Of Dogs and Men

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The way I see it, dogs had this big meeting, oh, maybe 20,000 years ago. A huge meeting — an international convention with delegates from everywhere. And that's when they decided that humans were the up-and-coming species and dogs were going to throw their lot in with them. The decision was obviously not unanimous. The wolves and dingoes walked out in protest.

Cats had an even more negative reaction. When they heard the news, they called their own meeting — in Paris, of course — to denounce canine subservience to the human hyperpower. (Their manifesto — La Condition Feline — can still be found in provincial bookstores.)

Cats, it must be said, have not done badly. Using guile and seduction, they managed to get humans to feed them, thus preserving their superciliousness without going hungry. A neat trick. Dogs, being guileless, signed and delivered. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I must admit that I've been slow to warm to dogs. I grew up in a non-pet-friendly home. Dogs do not figure prominently in Jewish-immigrant households. My father was not very high on pets. He wasn't hostile. He just saw them as superfluous, an encumbrance. When the Cossacks are chasing you around Europe, you need to travel light. (This, by the way, is why Europe produced far more Jewish violinists than pianists. Try packing a piano.)

My parents did allow a hint of zoological indulgence. I had a pet turtle. My brother had a parakeet. Both came to unfortunate ends. My turtle fell behind a radiator and was not discovered until too late. And the parakeet, God bless him, flew out a window once, never to be seen again. After such displays of stewardship, we dared not ask for a dog.

My introduction to the wonder of dogs came from my wife Robyn. She's Australian. And Australia, as lovingly recounted in Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country, has the craziest, wildest, deadliest, meanest animals on the planet. In a place where every spider and squid can take you down faster than a sucker-punched boxer, you cherish niceness in the animal kingdom. And they don't come nicer than dogs.

Robyn started us off slowly. She got us a border collie, Hugo, when our son was about 6. She knew that would appeal to me because the border collie is the smartest species on the planet. Hugo could 1) play outfield in our backyard baseball games, 2) do flawless front-door sentry duty, and 3) play psychic weatherman, announcing with a wail every coming thunderstorm.

When our son Daniel turned 10, he wanted a dog of his own. I was against it, using arguments borrowed from seminars on nuclear nonproliferation. It was hopeless. One giant "Please, Dad," and I caved completely. Robyn went out to Winchester, Va., found a litter of black Labs and brought home Chester.

Chester is what psychiatrists mean when they talk about unconditional love. Unbridled is more like it. Come into our house, and he was so happy to see you, he would knock you over. (Deliverymen learned to leave things at the front door.)

In some respects — Ph.D. potential, for example — I don't make any great claims for Chester. When I would arrive home, I fully expected to find Hugo reading the newspaper. Not Chester. Chester would try to make his way through a narrow sliding door, find himself stuck halfway and then look at me with total and quite genuine puzzlement. I don't think he ever got to understand that the rear part of him was actually attached to the front.

But it was Chester, who dispensed affection as unreflectively as he breathed, who got me thinking about this long-ago pact between humans and dogs. Cat lovers and the pet averse will just roll their eyes at such dogophilia. I can't help it. Chester was always at your foot or your hand, waiting to be petted and stroked, played with and talked to. His beautiful blocky head, his wonderful overgrown puppy's body, his baritone bark filled every corner of house and heart.

Then last month, at the tender age of 8, he died quite suddenly. The long, slobbering, slothful decline we had been looking forward to was not to be. When told the news, a young friend who was a regular victim of Chester's lunging love-bombs said mournfully, "He was the sweetest creature I ever saw. He's the only dog I ever saw kiss a cat."

Some will protest that in a world with so much human suffering, it is something between eccentric and obscene to mourn a dog. I think not. After all, it is perfectly normal, indeed, deeply human to be moved when nature presents us with a vision of great beauty. Should we not be moved when it produces a vision — a creature — of the purest sweetness?