I resisted the bestseller A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron for a long time, thinking it would be cloyingly sentimental and anthropomorphic. But, hearing so many of my respected shelter friends singing its praises, I recently gave it a chance — and found it funny, touching and insightful.
It is a sweet fable about a dog who comes back over four (canine) lifetimes to work out what the reason for his existence is. And that purpose has everything to do with his undying devotion to “his boy,” Ethan.
The book got me thinking: What have my dogs’ purposes been? Well, first and foremost, to love and be loved — that’s something common to all companion dogs. And to teach us to open our hearts without reserve, have them broken when the inevitable loss occurs, and hopefully to open them again to the next dog. This makes our capacity for love larger and stronger.
But looking back over my life with dogs, I can also see specific roles that each one played, to help me meet the challenges of each new phase:
Clem, the basset hound of my childhood, showed what a central role a loved pet plays in a family’s emotional life. (Thank you, Linda Voychehovski, for this insight.) Our home was strife-ridden, with my parents fighting a lot, but Clem united us all in laughter at his antics. A sociable wanderer (in the days before leash laws), Clem would cover miles on his short little legs. His favorite destinations were a boys’ summer camp where he’d get hot dog handouts, and, in the wintertime, a gritty bar in a rundown part of town. My father would get a phone call — the caller amused, patient, saying, “Mr. Jones, we’ve got your dog here. Again.”
Clem also united us in grief when he was killed by a hit and run driver.
Miles, my husband’s and my first golden retriever, was much loved, though a difficult dog. Dominant to begin with, he suffered orthopedic problems that gave him constant pain, and, feeling sorry for him, we indulged him — with the result that he became cranky and bossy. His purpose, I believe, was to prepare us for the many sacrifices that parenthood would entail. Miles was seven when our son was born, and Marcus grew to be, sadly, more intimidated by than affectionate toward him — but I hope Marcus learned, from seeing the way we cared for our dog, that our love can always be counted on.
Leia, our next golden, was playful and mischievous. Her purpose was to nudge the more serious and melancholy of us (me) to lighten up and have some fun, already. We were still living in New York City when she was with us, and every morning at dawn, before I had to leave for work, she and I would head over to Riverside Park for what I called “the Girls’ Get Fit Club.” We would walk along the Hudson River as the rising sun blazed fiery red on the windows of the high rises in New Jersey, and we would see the seasons change there in the little patch of trees, grass and flowers on the edge of the concrete jungle. Those peaceful times in the company of my dog kept me connected to the natural world, and helped me stay sane amid the stresses of urban life.
And Rufus, our last (so far) golden, comforted and cheered us through some significant challenges. During our son’s teenage years, when he was struggling with adolescent angst, it seemed that Rufus was sometimes the only one who could reach him and not be rebuffed. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer and underwent grueling treatments, Rufus kept close, a comforting presence. The big golden dog was my constant companion and silent encourager when I left full-time editorial work and began the writing career that I had always believed to be my true purpose but had put off for fear of failure. With my dog beside me, I began and completed a novel, and drafted two others in a trilogy that I am happily still working on today.
Ruby, our present dog, our shelter beauty, is my companion as I enter the next third of my life (God willing): the years past 60. Her purpose is to keep us laughing, loving, staying active and curious as we all grow old together. (Or, as my wise former doctor memorably put it, as we “attain longevity.”)
Ruby’s purpose has also been to introduce me to the world of shelter dogs, with their capacity for forgiveness, their loving hearts, their strong survivors’ spirits. Serving them has become a significant and rewarding part of my own life’s mission and I hope will always remain so.
Returning to W. Bruce Cameron’s touching allegory of immortal canine devotion, you don’t have to believe in reincarnation to believe that our dogs are with us even after their deaths. Clem, Miles, Leia, Rufus, Ruby — each of them changed and bettered my life, in his or her own unique way. Their spirits are with me now and always will be.
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What has your dog’s purpose been? If you’d like to share a brief story and a picture in the comments, I, and I’m sure many others, would love to see it. If there are enough responses I’ll collect them into a future blog post.