Let's all paws and appreciate the wisdom of dogs | Whale's Tales

I’ve heard people say that human beings are the only creatures that know they will die.

The spirit of the puppy she was still lives in Xunna.

Games of “hide the paw” — reach for one paw, she tucks the other one away and rolls to keep it from you — can rouse her spirits and set her tail on the wag.

But our sweet-tempered Golden Doodle is 13 years old and afflicted with the usual infirmities of age. A cataract clouds her right eye, and often she doesn’t know where she is. She is losing control of her bodily functions.

On top of the usual ravages of age, a large tumor on her abdomen keeps her from extending her back right leg to stand up. She falls down the stairs. It’s painful to watch as she struggles to lift her body from the wooden floor only to fall back again, leaving her to kick her legs in vain, so we step in.

Ann and I lack the money to have the tumor removed. We know where this is headed, but there’s so much life in the dog that we’ve been putting off the grim decision. I hope hope her creator, not a veterinarian, will “cut the cord” and free her vital spirit the nearest way.

In anticipation of the inevitable, however, Ann and I have taken a little one into our home, a nearly 4-month-old German shepherd we call Holly.

We briefly debated what to name her. We shuffled through our deck of German-sounding names: Brunnhilde, Gisela, Ilse, Gertrude? Nah. My sister Diane suggested we name her Holly because the pup was born on Christmas Day, so Holly she is. Beats Brunnhilde.

Holly’s first act in her new home was to rush into the computer room and grace the floor with, well, a token of her extreme fear and anxiety. From there, she found her way to the safe embrace of a hidey hole, where she stayed for several days.

Holly has since emerged from her hiding place only to duck behind us when anything or anyone new appears or makes a peep. Still, she is warming up to her new situation. Over the last few days, sightings of her muzzle peeping out have rippled along the Whale and friends network.

Holly doesn’t exactly know what to make of the nuzzling and ear scratching and butt scratching yet, but she takes a keen interest in the struggles of Xunna, and, of course, her elder’s food dish and any contents thereof.

I am eager to see what personality emerges when her fear gives way to a dog’s irrepressible curiosity.

Xunna herself has shown Holly a dry, weary, patient indifference, alongside hints of an occasional, “Oh. it’s you, you young dog! I’ll have a frisk with you!” But she has never shown the slightest hint of jealousy or hostility.

I wonder if Xunna knows what the puppy’s arrival means and has accepted it. It is the same situation she got into when she was a pup, when the ruler of the roost was Ann’s aged, overweight and tumor ridden-English setter, Sarah, whose infirmities ultimately compelled us to put her down.

I’ve heard people say that human beings are the only creatures that know they will die. I’m not so sure about that anymore. There are too many credible stories out there from credible people about their own dogs on the threshold hiding or taking a long, last look at home and family before vanishing into a copse of nearby woods, never to be seen again.

I suspect we have underestimated dogs. Dogs are remarkable animals, and I believe they are endowed with a certain basic wisdom by their maker. That includes at some moment the knowledge that their bodies are failing, and their lives are coming to an end.

And so the Whales, Robert and Ann, face again the passing of the torch from dog to dog.

I disagree with the lesson St. Augustine drew in his “Confessions” from the death of his dear friend Nebridius: that pain is what comes from investing your heart in anything but God. Having our hearts wrung and broken time and again is the risk we pay for loving any living thing.

But hardening our hearts to love, as C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Four Loves,” thus “confirming [our] congenital preference for safe investments,” is not the answer.

Love has pitched his mansion among mortal things. So it has always been, so it will always be.

Robert Whale can be reached at robert.whale@albmedia.app.