Dogs bring meaning to our lives

May 25, 2018

In the moment and on the chase - dogs are windows into other lives.

It has been a barkless, grey week here in lawnmower land where leaves yellow and drift to earth over a small, freshly dug mound.

Strictly speaking, it has been more of a coughless week.

For the last year of his life, Billy’s military bark had descended from the urgency of a tiny sergeant major to the insistent dry cough of a rank and file smoker.

We knew exactly where he was by the rising wheeze of his chest topped by a hack and falling splutter.

This was actually the sound of his lungs drowning in fluid from a porous heart that a vet described as sounding ‘‘like a washing machine’’.

He was on two pills twice a day delivered by fingers down the throat — a violent, undignified method to which he eventually surrendered after weeks of prising, ramming and swearing on my part.

Finally, his resistance faded and he sat down at my approach, fixed me with glaucos eyes and dropped his lower jaw in defeat to accept the choking, fluid absorbing tablets.

His days of rabbit-hole diving and bird scaring were over.

He was also deaf and partially blind.

He seemed to accept it, sitting on the edge of the verandah and staring into the bush with curious ears cocked into the silence.

No more racing through long grass — he was now confined to the shrinking bubble of the backyard, cheered only by the gristle of a chicken neck or a stolen salty smoked almond.

I found him last Thursday sprawled on the garden path as if he had tripped and fallen asleep mid bird-chase.

I do get sentimental about dogs.

In all my 62 years I have never been without one.

My earliest memory is lying under the kitchen table in Wales to feel the warmth of old Pete the black labrador who liked to wander the neighbourhood on Monday and collect the remains of Sunday roasts.

Then there was Roano the spaniel who ate my Beatles chewing gum card collection.

Down the years there has also been a Keef, a Ned, a Bruin, a Charlie, a Pip, and a Grommet and a Zena.

Each had their quirks, their annoyances and their dignities.

They were all either lost to cars, snakes, rivers, broken relationships or emigration.

Each had their quick farewell — sometimes with an ear-stroke or sometimes with just a photo on the sideboard.

Now it was Billy’s turn.

When I wrapped him carefully in a towel and knelt to place him in his own deep garden bed, one ear cheekily poked out.

He was still listening to the silence.

I couldn’t help thinking dogs lead such little lives, which have no consequence other than their allotted span and their relationship to us.

Dogs are not lifelong companions and so when we start the journey of owning a dog, we know it will end in tears.

But along the way, their companionship teaches us all sorts of things from loyalty, to kindness, tolerance, patience and altruism.

In other words — they can teach us to be more human.

But perhaps the greatest lesson from living with a dog is the experience of something other than being human.

We learn the sentience of animals.

And if we are at all human, we try to understand their pains, their fears, their joys — at once so like our own and yet so utterly different.

For me, the companionship of dogs is a line directly to the heart of a mysterious and ultimately indifferent universe.

Dogs are a way of bringing meaning to our life through the experience of other lives — however different and however short.

Why do I look for Billy’s face peering out of the dark from the verandah at tea time, or listen for his cough in the night?

I have no idea — but now I can keep all my smoked almonds for myself.

Sleep well Bill, you have earned it.

John Lewis is The News’ chief of staff.

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