completely, amazingly trained when she came to us. She is almost 8 now. Her first daddy made the obviously difficult decision that our family was a better fit for her. We wanted to honor his magnanimity of heart and decided not to change the name he had given her- Juliet Ramesh. Over time she has got used to being called by many names because in this family, you can’t go by just one. When I call out ‘Stinky!’ all three girls- the two legged ones as well as the four legged one look up inquiringly. Then there are names such as Sundari, Guggu Guvvie, Itsy bitsy that belong only to her.
There are guard dogs and service dogs and therapy dogs. Dogs who have important jobs to do. Not Juliet. She does not guard or protect, not in obvious ways. Her big brown eyes dance in joy to see people. She doesn’t bite- on command or otherwise. When you stick your hand in her mouth she freezes, or pushes it out with her tongue. She is a golden retriever and it is logical to assume she retrieves. Nope, not her. She loves to pick up anything we throw for her. Then she makes us run around in circles after her to get it from her. At least she gets half the job right. We tried the egg experiment. Golden retrievers are so gentle they can carry an egg in their mouth without breaking it. We put the egg in her mouth and she took off with it, a fat golden cloud, with the four of us after her, round and round the backyard till she was cornered. She looked at us puzzled then spat out the egg, at which point it did break. But she does get half the job done.
I have come to the conclusion that she doesn’t know that she’s a dog. Definitely not one that has a purpose. In the almost six years that she has been with us, she has barked about ten times. It has usually been at squirrels whose existence she takes great offense to. Then at old ladies. Not the upright ones. The ones who are bent over to pick up something from the ground. Derrières sans torso scare her. Especially the older ones. It is baffling. Her bark, on these rare occasions has been deep, booming and a thing of beauty. The squirrels scuttle away faster than light and the ladies either fall over or straighten up rather too quickly. But she always seems so comically surprised and bewildered by her own bark, they are quick to forgive her. The ladies, not the squirrels. We just stand there a little shaken, very apologetic and as proud as when the girls took their first steps.
I haven’t been very sure what her purpose is but there is a certain warmth in the house with her around. Warmth, dog hair and a great many squeaky toys. Coming home from anywhere, whether it be after a week away or at the end of the day or after the two minutes it takes to get to the mailbox and back- a grand welcome is always assured. I don’t think anyone is ever this happy that I exist. She seems to know when I am in a bad mood and comes ambling up. Her beautiful eyes speak volumes and she refuses to go away till I’ve petted away my grouse. I put her in costumes and tie up her hair in bows and she patiently tolerates all of my whims. She comes in handy as a pillow, a hand and foot warmer, the perfect subject to my stint at photography. I laugh, notice, feel, care and love more since she entered our lives.
She has grown older, the hair on her face changing from shiny gold to shimmery white. She sleeps a little longer and is a little slower. Her eyes light up with puppy mischief but seem deeper, wiser. I watch her going wild playing in the snow, diving in to get a mouthful, running around after snowballs. I know she will have a slight limp afterwards and she will come to me, a tinge of pain in her trusting big brown eyes. She will look at me, unwavering in her confidence in my ability to make her better.
Maybe I had it all backwards. Maybe coming to us was her purpose. To guard and protect her, mine. One half her job, the other half mine.