Never judge a book by its cover. In the literal sense of that phrase, I refer you to the cover of Lance: A Spirit Unbroken, which features a very nice photo of a gentle-looking Lance. With Lance, appearances could be deceiving. You never were sure what kind of mood he was in. I’d like to think that the gentle expression on Lance’s face in the cover photo is the “real” Lance, the dog that would have been but could never be only because he grew up in the wrong hands. In this essay, I’m using the phrase “Never judge a book by its cover” in the figurative sense.
Not too long ago, I was signing books at the Bikers for Boobs breast cancer charity event in Northhampton, PA. The word “biker” can conjure up visions of…well, you know. So, I’m sitting at my table and off in the not-too-far distance was standing a hulk of a man all of—I’m guessing—some 250 pounds of weight carried on a frame that reached well over six feet in height. He had his back to me, but I could see that his bare arms were tattooed to the max. On both elbows were patterns of a spider’s web. On the back of his shaved head, I could make out what appeared to be the end of a dagger or sword.
The biker kept moving his arms as if he was adjusting his grip on something. I guess I’ve been conditioned by all the recent gun violence because the thought flashed across my mind: “This guy has loaded up and is ready to go berserk!” I wondered if someone else packing heat would put him out of his misery before he put me out of mine.
Then, the man turned around and gently put two chocolate lab (I’m guessing the breed) puppies on the grass. They were very young and mostly content to lie in the ground snuggled up against each other while occasionally sniffing their surroundings. The biker was smiling and talking to them like a proud papa. Bikers and non-bikers alike approached to pet the puppies and chat with their beaming owner.
I took away two lessons that day:
1-Never judge a book by its cover—or a person by his or her fashion statement.
2-In a world suffering from so much disunity, dogs can be such great unifiers.
“The good die young.”
Whoever coined that phrase must have been a dog lover.
What is a dog lover’s burden? Walking your dog? Feeding your dog? Bathing your dog? Providing medical care for your dog? To be sure, all those activities require work (and sometimes money) but for a dog lover they are labors of love. Every once in a while you might chuckle to yourself thinking about the lengths you go to in an effort to spoil your dog but you’d never seriously think of treating them otherwise. After all, a spoiled dog tends to be more grateful–and predictable—than a spoiled human.
The real dog lover’s burden? That day your dog leaves this world. Though not exactly the same as losing a loved human, in its own distinctive way it hurts just as much. Even a semi-feral dog like Lance, the border collie I rescued, generated that dog lover/dog bond, albeit a bit warped version due to Lance’s biting tendencies.
For years Lance badgered me to take mammoth hikes multiple times each and every day (I looked forward to my workdays as a vacation!). Lance retained that youthful exuberance until late into his 16th year Then, he went downhill quickly Once he turned seventeen he was no longer up to such treks. That’s when I started wishing that just once he could herd me into one last humongous hike. As he grew ever more feeble, my wife and I had to assist him to his feet, risking Lance’s attack. Only once did he give me a half-hearted snarl.
Finally came the day he was euthanized on our kitchen floor. True to character, he fought to the end. The grim process over, I wrapped him up in a blanket and began carrying him out to the grave I had dug days before. On the way there, I silently wished he would come back to life, even if that meant he’d snap at me for holding him.
Whatever the circumstances of a dog’s departure, that loss is by far the toughest burden a dog lover will ever carry. Can you relate?
Walter Stoffel is a substance abuse counselor and GED teacher in correctional facilities. When not behind bars, he likes to read, travel, work out and watch bad movies. Major accomplishment : He entered a 26.2-mile marathon following hip replacement surgery and finished—dead last. The author currently lives with his wife Clara, their dog Buddy (another rescue), and cat Winky (yet another rescue).