What Value, the Soul of a Dog?

By Elizabeth Speth

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This will be a hard post to write. I’ve been putting it off for more than a week.

It’s about a beloved family member who stretched out to sleep in the warm sun on the front steps last Friday morning. It’s about Death coming quickly to claim this gentle creature, mid-nap, in his favorite snoozing spot.

I’m talking about our dear friend Dobra the Doberman, who came to live with us as a foster rescue dog when he was a young adolescent. He stayed for more than a dozen years, helped us raise our children, roamed our three and a half acres, kept its borders safe. He kept the horses in line, fended off intruders of all species. If you posed even a possible threat to any Speth creature — equine, feline, human or otherwise — you had to go through Dobra first. And God help you.

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Dobra the Doberman, with my son Leland, whom he helped raise.

We don’t know if he lifted his head in surprise those last seconds, somehow understanding what was happening to him. We don’t know if he fought his mortality, twitched in protest as he struggled up from sleep. We don’t know if he woke at all, or experienced any discomfort. We weren’t there for any of it. Only his best friend was with him. Angus, the Jack Russell Terrorist was there, lying beside Dobra when we found him, keeping watch while the slow humans finally got around to understanding what we’d lost.

I was very sad that Dobra was suddenly gone. It was so unexpected.

But then I was so grateful.

He had just begun to experience some arthritis, but otherwise seemed youthful. So I didn’t have to agonize about the ‘when do we put him down’ decision, which is so hard.

I rarely have the luxury of having the decision made for me.

Let me just say for the record that Dobra had an epic morning, which was typical for him. He chased some horses, cornered a rodent in the woodpile (that was VERY exciting).

I was scrubbing horse troughs, a game he loved.  He chased the water rivulets as though they were live animals, which he killed by digging holes quickly in their paths to stop them. The holes always drove me crazy — I had to fill them before the horses or I broke a leg in the dark, but I’m glad he got to enjoy the activity on his last day.

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Dobra supervising morning horse chores.

I scooped loose dirt back into those holes with such a heavy heart.

He had a ginormous plate of leftover spaghetti for breakfast — his favorite meal ever.

Exhausted from our morning chores, he stretched out on the front steps. I stepped over him coming out the door, on my way out for a horseback ride. He raised his head, and I could tell he was grateful I hadn’t made him move out of my way. He put his head back down and went to sleep.

My husband Neil and I got a call from our son Lyle that afternoon. We were deep in the American River Canyon, at least two hours over rugged terrain from our truck and horse trailer. Lyle was devastated, and said Dobra had not moved from his napping position, but that he was gone.

Neil and I had miles to ride to get back. We both cried all the way home.

We buried Dobra on the property, as we have all of our beastly friends over the years. We thanked him for all his lovely companionship, and we gave thanks that he had not suffered. We were shell-shocked. Diminished.

But the hardest hit was Dobra’s buddy Angus, the Jack Russell. He has not made a peep since Lyle found him lying beside Dobra, whimpering a little.

When Lyle wrapped Dobra in a sheet to bury him, Angus started pawing at it. He looked to us to fix it. And of course we could not.

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Angus on a typical day. He is usually pretty feisty, which is how he earned the Jack Russell Terrorist classification. He is not the same right now.

I dragged Dobra’s favorite sleeping blanket over next to the fresh grave, and Angus has been sitting or lying on it ever since, except when I make him come inside for the night. He is not eating. He just keeps sniffing the air and looking around, as if he can’t quite figure out where his friend has gone, or from which direction he will come when he returns. That makes me the saddest.

We are not supposed to anthropomorphize animals. They each behave and think according to their unique, species-specific programming. They are not people, and woe to any of us who assume their behaviors are explained by our own human motivations.

But, after this sad week watching poor Angus in the enormous bewilderment of his loss, I know that animals are capable of great grief. It follows that they must be capable of great attachment. That is why we love them so, and are so grateful to walk with them a ways in our much longer lifetimes.

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Many, many animals, horses and dogs and cats, have passed over this property, leaving footprints that eventually fade, fur and fluff blown away in the winds. We have fostered them, dogs and horses and cats in various stages of transition, some traumatized. Some have gone on to wonderful homes. Some, damaged beyond repair by neglect and cruelty and human failings, have been put down as humanely as possible, which is a weak apology at best. Some have just quietly told us, in one way or another, that they would stay.

Some of them have been very special, for whatever inexplicable reason. They have burrowed particularly deeply into our hearts. I still see them in the corner of my eye if I turn suddenly, or gaze into the smudged shadows of the pond, deep in the trees at sunset. I see a lolling tongue and a trotting dog, the flick of a horsetail and the twitch of a mane. I hear a faint nicker in trees that creak as they are nudged by night breezes.

I know it is these creatures I will rush to see, first thing, when I get to heaven. I hope I can find them right away, because I will be so eager to throw my arms around them. I will catch up with my lost relatives and friends afterward. But everyone knows you always say hello to the dog first when you get home.

My horse Santa Fe. My blue Doberman Baron. I hope they are waiting, that we will see each other again.

And I powerfully, profoundly wish to see Angus and Dobra, together once more, as they most certainly belong, the loneliness of their separation a mere memory. That would be an appropriate end to this story, I think.

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