top of page

Lessons from a Dog

(Courtesy Matthew Scully)

In empathy, gratitude, loyalty, the sweetness of life, and all the good that comes from the love of a fellow creature

Every family has its own private calendar of commemorative dates, recalled for events good or ill. For my family, long ago On This Day in History — March 28, 1960 — something wonderful happened when a young stray dog found our door in Casper, Wyo. He was destined to leave so sweet a mark that no incident in our lives back then quite compares with his arrival. And since he happened to come along just before I turned a year old, I like to claim him as my perfect first birthday gift.

He was golden brown with a distinctive white stripe between the eyes, and white muzzle, chest, and socks to go with it. On a snowy, cold night, he came into the house on the heels of my father, who had just returned from a business trip. The reward for this daring move was a round of patting, a chorus of “Can we keep him?” from the children, food and water from my mother, and refuge in our garage. In the days afterward, various “Found Dog” notices went unanswered, though some months later, as I recall the story, a local waitress overheard my parents describing the mutt and recognized him as her long-gone “Yogi,” who had been constantly wandering off, chasing cars and the milk truck, and running into other trouble — which perhaps explained why custody went unchallenged. He never lost the independent streak, but in short order he had left his garage quarters behind him and settled into our home. He stayed with us 16 years, with a name that captured our change in circumstance as well as his, inscribed on a tag in case he ever disappeared on us: “lucky. please return me to . . .”

My brothers, sisters, parents, and aunts would all attest that no finer companion could have followed us through those years. To the serendipity of one stray chancing upon one open door, I owe boyhood experiences I would not exchange for any others, and some lasting lessons I might otherwise have missed. Other blessings, since then, have come my way, but something about this one has refused any command of time to fade away, pulling, well, doggedly at my memory. One of my brothers, who also was especially attached to Lucky and who took care of him most of his life, told me decades later that in some ways Lucky was my most formative influence, leading even to a book in 2002 on the theme of animal welfare — Dominion — that I dedicated to him. And I’ll take that compliment, at risk of reproach for misplaced affections or for unseemly excess in tribute to an animal. A guy could do a lot worse than making a dog his inspiration, especially this dog.

Having been just a toddler when Lucky appeared, I don’t recall much of his colorful prime that followed in Wyoming and then Colorado, Ohio, and New York (the dog wasn’t the only restless one in our family). It happened that charge over him fell to me in his later years, after four of five siblings had departed for college in the early 1970s, leaving just me and my youngest sister. My most enduring impressions of Lucky begin then. I suppose I came to see him with new eyes, now that the house was quieter and he was suddenly my regular pal and first serious responsibility. The wisdom, therefore, was what a young teenager stood to acquire from an elderly dog, at a time that found us in New Rochelle, outside New York City. As I think about him now, 44 years since we parted on the trail, it comes down to four canine lessons that have shaped my outlook and enriched my life, offered here as just another entry in the vast literature exploring all that can be learned in the company of a dog.

One lesson I credit to Lucky (“Lucky Silver,” if we’re being formal) is an awakening to a profound reality — a heavy lift for a dog, but he did this by simply drawing me outside myself into an appreciation of other creatures, as interesting, worthy, and important in their own right. When you’ve watched a dog (perhaps especially a senior dog) dreaming — stirring, whimpering, playing out memories or scenes of things feared or hoped for — it alerts you to the fact that you’re not the only one in the room with an emotional life going on. I’ve long thought that domesticated animals have, from this angle, even more to tell us than wild ones do, being relieved of the relentless pressures and blind instincts of the wild (much as we have been, after all) in a way that reveals their latent capacities and distinct personalities. With a dog even more than with a wolf, you get to see what’s really there, who that creature is.

For me, from the age of about 13 to 17, this meant the presence, day and night, of an animal who could be sensitive, proud, sad, elated, content, uneasy, concerned, lonely, curious, apprehensive, depressed, insulted, forgiving, devoted, brave, and loving — while, outside our family, being in his senior years somewhat reserved but generally benevolent, unless you happened to be a rival dog or a squirrel presuming to come too close. Put whatever qualifiers you want on these words and attributes, but for a dog it is the same emotional landscape as it is for us. And that’s a big truth for a kid to figure out.

As an adult, I read a few of the more noted books by behavioral researchers, cognition experts, and the like who attempted to demonstrate that the appearance of animal emotions, or even of consciousness, is just that — merely an appearance. Sure, with good old Lucky the jubilant tail-wagging might start when I came within sight or scent from 200 yards off on the way home from school every afternoon, but I shouldn’t read too much into that: All such displays by dogs, we are informed, are just pack instinct, “hardwired,” and their love for us just a projection of our imagination. The faithfulness and self-giving of war dogs, police and rescue dogs, guide dogs, comfort dogs in hospital wards and hospices are all likewise explained away and trivialized by theories that would deny these and other creatures their due.

Enough to say that some people, while giving every appearance of rationality, must be hardwired to deny the obvious. (And by the way, the behavioral theories about what makes us tick usually aren’t so flattering either.) I knew as a teenager that this was no slavering, stimulus–response machine passing the days with me, or some being merely placed there for my benefit and enjoyment, with no story or feelings of his own that really mattered. Mature dogs, in particular, acquire an emotional depth that behaviorist doctrine can only strain to account for. Sometimes in his final half year or so, as Lucky and I sat outside in tranquil moments — or else went to some wondrous new place like the shore in Larchmont, N.Y. — he took it all in with that same kind of contemplative, last-glance air I have seen in very old people surveying their favorite sights, a dog of stiff, slowing gait feeling and pondering things even if I couldn’t always say exactly what they were.

Aging dogs surely sense that they have many more yesterdays than tomorrows, which might explain as well those looks I used to get late at night, when Lucky was sore and weary and maybe a little afraid, and seemed to need assurance that I was near and everything was all right — as at other times, in his own manner, he offered assurance in return. Once, I noticed an expression so sad (and with a touch of rebuke, as I recall it now) that it made for a kind of revelation. Early one night I was frantically throwing on a change of clothes, about to race off to a high-school friend’s party I had just heard about. Seeing Lucky sitting across the room staring at me, clearly understanding that our evening plans were off, I suddenly realized that no party could possibly be more important than being with that 15-year-old dog. I belonged with only one friend just then, and so stayed, that night and others thereafter. I guess I wasn’t one for half-measures back then: To maximize my Lucky time, I soon vanished altogether from high school, at no loss to the school or to me.

Such impressions, hitting me at an age when they could really sink in, help explain why, when people referred to me as Lucky’s “owner,” I insisted on correcting them. How could this thinking, feeling creature and venerable friend of mine be anyone’s property? He might belong with me, yes; to me, no. And this awareness of one animal’s standing, as more than just some congenial yet ultimately incidental and replaceable extra in my own story, grew over time into a general respect for all animals as having a place and dignity of their own. Any time other creatures, wild or domesticated, can open our eyes to the reality that they belong here too, that they have pretty exceptional abilities and qualities themselves — that it’s a big world, and we humans aren’t the whole show — they do us a favor. Discerning their goodness, as our companions in creation who share in life’s happiness and travail alike, makes the world better and more beautiful, if also, at times, less convenient to our own wishes. The religious-minded might call this the reality of every creature revealing its Maker’s touch, all dear to Him for their own sake, and we’re lucky ourselves if we discover it early on.

That leads to empathy — a second timely lesson for a teenager, though for some, of course, it never takes. Lucky was about twelve when the leash was passed to me, beginning his health slide a little past the age of 14. No longer the speed title-holder who once chased our own car and was still gaining on us at close to 30 mph; or the ferocious family hero who one night had scared off burglars in Littleton, Colo.; or the gritty survivor of weeks on the streets after going astray again in ’63 or ‘64; or the twice-a-day regular with the graceful trot around Beechmont Lake in New Rochelle, he was getting frail, unsteady, and in need of help and reassurance that I felt privileged to give. It was just a repaying of debts for all the times he had come to me and to others in our family to guard, cheer, or comfort — never failing, though there were times when I scarcely deserved it.

One day on our walk, I faked a fall from a tree, just to observe Lucky’s reaction because he always growled uncharacteristically when I began to climb one. Perhaps he still thought of me as the baby of the family, needing extra protective attention, but in any case I had only to reach up and grab hold of a tree branch and, whatever he was doing on our walks — sniffing around, wading into a stream — the moment he noticed me climbing, those ears went up and he’d trot over to intervene, growling and a few times taking matters into his own mouth by pulling me down by the pant leg. On this occasion, as I pretended to fall with a yelp and lay limp on the ground, he ran to me, as fast as a guileless senior dog could, nudging me, looking nervously around, whimpering as he tried to figure out how to handle the crisis. Across the lake, in view, was our house at 92 Pinebrook Road. He looked in that direction, then down at me, then over to the house, then at me, and so on for a few more seconds, before bolting to run back around the lake toward our house. Then, just as abruptly, he doubled back and returned for more pacing and nudging, having clearly decided “No, I have to stay with him!” Reciprocal loyalty, when you’ve got a dog like that, doesn’t get any easier.

Or I think of one night later on when he was distressed by tensions in the house — ever attuned to his emotional surroundings — and knew what to do. Despite arthritic pain and other infirmities, he pulled himself alone up a staircase — steps he hadn’t ascended for months without me carrying him — just to be with me at a lonely moment. I missed what must have been the harrowing sight of that climb, realizing he was upstairs only when I heard the familiar claw sounds as he reached the top landing, and saw that white muzzle push open my door as he entered and came over to press his head against me. Evidence, as if any were needed, that the empathy ran both ways.

Those months especially, of looking after Lucky in his twilight, I wouldn’t trade for other memories. Years later, in Los Angeles, my wife Emmanuelle and I had an uncannily similar experience with an Australian shepherd–type dog named Herbie, who was 13 or so and dumped at a shelter by someone who, we surmised, thought he was done for and didn’t want to deal with the long goodbye. Whoever that person was missed out on the chance — lasting, as it turned out, more than two years — to see how grand, deeply endearing, and loving a senior dog can be in that final stretch of life.

Both experiences brought home for me the vulnerability of all animals who are left to depend on human sympathy and to trust in our good will, their well-being and fate entirely in our hands; and also their innocence in suffering, and the connections that come with the destiny we share. I marvel sometimes at the callousness and arrogance of those who routinely harm animals — shooting, trapping, poisoning, prodding, slaughtering, or experimenting on them with no thought of how it feels on the receiving end, or else even relishing the experience of absolute domination. To see such people so freely dispatching death in every direction, you’d think that death has no plan for them. With all of us bound as we are toward the same horizon, there ought to be a little more humility, self-restraint, and sense of solidarity than that.

To connections of a different kind, I trace a third canine lesson that has steered me right, from sentiment to moral conviction. Not everyone draws this lesson the same way from their own experiences; I’ve known plenty of people better and smarter than I am who disagree, as to both specific conclusions and the importance of the matter itself. But where humanity’s general policy of leniency to dogs is concerned (and there are some grim exceptions), I’ve never seen a way around one basic problem.

Here, as I got to thinking in those days with Lucky, was this one animal I knew and cared for. What about other, comparable creatures and my attitude toward them? In the normal process of reasoning from particular to general, I realized that while compassion for one animal is admirable and meaningful, what’s it really worth if not part of a consistent way of life?

Dogs are intelligent creatures, capable of suffering and of boundless joy. Everyone with a dog knows the crazed raptures that can follow the mention of going for a walk — or, in Lucky’s case, even a hushed invitation to go “‘round the lake?” But even if more pronounced in dogs, or more vividly expressed, these capacities of mind and emotion are hardly unique among animals. So do other creatures inhabit that world of awareness, happiness, and grief, including the ones we humans subject to such harsher lives — to serve, if we’re being candid, unnecessary ends justified by not much more than habit and profit. Why is causing one to suffer not the same as causing the other to suffer? Why love the one and ignore the misery of many others — simply putting them out of mind — given that as creatures of conscience we alone have a choice in such matters? Follow that line of thought and there’s no going back. You’ll no more want to eat an animal from a factory farm than make a meal of the one you just walked around the block.

Such was my youthful thinking, and in 46 years as a vegetarian, the last 23 or so as a vegan, I have never heard a remotely persuasive argument as to why any animal product could be more important than my duty to spare other creatures from needless affliction. All the more these days, as the market brings forth one substitute after another for goods extracted by animal exploitation — new products equal or superior in quality and, as for meat, invariably healthier — what reason is left not to switch to them?

Sometimes it takes a dog to help us think straight. In this case, the lesson was moral coherence. With that came a lifelong loathing of cruelty to animals, in any form or under cover of any excuse, as the abuse of power and betrayal of trust that it is. So many vicious, squalid enterprises profit from animal suffering, employing practices that long ago lost any defensible rationale, on such a fathomless scale that — to take just the meat industry — about 60 percent of all the earth’s mammals today are pigs, cows, and other animals in factory farms. In a given year, some 70 billion creatures altogether must endure that wretched existence, knowing nothing of life in this world except confinement, pain, and fear. In places carefully hidden from view, these institutional cruelties are permitted in law and encouraged by demand, all because of vague and often arbitrary distinctions bearing little relation to actual need or to objective reality. They are rationalizations for doing the ruthless, easy thing, or for passively allowing others to do it for us. Two kinds of moral logic protect dogs while leaving their animal equals to merciless abuse. Two versions of ourselves allow the contradiction. None of it squares or adds up to anything we could call a set of civilized standards. But a nicer, happier way of stating this lesson is that for humanity, dogs show us the way. We can learn to treat all animals by standards that are more consistent, more honorable, more gentle and peaceful.

The last lesson I owe to Lucky calls to mind a moment that, whenever things haven’t broken my way in life, has always served to keep the scale in balance, one afternoon when we discovered he was missing. On foot, I searched for miles along our usual paths and beyond. My father just then arrived home from out of town and we continued the pursuit by car. Lucky was old and arthritic, it was winter, starting to snow, and getting dark. At the last glow of daylight, as our dog faced his doom alone, we had to decide where else to look. I urged one way but my dad’s better instincts said let’s try another, on a street where we had lived a few years before. When we came around that curve on Elk Avenue and spotted that limping, wet dog in the distance — and when he turned his head and saw us — it was pure happiness, all around, followed by all the further euphoria of bringing home the wanderer and wrapping him in blankets.

Not so long afterward, I took out the blankets again, on a winter afternoon in February 1976 that must have set a Westchester County record because it felt like spring. On a mattress I had dragged into our backyard for Lucky to lie on — the squirrels darting about, no longer alarmed by his presence — we had one more day to feel the breeze and the warmth of the sun together. That was the first time I heard the expression “savor the moment,” from my mother, and I’ve never heard or read it since without recalling the scene.

I put those memories down, along with others like them, as a general lesson in the sweetness of life, in gratitude, and in all the good that comes from the love of a fellow creature. Not a bad legacy to leave a friend. Not a bad showing for one hound to make.

He died in our house, and when my dad and I carried Lucky in for cremation of his remains — dust to dust, courtesy of Miller and Clark Animal Hospital — I told the vet to leave the collar and tag on, so he might go forth into the unknown with proper ID. Not for us to say what becomes of a beautiful, brave, and noble dog at journey’s end. But if he has turned up at some other door, I trust they’ll note the name of the family and the request for return


bottom of page