The dogs of our lives

Published 4:22 pm Saturday, February 25, 2017

By John Railey

This thing between us and our dogs is, as much as anything else, about time and love. They pad through our world so finely, seven years of their lives to every one year of ours, and then they’re gone much too soon, leaving us heartbroken.

They lick away the wounds of our world, loving us unconditionally, teaching us to play and feel young, and then, much too suddenly, they are gone, leaving us longing for their companionship.

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Everything feels colder and older: the favorite rooms we shared with them with their favorite sofas they loved to sleep on, the favorite toys they left behind, the beaches we walked with them, the river paths we shared.

Dogs are one of God’s finest gifts to us. Our bond to dogs is mystical and magical, as wonderful and mysterious and fleeting as the perfect patterns formed by the fairy dust on the wings of butterflies. Our dogs stare into our eyes, as fascinated with us as we are with them.

We dream of dogs long gone. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately while working nights on a novel loosely based on a beagle buddy from boyhood. I stare at a portrait of that dog, Coach, and dream of meeting him again somewhere, just as I do the first Shetland sheepdog my wife and I loved, Sadie.

A new movie, “A Dog’s Purpose,” gives fodder to my dreams of reunion. To put the plot simply: a boy loves his dog (Bailey), the dog dies and goes through a few reincarnations — including one where he’s a hero and one where’s he neglected — before finally being abandoned and working his way back to that boy from the beginning, his favorite master. Once that master finally realizes this is the reincarnation of his boyhood dog, he’s as thrilled as the dog is.

The dog, of course, knew he was the reincarnation long before his master, more proof of the wisdom of dogs. Oh, and the dog also reunites his master, now middle-aged and played by Dennis Quaid, with the master’s high-school girlfriend.

The makers of this movie endured a charge of animal abuse. A video shows one of the dog actors being pushed to jump into swirling water. Investigators for American Humane found the video was doctored, according to The Associated Press, but “the dog’s signs of stress should have been recognized earlier.”

I hope the makers of this otherwise fine movie learned to be more caring, and I hope other filmmakers learned something, as well, because “A Dog’s Purpose” says so much about the magic of dogs, both in what it shows and the memories it evokes for us dog lovers.

In the movie, the master leaves Bailey the dog behind and brokenhearted when he goes off to college. In real life, I left Coach the beagle behind when I went off to college.

But if Coach was brokenhearted, I think he got over it as my father the lawyer took over as his master. Coach went everywhere with my father, including countless trips to our Nags Head cottage, where Coach waited anxiously as my father bodysurfed.

In “A Dog’s Purpose,” the boy is summoned home just in time to hold his ancient Bailey as the ailing dog is put to sleep at the vet’s. Too many of us have been through that: the beloved friend slowing down, hating to leave us. But they know their time has come, no matter how much we try to deny it.

My father called me one afternoon at one of my first newspaper jobs to tell me that the aged Coach had gotten fatally hit by a car that morning. I used to think that dog, after sustaining a glancing hit from a car early in his life, had learned to look both ways before he crossed the road. But that was when he was younger.

My tough father’s voice choked ever so slightly as he broke the news, telling me that he hadn’t been sure he’d be able to make court that morning. He made court, of course.

Our dogs die all too soon and we go on.

Our Sheltie Sadie died of old age and illness in March 2011. Dark time. By then, my father had been gone for almost seven years. But he got to know Sadie before he died.

Now we have another Sheltie, Geva. She’s not Sadie’s reincarnation, but Geva is damn fine in her own right. She’s in her seventh year and still very playful.

That, of course, won’t always be the case.

But dogs teach us to live in the moment and to cherish every moment. They make us play, they keep us young and they make us love. They teach us how to live and then they try to teach us how to die.

They teach us about time and love and so much else. They teach us to dream.

JOHN RAILEY, who grew up in Courtland with his dog Coach, is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, where this column was first published.