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Man's Best Friend

12/06/04 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(HOST) A recent operation on a family dog prompted commentator Caleb Daniloff to consider the spiritual role dogs play in our lives.


(DANILOFF) A few years ago, a stray dog appeared in town, a scruffy yellow-haired mutt. He was always on the move, ambling down Route 7, skirting the rec fields near the elementary school, up and down side streets. No collar, no direction. I dubbed him Shoeless Joe. And he belonged to no man. He'd stop by the back door of local markets and diners for scraps. I worried about Shoeless Joe as the snow started spitting and he developed a limp. But he disappeared before the first cold snap. In my mind, he's still on the move somewhere, staying one step ahead of the weather. I remember that dog more vividly than people I once shared apartments with.

Other dogs stick in my imagination: three-legged dogs, dogs with one eye, lame dogs with their hind quarters in a dolly, dogs with their heads out car windows. Whenever I see them, my heart crumples and soars all within a single beat. Complaints about work, the weather, are instantly rendered petty.

The writer Milan Kundera once commented that dogs, with their absence of evil, jealousy and discontent, are our links to paradise.

Indeed their mere presence offers a therapeutic touch. Our dog Niku, a Chihuahua Pomeranian, once made the day of an elderly burn victim at the VA hospital in White River Junction. I held him up outside her room window. She reached a papery hand toward the glass. A smile spread across her lips.

Dogs are silent actors against human screens. We mold them, but more to the point they mold us. Their role has become ever more significant. There are dog psychologists, canine spas and anxiety drugs. The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus now runs pet obituaries and there's a dog chapel in St. Johnsbury that memorializes the deceased.

Last week I brought our other dog Oliver in to be neutered and have a tear duct repaired. The runt of a Chihuahua litter, Oliver weighs less than five pounds. As he was carried into the back, his large black marble eyes pleaded with me to step in. The door closed and I stood there for a moment in the empty lobby, leash in hand and a prayer in my throat. All day I fretted like a nervous father. Would he withstand the anesthesia? Would he be the same?

At seven months old, Oliver is no bigger than a pork loin. Only he doesn't know it. He wrestles with Niku, who's three times his size. He prances about on hind legs, lacking only a poodle skirt and pom-poms. His tail always thumping against pillows, blankets, car seats, pant legs. Even while being scolded for cocking his leg against the bed.

When I picked Oliver up from the clinic, his spirits were hardly dampened. Even when I strapped on the plastic Elizabethan collar to keep him from rubbing his eye. It was hard to believe just hours earlier he'd been neutered, had his eye repaired and three teeth removed. I got down on my belly to be on his level a while, ignoring the dust and Thanksgiving crumbs lit up by the afternoon sun. As I watched him trot after Niku, I recalled the rest of the Kundera quote: "To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring - it was peace."

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.
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