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Then and Now

by Barbara Andres 5 months ago in dog

Family dog to family member

Maggie enjoying the sun (photo by author)

I’ve been blessed to have dogs in my life as a child and as an adult. Today, we have three. My husband — the family chef — cooks their food, and we sometimes have family dinner or family breakfast together. On a typical Sunday, family dinner might be a tuna casserole, ours with onions and spices, theirs unflavored with extra meat and finely chopped noodles for small teeth. After Thanksgiving, they have leftovers for days just like we do. Theirs, finely chopped dark meat with mashed potatoes; ours, everything else.

Surrounded by my furry companions, as now when two are snoring on the desk next to my computer and one is down the hall on house patrol, I rarely think about the construct of “family dog” from when I was growing up in the 1970s, but it saddens me when I do. As with many things, those were very different times. It’s not that our canine companions were mistreated exactly; they were just treated like — dogs.

I was born in Canada to Polish immigrants who’d crossed the Atlantic six months before I arrived. My first language was not English, and many of the traditions I grew up with did not fit the same mold as my peers. I often felt like an outsider. It didn’t help that I spent most of my childhood on a farm, seven miles from the nearest town and a 35-minute bus ride to school. I spent a lot of time alone with my books and whatever animals happened by — our dog, the neighbor’s cats, wild rabbits and field mice, even the odd tortoise — and far less time with humans.

Friends and lovers touch our lives tangentially, here a year, there a decade, before drifting or racing away. But dogs run alongside us, our lifeline on our timeline from the day they join our lives until the day — always too soon — when they are taken from us. I guess there is divine wisdom in allowing them to join us for just a fraction of our lives at a time; we can love more of them with their great diversity of personality and love languages.

To quote Thornton Wilder, “Many who have spent a lifetime in it can tell us less of love than the child that lost a dog yesterday.”

Humans and dogs have shared a special bond since a wolf separated from its pack first shared scraps and a fire with an ancient tribe of humans. Still, just in my lifetime, a brief moment in the human experience, I’ve seen a huge difference in the way people used to treat dogs and how we interact with them today.

Then and now

When I was a kid, dogs were named Spike or Butch or Lassie or Laddie, never Joey or Tommy or Phoebe or Molly. They were fed Alpo or Purina or Skippy dog food made out of unmentionable parts of animals or unmentionable animals and a whole lot of cheap grain and fillers. There was no Blue Wilderness or other fancy grain-free, organic, real-meat-as-the main-ingredient food for dogs.

If they didn’t eat canned mystery meat and fillers, they ate table scraps, and when those ran out, stale bread and milk or anything the people didn’t think was good enough for humans. If they were large dogs, they lived outdoors in the summer heat and winter snow. Often, they lived out their lives behind chain link fences or on chains. No one saw anything wrong with that.

While I’m sure many working dogs still live like this, I believe they are the minority now. According to a survey done in 2017 by Rover.com, a network of pet owners and sitters, 94% of the 1000 pet owners who took the survey consider their dogs to be family.

My parents had a German Shepherd dog named Burek before they had us, while they were still living in Poland. I recall one picture of Burek on a picnic with my parents, curled near his people and smiling over his shoulder at whoever was snapping the picture. I never met that dog, but I always imagined him as a gentle, yet vigilant and loyal companion.

By Cheryl Cox on Unsplash

The dog in this photo is clearly not Burek, who's been gone for 60 years, but that's how I imagine he might have looked as a pup.

In case you’re wondering, “Burek” is the noun form of the adjective “bury” (pronounced boo-ryh), a color, dark grey with flecks of brown (sometimes called “sable”), the exact color of a tricolor German Shepherd dog’s coat.

Not long before we moved out to the farm in 1967, Dad brought home a three-month-old German Shepherd puppy. He told us the dog was going to protect the new house and land, since we would be so isolated. My parents unimaginatively named him Burek. Growing up with that dog for 13 years, we’d often be asked our dog’s name; my brother and I would tell people his name was Prince — because we got tired of explaining “Burek.”

I recall baby Burek, all 10 pounds of him, tumbling down the carpeted stairs of our suburban house before we moved to the farm, tripping on his oversized feet. We’d catch him at the bottom of the stairs and he’d wriggle out of our arms and take the stairs back up, hauling his little body up one step at a time, so that he could tumble back down all over again.

Like any young creature, Burek’s puppyhood passed in an instant.

By the time we moved to the farm when I was five, he was nearly a full grown German Shepherd, weighing about 50 pounds. He was bigger than I was, which I learned fast as he could play rough. We played “chase me” in the yard one summer day and he caught me, tackling me to the ground and nipping at different parts of me in what he thought was a playful way. This play resulted in a dog bite scar to my knee that took years to fade.

My love of all animals, especially dogs, and particularly ours, was so great that didn’t bother me at all. Despite that experience and a few others, including nearly losing a finger breaking up a dogfight, I still always approach a dog believing they mean me no harm.

Burek, circa 1969

Dad, a carpenter by trade, built Burek a double-walled, insulated dog house with front hallway for winter months, which would be removed every spring around the same time as Dad replaced the storm windows and doors on our house with window screens and screen doors. Burek had two of his own weeping willow trees for shade. Now and then a squirrel or raccoon or possum would wander by and entertain him by getting stuck in one of his trees.

Burek in front of his house and trees

I’m sad to say that Burek lived on a 20-foot chain for most of his life, coming indoors only in the worst blizzards. In the last year or so of his life, he was let off his chain and allowed to wander around our property often crossing muddy fields and coming back filthy. At that point, he had bad hips, as German Shepherds often do, and we think he enjoyed the soothing mud baths.

Even when allowed indoors for bad weather, he never left our mudroom and our parents would certainly not have welcomed him in our kitchen or our beds — especially as I don’t recall ever giving him a bath.

Burek was part of our outdoor landscape. He had a job to do out there, which he did superbly well; no one ever approached our house without being announced. Unwelcome guests like salespeople were given a particularly frosty hello. Since Burek’s dog run was by the driveway on the driver’s side, they’d usually just put their car in reverse and get the hell out of there, happy to have all their limbs.

My parents never expected Burek might become a parental figure for us kids— our comforter, companion, protector, playmate, and best friend. His face would light up when he saw us and he’d come running for pets and ear rubs and head scritches and hugs. He was our first and finest example of complete, unconditional love.

We learned early on that if we were snacking on something indoors and heading out of the house, we’d have to wolf it down before opening the door unless we wanted to lose whatever was left of it. Those irresistable puppy eyes.

Now and then on a hot summer day, we’d load him in the car and he’d leap around madly with abysmal car manners as we drove north to Norval where we’d throw him into the Credit River. He loved dog paddling around in the river and we loved watching him do it. Totally worth the 30 minutes breathing wet dog all the way home.

I believe the dogs of our lives never leave us; each one has a permanent home in our hearts. There’s always room for one, two, or six more. Burek was woven into the fabric of our childhoods, a faithful pal, great listener, guardian, entertainer, and a rock. When the world was scary or sad or angry, he was our refuge. When it was emotionally stormy at home, which was often, all we had to do was go outside to find Burek, our seeing-soul dog, who was always there to lead us to back to the sunshine. He was there to remind us that even at the hardest times, life is not just good, but a gift.

The year Burek died brought with it many changes and challenges: my graduation from high school, my first real job, and my parents’ divorce. That year, more than at any other time in his life, we learned more from Burek than we did from our parents.

Burek stayed with us as he transitioned to his afterlife. A few weeks after he died, my brother and I, then 17 and 18 and about to graduate high school, were in his car talking and something reminded us of our furry little brother. The very act of our remembrance conjured up his love, his sense of humor, and even his distinctive doggy smell. We both felt his presence in the car.

Our blended family

It would be nearly two decades later, when, newly divorced, I remembered Burek and thought how much better my life would be with the companionship of a dog. I found Tommy, a young border collie, in the Santa Monica shelter. Not long after that, with Tommy’s help, I found the man who would become my second and forever husband.

After Tommy came Polly, another border collie, then Beggs, a Beagle. Life was good, until age and cancer took Tommy and Polly from us about six months apart in December 2009 and early 2010. After we lost Polly, we got Zena, and then Jessie.

A few months after Beggs died in 2013, we got Red, another Beagle, and after Red passed on last year, Maggie joined us. All but Beggs have been rescue dogs from shelters or rescue organizations, with angels for volunteers and staff. Their work is priceless.

Today we have three dogs who own the house and two humans who bring home not just bacon but kibble and toys. They are not “family dogs.” They are family. At different times they are our sisters, our daughters, or our very best friends. They never hold a grudge, and we always forgive their messes and mistakes, because that’s what family does.

Zena and Maggie (photo by author)

Dogs hold tremendous power to guide, teach, and heal us. Every day, they teach us unconditional love, gratitude, and forgiveness. Life is very different for our dogs today than it was for Burek, but much has not changed.

Dogs are love, and love is forever.

The Truth About Dog People: New Survey and Infographic Tell All, May 2017

dog

About the author

Barbara Andres

Late bloomer. Late Boomer. I speak stories in many voices. Pull up a chair, grab a cup of tea, and stay awhile.

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