The real experience of a service dog.
This was written many years ago, in reflection on the death of my service dog of over a decade.
Today I watch The Dog, his successor at my side, begin to age.
His muzzle is white, now, and not merely the gray of experience and maturity. He’s a little slower to get up from the floor, a bit happier to lie down, and while his ferocity still explodes I take more care, now, to watch him for aches and exhaustion as he works.
The end will come all too soon, as human lives go.
There is much discussion about service dogs today. What they do, where they can go, what are legitimate service animals and what are contorted caricatures of pets masquerading as medical equipment.
It is worth a look into what a hearing dog does, and what the experience is.
Read on, and appreciate.
Then share it.
Reflections on relationships.
There is something about a dog that simply glows.
Another being, living in the world, who does the very best he can with an infinite purity; a seamless effort; an integral attachment to the Now that is unsurpassable in its magnificence.
And they don’t know how magnificent they are, either… because ego is something beyond them.
They are blessed with an intimacy and acceptance of the immediate, without coloring or shading – and their joy, their sorrow (for yes, a dog can sorrow), and their frolic are so magically perfect, such demonstrations of what we wish we could be ourselves.
But the human mind eventually intrudes into our rare moments of purity, with bills and responsibilities and appointments and all the trivia that exists outside of the dog’s world of instantaneous living.
They miss us so terribly when we forget how to just be.
It leaves them behind. It’s the source of the sadness in dogs: that the ones they’d die for have to suffer that bitter divorce from the joy of now.
When one lives with a dog close at hand and that daily experience of absorption in the transient is combined with the replacement of a lost sense, it is an indescribable human experience.
Have you ever heard the sudden flap of a bird taking wing?
A burst of feathers, indignant and proud, soaring upward in the early evacuation so common to the wingfolk? Have you listened to the sound of a thousand sparrows rising skyward, startled off their field by a phantom only they could detect?
What’s that like?
Most of the time I miss it entirely.
I certainly never hear it. It’s not a part of my living.
But it is for the dog. Not only does the dog next to me hear the first shift of feather above the clicks and chirps from the flock… it hears or smells what startled them in the first place, and my attention is pulled by his and I follow and I see the birds rise too, darkening the sky…
I watch them go, beautiful, a cloud of living intensity that changes reflectivity as it shifts and decides direction, then heads off firmly with unified purpose.
How the hell do they figure out who is going first, all at once, and so damn fast? It’s a minor miracle to witness. God’s made an extraordinary place for us to tell our stories in.
And I love that loyal predator, chained to my wrist with bronze and leather, all the more as he glances at me, panting, checking to see if I am still approving of his living and his being.
I am, I think. I show him with my eyes that I bear him kindness, and love, and protection, and the strength of a pack leader that is infinitely powerful to him. I know he can read that. A hand on his head, warm. Because of him, I missed one less thing.
I feel a thump on the floor as his tail rises and drops once. His breathing comes slightly faster, shallower, his eyes narrowed. Another thump. Because of him, I see and take joy in one more thing that would otherwise be implacably behind the curtain of quiet that shrouds me.
Because of him, I love living that much more.
But because of me, his entire universe makes sense. Somehow the disparity in impact seems so unfair, so unrepayable. I’ll never be able to be so pure in return. And then at the end, they flame and vanish so fast. Such a sudden instance dogs are in the sea of lives we live. If we’re lucky they surf through two or even three waves of being, but mostly they just disappear so fast, so horribly soon.
“Dogs will die, and men will weep.”
I don’t remember who said it. It’s one of the few times when the Man Card isn’t subject to confiscation on grounds of emotional expression. When your dog dies, it’s always going to hurt.
You can weep. You will.
It leaves behind a hole that isn’t shaped like a person. It leaves behind a hole that’s shaped like loyalty, like joy, like mad play and laughter with a ball on an autumn afternoon. It leaves behind a hole of a friend who taught you not just how to live in that timeless now – but how to never leave it, how to dwell in it, how to swim in a barking happy sea of real every single moment of every breath of every day of your entire God-worshipping life.
What a display of halleluiah a dog’s life is!
For me, that loss creeps further. It leaves so much of life that I love to experience, back behind the curtain of impenetrable silence. And covered, too; the universe condescendingly telling me again, as it has since early childhood, “you don’t know what you’re missing”.
Sometimes people tell me that too.
When you’ve seen one burst of living wings take to sky, rising like the firestorm of the Israelites with all the power of wild creatures exploding into survival flight – you’ve seen them all, right?
You’re used to it, I think.
You never think about what you’re empowered with.
I ask for a joke to be repeated, envious of the group laughter. “Oh, it’s not important.” I hear a gentle dismissal.
You’re not important enough to invest the repetition in. It’s okay to leave you out. It doesn’t matter that you’re not included. You don’t need the minor joy we shared.
I nod, accepting. My mind keeps working. Exclusion isn’t intentional. It really isn’t important.
The group flow of energy and laughter is more important than my aloneness. I know from experience that forcing the stream to flow at my pace, dams it and then it isn’t the sparkling river any longer.
But it’s still pretty, and amazing that to me people can swim it, fishing in and out of conversation and talking and communicating and wow, there’s so much they can do with it. I look down, and if I’m lucky a pair of brown eyes look back up, a pair of ears go back, and perhaps a tail moves briefly.
Yes, we see each other. Yes, we’re both here for each other. Except now, there’s no chain.
He died, as dogs do.
Six years ago now, and that’s a long time to miss the whisper of a falling leaf, the call of a friend from down the block, the footfall behind you that you weren’t supposed to hear, but your guardian did.
And showed you, alerted you, warned you.
It’s a long time to live with dual loss.
It’s a long time to look down, accepting the feeling of being alone, and instead of those eyes looking back and that corresponding grateful thump there’s just cold stone and no dog. And knowing that you really are alone.
Everything you take for granted, everything you hear, is a roulette wheel of red and black for me.
Red… mostly garbled incomprehension. Black… empty.
Or a roar of blindingly stupid noise through a three thousand dollar piece of electronics jammed into your head that sometimes just isn’t what you’d hope for. So you wince, and you try to interpret, and you fake comprehension one more time, and hope that this isn’t the time they lose patience with your faking and end it. The discussion; the relationship; the joke; the project. The conversation; the moment; the chance.
The dog never ends it.
He doesn’t care.
He just wants to be there, serving his dread lord, until he’s dead.
They love us that much.
Not a lot we can do to match that sacred selflessness. As human beings, we settle for providing care, and balls, and romps and as much companionship as we can. A promise of a peaceful end.
It’s never long enough, and never enough capacity to repay that quiet thump on the floor.
But even still, I’ll shoulder that karma.
I want the sparrows back.
And a floor that isn’t empty, in this lifetime.
“Bark,” said The Dog.
Later the year I wrote this, I got another dog.
The Dog is a German Shepherd, a long coat Deutsche Schäferhund from a haus in Berlin, and he’s one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever owned, one of the most incredible experiences I’ve been blessed to surrender to.
Sharply attentive, blindingly fast, brilliant in nature, gorgeous to look at, a soft warlord on four paws who roars rampant in the dark world when he finds it fit.
I trust him, and I love him, and I do not look forward to the day that I know must arrive.
He is mortal, and he will die.
And I will weep.
But until that day, he is my companion, my medical equipment, my steward, my friend, and my charge.
Treasure each day with The Dog, my brothers.
They are so terribly, terribly short.
Let all the love flow, and let them know.
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I am Ivan Throne. I am the Dark Triad Man.
I will tell you what Tolkien said, in the Return of the King:
“I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
Make use of the time you have.