My children wanted a puppy. I knew who would be responsible for taking care of it, so I was reluctant to get one. But after they had begged and pleaded for some time, I finally gave in.
We named the huge bundle of fur Buster. He was a strange dog, never quite understanding the normal boundaries that nature set up, and he immediately tried to make friends with our cat. She had just had kittens, and, at first, hissed threateningly. But when she realized he meant no harm, she accepted him into her family. He would curl up beside them, and the cat and her kittens would all lay warm and cozy by his side.
It became obvious to me how much he had been taken into her family on the first bath day. When the mother cat had finished licking each of her kittens, she turned to Buster for his bath. Even though he was three times her size, she started the arduous task of cleaning him. He indicated his displeasure, so she gave him a swift swat with her paw, and he reluctantly settled down and endured it.
As he grew, more batches of kittens came along, and Buster became more protective of each one. He grew to roughly the size of a small horse, and any stray dogs that tried to chase the kittens quickly learned the error of their ways. At times he faced down as many as three at a time. And each night, the mother cat and her kittens climbed on top of him and snuggled down into his fur to sleep.
For my part, I watched this with great interest, but I was determined I would not become attached to him. More than once I had grown to love a dog only to lose him. But, despite all my efforts, one day he did something that ended my resolve.
I knew Buster thought the cats were his family, but I hadn’t realized how much he was part of ours. We had a llama that grew viciously territorial. Though he had learned that it was not a smart thing to attack me, he had no fear of the others. That day he broke down the fence, and when my wife went to hang out laundry, he attacked. Buster fought back and was able to keep the llama away from her until my son could join in and help drive the llama from the yard.
When I found out what had happened, I did two things. I put an ad in the paper for a free llama, and I bought Buster the biggest, juiciest dog bone I could find. From then on, he was as much my dog as anyone’s.
I took him with me to do chores, to fix fence, to work in the garden, or one of a thousand other things. When he saw anyone come out of the house dressed in a swim suit, he was the first one to the gate waiting to go swimming in our pond. He also loved camping and enjoyed sitting by the campfire as someone lovingly stroked his big head.
But then came the days I dreaded. We first noticed that he was walking as though he had arthritis. As the months went on, he became more and more miserable until he could hardly walk at all. Though we tenderly cared for him, it was what the cats did that interested me the most. They seemed to know he wasn’t well, and they hunted down mice and laid them at his feet trying to help him get better.
The day he died, I knew before I even left the house. The cats were scratching furiously at our door. I had no sooner stepped outside than they were swarming around my legs trying to move me in his direction.
With my children gathered around, I finished burying him and put the marker over his grave. My youngest daughter fell into my arms sobbing.
“He was a good dog.”
“Yes,” I answered, “he was a good dog.”
And as for me, he taught me that when I view others as different from myself, any boundaries on our friendships are only self imposed. I also learned that even if it is hard to say goodbye, it is better to have loved anyway.