How a faithful dog became a boy’s best friend
Over the past month, I have consoled a niece after the untimely death of her beloved cat, Tiger; and then shared in the euphoric delight of a grandniece when her parents surprised her with the fondest wish of her young heart: a precious little puppy!
Both of these family events—one tear-filled and tragic, the other ecstatically joyful—got me thinking back over the years, and of the menagerie of pets that came into, and eventually went out of, my life as a boy: dogs, cats, bunnies, baby ducklings, a turtle, an aquarium of fish, even a garter snake.
And they all occupy their own special place in the pet pantheon of my youth. But there is one that stands out from all the rest; the one that I will be most earnestly seeking when I finally get to Heaven (since my niece assures me that that is where virtually all pets go).
This particular pet came into my life in a manner that was positively miraculous to the innocent mind of an eight-year old boy.
An odd-looking truck stopped in front of our house one summer afternoon, and a man (whom I soon learned was the local dog-catcher) got out and spoke with my Mother. He told her that a couple of young boys, like my older brother and I, absolutely needed a dog; and that he just happened to have one—a black cocker spaniel—in the back of his truck that needed a good home. How could she argue with such a serendipitous stroke of fate?
Next thing we knew, my brother and I were running all around the front yard with our new dog… our very own dog!
It felt like Christmas had come early that year, without any warning or buildup. It just happened. We suddenly had ourselves a dog, with a peculiar penchant for rolling himself in the dirt, which is how he eventually got his name: Dusty.
Dusty belonged to both of us. But I felt, somehow, in my heart, that he really was mine; and it sort of seemed like he knew it too. Sometimes, as a test of Dusty’s loyalty, my brother and I would stand at opposite ends of the yard and both call to him. All I am willing to say about those contests is that my brother was never very happy with the result.
Dusty and I were inseparable. If I rode my bike along the canal bank, Dusty was sure to be trotting alongside. If I happened to be in the outfield, during a game of sandlot baseball, Dusty was always out there too, keeping me company. If I was working on my clubhouse, you could find Dusty lying in the shade of one of its newly raised walls. And, even though he never really loved to swim, whenever I would jump into the nearby irrigation canal on a hot day, I knew Dusty would be bailing in right behind me, dog-paddling dutifully, until I finally climbed out.
The only downside to all this togetherness, was the inescapable fact that I could never again win an outdoor game of hide-n-seek, since all anyone ever had to do to find me was look for a loitering Dusty.
And Dusty was smart—like, Lassie smart! Once, when my brother and I couldn’t seem to navigate our way out of an electrified fence enclosure, Dusty figured it out and came barking heroically to our rescue.
He was no indoor dog, Ol’ Dusty; he would sleep—no matter the season or the weather—either in the doghouse my Dad had built for him, or in my clubhouse.
Even when he broke his leg, and we thought we might have to put him down, Dusty sequestered himself in the clubhouse until his leg finally mended. And, while you could definitely tell something had happened to that left hind leg, he had no discernible limp, and could still outrun any other dog in our neighborhood.
I would never have been ready to part with dear Dusty, no matter how long he’d lived, but he left far too soon, and in a shocking and heartbreaking manner. As a youth, I read both OLD YELLER and WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, and both made me cry; but nothing could’ve prepared me for Dusty’s death, poisoned by a neighbor who claimed Dusty had committed the cardinal sin of chasing his sheep. It’s hard for a boy to fathom such an act, and harder still to forgive it. It is still hard for a grown man in his 60s.
If my niece is right (and I hope fervently that she is), I will see Dusty again, on some bright day, in that other place, probably at my older brother’s side; standing steadfastly by him, until he hears a familiar voice calling out… “Dusty! Come ‘ere, boy!”
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