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Thinking about Dogs

Posted 6/16/2015

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  You will either "get" this or you won't. Some of us, including me, love dogs, need a dog, can't imagine (in spite of real efforts to the contrary) not living with one. Others of us are neutral to negative to horrified by the same ideas. Almost all of my life, I have had a dog. Each time one has died, the grief has wrecked me, and I have been determined not to expose myself to such willful loss again. I have tried, never for too long, to manage without one. Most recently, we added a Maine Coon kitten to our household, hearing that they were "dog like cats" and hoping life would bring a few less responsibilities and expenses without a real dog. It is definitely true that she is a dog-like cat--follows us around, meets us at the door--but, alas, she is a cat, not a dog. So we held out only for a few months longer before acquiring our current Golden.

  I hear such remarkable stories from my patients about their dogs. Yesterday, a woman was telling me about the behavior of her Golden during the last day's of her wife's death. The dog, Molly, refused to leave the bedside, had to dragged outside periodically. When death came, Molly jumped on to the bed, put her head on her woman's chest, and cried.

  I believe in metaphors and in golden retrievers. In 1993, five days after my final chemotherapy treatment, we brought home a ten week Golden puppy. As I looked at him in my daughter’s lap, I wondered which of us would survive the other and hoped that he would be a comfort to her if I died. Blessedly, I stayed well, and she grew up. Jasper died suddenly when he was almost 11, having been my beloved companion through years of uncertainty and recovery. After a few lonely months of doglessness, we adopted a Golden from a rescue league. He traveled to us from Mississippi where he had been found wandering around a construction dump. He got off the truck, shaved almost to bare skin, emaciated, and with a hideous burn scar, as though someone had poured acid on him, all the way down his spine. Worst of all, he would not raise his head to look at us. My heart melted, and I knew that he and I, both survivors of a traumatic past, would do fine together. Indeed, Ben slowly metamorphosized into a long-haired, fat, tail-wagging, eye-contact-making treasured soul. When I was often home sick or recovering from my second series of chemotherapy treatments in 2005, he never left my side. Early the next year, we learned that he had inoperable cancer. I was heart-broken, furious with the fates for bringing him more pain, and left with a shattered metaphor.
Or was I? Perhaps a different lesson, or a different metaphor, is represented by all this. A metaphor that speaks to our never really knowing what it is that will come before us. In the face of such uncertainty, the one thing that is true and faithful to our all too human nature is our capacity to love, nurture, and cherish—and, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver, when the time comes to let it, to let it go.

  It was after Ben's death that we tried to manage with the Maine Coon. It likely would not have worked anyway, but it most certainly stopped working when my first grandchild was born and lived for only 5 days. There was no way that I could manage that kind of grief alone ("alone" in this case meaning "without a dog"). Daisy is now 8 and is an ideal dog. She is the kind of dog I used to occasionally see and wonder how in the world the owners managed to train their dog so well. She is perfect on a leash, in the house, always obeys, lies quietly under the table at an outdoor restaurant. The truth is we did nothing to deserve this perfect creature; she came that way. She must have known that was what I needed.

  And if you want more dog and cancer tales, you will like this: 

A Cancer Patient's Best Friend
By Heather Millar

When I was going through active treatment, I swear that my Australian shepherd, Kit, knew that I was
fighting something serious. There’s a joke that once you get an Aussie, you’ll never be alone. They tend to
really bond with one person. And for Kit, I was that person. She followed me around even when I was well.
But once I was sick, she became glued to my side.
My main memories of the months of chemo are endless rain, lying on the couch, with Kit at my side,
watching me. Thanks to Kit and Facebook, I rarely felt lonely when my family were off at work and school.
I’ve always thought that dogs, and other animals, know lots more than we realize. And since I’ve finished
treatment, I’ve come across stories about studies showing that dogs can smell thyroid, colorectal, lung,
melanoma, ovarian, bladder and breast cancers. In most of the studies, regular pet dogs with some
training could accurately diagnose human cancers by smelling the breath, urine or blood of patients. And
at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, they train puppies from the age of two months to become cancer
detectors.
So I bet Kit smelled that something was up with me. And her company gave me so much comfort. Just
having a dog or cat to stroke brings my blood pressure down, makes me feel better. Yes, I’m an animal nut,
but science supports my experience.

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