I felt ten feet tall at age 9 that Saturday I walked into my parents’ house, holding the new puppy, a German shepherd named Joshua, or Josh. I had picked his name out of a book of names my folks had for years. I had selected him from a litter of German shepherd puppies weeks earlier. He was the first-born and therefore, the biggest. My parents had promised me a dog when we moved to suburban Dallas in December 1972. The house had a huge back yard, and a fence had just been erected when we brought Josh home that day in June 1973. Today would have been his 39th birthday. If only dogs could normally live that long.
It’s funny how people become so attached to animals, especially domesticated ones. It’s surely an affection that goes back millennia. We give them names and imbue them with human-like qualities. People who don’t like animals simply can’t relate. They’re own lack of humanity prevents them. But, people like me never consider our four-legged creatures as pets – they’re always like adopted children. That’s why we refer to them as “boys” or “girls” and never men or women. They’re kids we pick up at an orphanage and bring into our home. They wrap our hearts around them, make us fall in love with them – and then they go off and die. Damn animals! Why do they do that?
My mother was one of those who didn’t like animals, especially dogs. Around the age of 6, she’d seen a man attacked by a Doberman pinscher in her native México City and developed an overwhelming fear of large canines. But, she and my father had promised to get me a dog the summer after we moved to the new house with the big yard. So she swallowed her phobia and, when she saw me strut onto the patio from the garage, she smiled with joy.
His paws were so big they draped over my arms. It was one sign of just how large he’d grow. Another was his appetite. But, his eyes told us something much more important. They were uniquely tri-colored; alternating between yellow-gold, green and dark blue. We didn’t fully comprehend his massive size until we brought him into the house. He seemingly dwarfed the furniture. Even in the great expanse of the back yard, he looked huge. Majestic is the word my dad always uses to describe Josh.
Like most dogs, he had a habit for returning our unbridled affection. But, a kiss from Josh wasn’t an ordinary mammalian peck. His foot-long tongue would unfurl from his titanic jaws and practically wrap around your face. When you realize how many times a dog licks its genitals, then have to question the extent of your affection. Once summer day my mother was home sick from work. I had brought Josh into the house, as we often did during the scorching Texas summers. At some point, he wandered in through my parents’ bedroom and given my sleeping mother one of his warm wet kisses. I heard her scream my name and was perplexed to see Josh ambling back out of the room with a ‘Did I do something wrong?’ expression. My mother’s face had been close enough to the edge of the bed, and he’d seen a prime opportunity to give her some loving. She almost hit the ceiling. Josh was terrified of her. She’d order him to sit or lay down, and he’d drop. “Boy, I’m tough,” she’d say. “If he only knew that all he has to do his growl,” she told us later, “and I’d faint.”
Other kids in the neighborhood were afraid of Josh. He had a deep vociferous bark and horrendous growl – just what you’d expect from a German shepherd. But, his voice was powerful and would echo throughout the neighborhood. A neighbor told us she always knew when someone was in the alley behind our house; she could hear Josh barking from where she lived – three houses up the street, on the other side. On one occasion, that woman’s husband was speaking with my dad, both standing in the alley behind our home. He was a tall man and gestured at one point with his left hand, his arm clearing the six-foot fence. Suddenly Josh’s set of massive jaws flew upwards and came within inches of grabbing that stray hand. “Goddamn, George!” he cried like a frightened child. “That dog almost bit my hand off! I could sue you for that!”
“No, you can’t,” my dad said calmly and matter-of-factly. “You were invading his territory.”
Josh, of course, was a carnivore, but he developed a taste for other stuff – like iced tea and ice cream. We’d sit in the back yard on warm lazy evenings with glasses of sun-brewed ice tea. My mother once stuck her glass in Josh’s face, thinking he’d turn up his big black nose at it. Instead, that gigantic tongue swept downward into the large tumbler glass and lapped up the contents. On another occasion, we’d gotten some ice cream after dining at a restaurant. My mother couldn’t finish hers, so she showed it to Josh. He sniffed at for a few seconds, then began licking at the confection. He consumed every bit of it; reaching his tongue into the depths of the cone – and then eating the cone itself.
I could relay a number of stories of the curious and remarkable things that dog would do – as does anyone with their pets. We supposedly attribute human-like behavior to these animals. But, I have to wonder if that behavior isn’t already there. Or, maybe they’re so intelligent they only have to watch us, before mimicking our own actions. They even understand our language. How much of their language do we comprehend?
In his later years, Josh developed arthritis. Winters would still get bitterly cold in Northeast Texas back then, and as Josh aged, we’d often bring his shivering body inside the house. He’d plop down in front of the fireplace with logs burning and sigh comfortably. His ears would rotate like radar shields as he took in the noises of our regular activities. He’d watch us carefully and protectively.
In early 1985, Josh developed hip dysplasia, a common ailment among large canines. He’d also developed spurs beneath some of his vertebrae. The veterinarian told us he could give Josh medicine to dissolve the spurs – but could do nothing about his hips. So on one Saturday morning we made the decision to let him go. We doped him up with tranquilizers and carried him into the vet’s office – literally. My dad and I picked up his hulking 100-pound form from the back floorboard of my father’s car and toted him into the building. I notice a man standing on the other side of the parking lot, holding a pet carrying case with a cat inside; a little girl about 5 or 6 who I assumed was his daughter stood beside him. They froze when they saw us carrying Josh. I’ve always wondered if that girl became terrified at the awful sight of it; 2 men hauling a huge dog like that. Josh had done his job – helping my parents raise me and providing love for everyone. He just couldn’t come home with us that Saturday.
Shortly afterwards, my father bought a gold-colored statue of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals in Roman Catholicism. He set it in a corner of the patio beside the chimney where Josh often sat. About two year after that, my parents had the lattice patio enclosed and converted into a sun room where they keep a variety of potted plants. That statue of St. Francis remains in that spot by the chimney.
Nine years ago I adopted my miniature schnauzer, Wolfgang, from my ex-roommate. He couldn’t take care of the puppy, as we uncomfortably parted ways, and told me he’d have to give him up. I couldn’t stand the thought of that little dog ending up in a shelter or an abusive home. So, fully unprepared to accept the responsibility that comes with owning a pet, I took him with me. When I first brought Wolfgang to my parents’ house, we entered the sun room, and he stopped to check out that statue of St. Francis; its gold paint starting to blacken. He sniffed at it and turned to me, a forlorn look in his eyes. A human quality, I told myself, that I applied to him.
Damn animals! If only they didn’t die so soon. Happy Birthday, Josh. We know you’re still here.