My longest-standing relationship has been with my dog. We met when I was in the fourth grade: He was a wily little yellow lab, only a few months old at the time and working hard to graduate training school, and I was only a few months shy of 10 years old and several more months (years) away from seeing boys as functional human beings who don’t actually have cooties. In the first few weeks we were together we experienced everything from the pre-electric fence terrors, to several instances of “Who’s walking who?”, to shared ice cream cones (strawberry, our favorite), to long nights huddled on my bed reading the latest “Harry Potter” book. Needless to say, we’ve been through a lot.
My dad used to say that we’d get a dog exactly six days after hell froze over and two weeks before pigs started flying. Who knew 2005 would be such an eventful year? It wasn’t long before Hoke—all 89 pounds of him—became part of the family. So when I left for college eight years later, I had to say one of the hardest goodbyes of my life to someone who eagerly licked my face in response. And that got me thinking. How does one keep in touch with man’s best friend from miles away? After over two years of regular separation from my favorite quadruped, I’ve learned that the answer to that question isn’t literally long-distance communication (when it comes to answering the phone, dogs are all thumbs—or rather, none at all), but recognizing changes in myself that could have only resulted from owning a dog for more than a decade.
What no one tells you about owning a dog is not only the toll they’ll take on your heart, but on your age as well—in only the best of ways. Owning Hoke has made me a grandma. I don’t mean that in the oh-my-gosh-this-dog-is-aging-me sort of way; no, I mean I’ve become the kind of person who carries countless photos of her dog on her phone and who is all too eager to show them to others like a proud new grandmother. What might have started out as harmless small talk between my roommate and I soon became a ruthless competition for the cutest dog photo or most hilarious anecdote about our furry friends. As far as I’m concerned, my dog is one of a kind. Can yours successfully catch a frisbee on Tuesday and fend off the UPS man for the next three consecutive Thursdays? I didn’t think so.
While I can compensate for the miles between Hoke and myself with iPhone photos and stubborn threads of dog hair that still cling to my sweaters, his physical absence is far more noticeable when I’m home alone in my apartment. It feels wrong to be able to open the refrigerator without having to nudge a 90-pound furball out of the way, or to eat dinner without two brown hopeful eyes staring up at my forkful of chicken parmesan. Living without Hoke has taught me both to appreciate extra space when I have it as well as to adapt to close quarters. After all, those “Harry Potter” books were long and the bottom bunk started to feel cramped after just a few chapters. Had I not grown up with an attention-crazed yellow lab, I might not have been prepared for freshman year dorm life and all the complications that come with living mere feet away from other restless students. While I no longer had to deal with the constant presence of Hoke underfoot, I found that I was more than prepared for the race to three showers against 20-plus hallmates. And I thank Hoke for that.
Above all, having a dog before college has taught me to better appreciate my relationships near and far—especially with my family. It’s easy for me to forget to check in with my parents and younger siblings when I get caught up the day-to-day happenings on campus, but all it takes is the sight of a jogger and his pup to remind me to check in on mine. A quick text to my family asking how Hoke is doing is sure to result in a prompt response from my mom involving plenty of affectionate emojis and more times than not a picture of him napping. What starts as simple “How’s Hoke doing today?” turns into a conversation about home—my siblings, my parents, our small town, the people and things I’ve missed since coming to college. As we do when I am home, my family and I bond over that yellow dog that stole our hearts 10 years ago whenever we talk on the phone. My sisters and I don’t fight over Hoke the way we do about clothes and I seldom get annoyed with my brother while looking after our dog; our fondness for Hoke is common ground whether I’m home or away at school. In taking care of Hoke, my family becomes closer and our affections deeper—both for him and for each other.
Needless to say, there’s a lot for us humans to learn from our dogs and the best thing about these creatures is their unconditional love. Unlike jealous girlfriends or fair-weather friends, dogs don’t expect you to call every day or even do a good job of keeping in touch. They love you when they see you again just as much as they loved you when you left. Whenever I return home from school for break, I’m greeted by Hoke’s wagging tail and slobbering tongue and as much enthusiasm as when I return from a 15-minute trip to the grocery store. He doesn’t keep score or ask where I’ve been; it’s only the return that matters.
I think the reason dogs are known as man’s best friend is their uncanny ability to increase our humanity and ultimately make us better people. Dogs don’t know jealousy or selfishness the way we do; they don’t know greed or haste or dishonesty. They are loyal and they are kind and at the end of the day, isn’t that the way we all should be?
What lessons have you learned from your pets, darlings? Let us know in the comments below or tweet @LitDarling with your response!