SOME YEARS AGO I met a man who had never lived with a dog. Neither had his father nor his father before him. So I married the man and set about to change all that.
Softening his resolve began by auditioning names for the incipient dog. After a few weeks, the options narrowed to bird breeds, the logic being that for a honeymoon period, anyway, my new spouse deserved to believe that his dog might be, well, not too very dog-like. Much as expectant parents mouth children’s names, I would call them out to no one in particular. And then one summer afternoon I looked up from my gardening to see a filthy, yellow and white, plume-tailed young dog trot into our yard. She was wearing a red ribbon around her neck.
“Mallard!” I yelled, dropping my trowel.
“Oh no,” my husband replied into the topsoil.
She loped right up to me and licked my face. Mallard was with us for two unsteady years, during which time she would occasionally walk out of the yard just as unabashedly as she had walked in, staying away for weeks. She always returned with a red ribbon tied neatly around her neck. Never with us on holidays, we figured that we shared her with someone, and became grateful for the time she chose to spend with us. After all, her affection for us was lavish.
She sat primly in the canoe for paddles of any duration, and never ran away from anywhere but home. Then one day she left and didn’t return. We never figured it out. My belief is that being blonde predetermined such infidelity, but my husband will tell anyone who will listen that if I hadn’t renamed her for a migrating bird she would not have taken to behaving like one. At the time he would also tell you that the only thing dogs do is break your heart.
We waited, dogless, for a year, and then got a call from a friend in Mexico whose aunt had just died, leaving behind her three-year-old Weimaraner. If the family paid the transit, our friend wanted to know, would we accept the dog into our home? European-bred, this dog was the biggest Weimaraner I have ever seen. She weighed in at 80 pounds and stood tall enough to fall asleep with her head leveled on the dining room table.
Her name was Coqueta, Coca for short, and unfortunately she only understood Spanish. This proved humiliating for us both at a rural firehouse during obedience school, when all around were mutts of eager discipline awaiting the response of a fancy dog laid flat on the floor, her owner pleading softly but urgently en Espanol for her to sit up.
Coca had been raised in a walled garden, the precious companion of a well-to-do eccentric woman. And at first that limited the things she wanted to do in any language. She’d sit near the fireplace, her paws crossed below her breast, and look at us in a purebred Katharine Hepburn demeanor, as if awaiting the conversation to become engaging enough for her to participate. My husband’s theory was that no one had ever asked her to do anything. He may have been right, because in our nine years together she learned to run all day beside a cross-country skier, climb the high peaks of the Adirondacks, and selflessly listen to the world of problems that this woman regularly emptied into her vast heart.
When we became parents, Coca, like many nannies before her, rose to the new occasion and ballooned to nearly 100 pounds, sitting pretty under the high chair’s continuous stream of flotsam and jetsam. Outside, she guarded the playpen with her great head over the demurely folded paws, snapping her jaws at flies that threatened to attack the sweet-smelling child napping in the shade.
But all too soon it seemed that everyone in our household was either male or young, except me and Coca. We started going for slower walks, bonded in a war against aging, or at least so it seemed to me. Then we went less frequently, and then I merely looked in on her when I went walking alone. Then I carried her outside–the dwindling 70 pounds of her sustaining dignity–and, toward the end, cleaned up after her. Finally, I didn’t have to do any of that, after I took her to the vet for the last appointment of the day and cradled her against my heart as she died.
I loved that dog more than I love most of my friends, and I am not ashamed to say that I also found her more intelligent than some. It seems to me that while I rarely meet a dog I do not like, I frequently come across people I cannot bear.
But I am an easy mark. The real test was my husband, whose loss I thought I’d have to look hard to see. Then I remembered that Coca did a little dance every night when he walked through the door, and that once or twice I had caught him doing it right along with her. He had bought her the orange T-shirt in hunting season so no one would mistake her for a deer. And there is that snapshot of them napping together, her paw resting on his shoulder.
I realized that what Coca did best was reach my husband in ways that Mallard never could, teaching him that dogs are good to the end, and that even after death, they can remain steadfast parts of what we are proud to call home. She did what all dogs can do, if we don’t mess with them too much: Converting him to a person who can love almost any dog.
This is what a dog can do, and has done forever, reaching back to that first human who threw that first stick, and to that first dog who took a chance on love.