The British poet Byron had a big shaggy Newfoundland called Boatswain. A Boatswain is a rank in the old Royal Navy. Seems an unlikely name for a dog. But for all I know Boatswain was the “Scout” or “Rover” of the 1700s. Like, you bring a puppy home and some guy in a powdered wig squeals “Omg! That’s ADORABLE! Let’s call him BOATSWAIN!”
Byron loved Boatswain. So much so that when the dog passed on, he wrote a poem in his honor, a poem inscribed on Boatswain’s headstone. I recall being touched by these words when I first read them years ago. Sometimes when a friend loses a pet, I send them a copy. It is known as Epitaph for a Dog:
He Possessed Beauty Without Vanity
Strength without Insolence
Courage without Ferocity
All the Virtues of Man
And None of his Failings
I do understand the sentiment Byron expresses. Up to a point. Here’s where our conclusions differ: I don’t think dogs are always altruistic and virtuous. Many of them have jealousies, fears, demons. They struggle to be good. That’s what makes them compelling.
I’m not talking about the shortcomings of two-dimensional dogs in cartoons and sitcoms. I’m not talking about the “Oh-Gee-Buster-Chewed-Up-Dad’s-Newspaper-AGAIN!” (Cue Music: Wah, Wahhhhh… ) types of shortcomings. I’m talking about stuff that’s messed UP. As dysfunctional and weird as any of the human behavior in your life.
We had a dog named Patchie. He had many nicknames and variations of Patchie through the years, but we’ll stick with Patchie. You can stop worrying that this is another sappy dog story. This one contains no rangy hounds gamely jumping into pick-up trucks. No small child saved from a mine cave-in, no frantic face-licking to awake a family as fire breaks out, no impossible high-jump to take a bullet for humans in danger.
Patchy was a golden retriever. He was beautiful, and he knew it. He enjoyed comfortable sofas and quiet afternoons. He never chased a ball in his life and had a disdain for mindless canine frolic. He was often unkind to his brother, Ned. They had high-conflict relationship issues in which Patchie was the common denominator.
While other dogs lived for car rides, Patchie squirmed anxiously, panting so heavily as to fog the windows. He’d push his way to the front seat, harummphing and glaring, periodically sticking his head through the sunroof to see where the hell you were taking him.
What he adored most was being lovingly petted and groomed and fawned over. What he detested most was another dog being lovingly petted and groomed and fawned over. It led to much drama.
This underlying deprivation and martyrdom, intolerance for others being the center of attention, wasn’t limited to dog brethren. At Christmas, the site of humans excitedly unwrapping gifts infuriated him. He was like the tripwire-veteran uncle you invite over from the VA hospital to share the holiday. A few glasses of eggnog and you can feel his anger building and cresting, until he’s furiously ripping up wrapping paper and bows and stomping off to to the kitchen to sulk.
One afternoon my three small children were huddled together on the floor playing the board game Life. If you remember this game, it is played by spinning a tiny wheel, located in the middle of the board, with spaces numbered one through 10. The game ends, abruptly and permanently, when a golden retriever, incensed from social exclusion, grabs the little spinning wheel in his teeth and runs away.
Despite his acting out, Patchie made strong and deep connections to people, and he loved fiercely, no doubt the result of the same frail heart that so feared loss and craved acceptance. He had a way of sidling next to you, burying his head in your chest, leaning in with all of his weight. You could feel him soaking it up.
He was a good listener. He stared intently into people’s eyes as they spoke, not so much to divine meaning or intention, but to savor the attention.
When people returned home from school or work, he was the first off his perch, intensely eager to reconnect.
Patchie was most at peace sitting quietly in the garden while his humans tended the flowers and plants around him. He posed, as if he himself were some exotic hothouse bloom.
We’re told not to force human emotions and motives onto animals. But there’s a theory that an adaptation, born over 10,000 years of human contact, has granted dogs the ability to understand a moral code, to abide by social rules. I do believe that Patchie struggled to become a better dog.
This was evidenced by something extraordinary that happened the day a new member of the family arrived. As a nervous Brittany spaniel puppy entered our house, the suspicious and angry Alpha dog, one who had started so many fights over nothing, slowly lowered his body and slid to the floor, paws stretched out in front of him. As if to say to the much-smaller spaniel “You are welcome here. I mean you no harm.” And he kept his word.
To all those who witnessed, it was his finest hour.
There’s a picture I took of Patchie and my younger daughter that hangs in my living room. It is late summer, their faces dappled in sunlight filtered through the canopy of an ash tree. He looks directly into the camera.
That image crystallizes my memory of him in a single moment of grace. The noble protector, loved and accepted, but still that faraway hint of something in his eyes.
I think that something had a lot to do with his constant appeal to his better angels, to keep the demons at bay, the ones who sometimes prevented him from being a good dog.
And it reminds me that Patchie was, in words borrowed from another Byron poem, ”A troubled stream, but from a pure source.”