For Timmy, Georgie, Karen, Scott, B & B
I don’t fall in love with other people’s pets easily. I need to see what they’re made of before they’ll be enjoying my undying affection, and I want to feel connected to another soul before it will cuddle on my lap.
If people gravitate toward pets that are similar to themselves, I was surprised to fall hard for two pitbulls who were not even mine. When a close girlfriend got married ten years ago, dogs Timmy and Georgie came with the husband.
I did not like pitbulls. They killed unsuspecting passerby in urban neighborhoods, their innate aggression making mean people gravitate toward them, cultivating the most violent tendencies of owner and pet.
It wasn’t that Timmy and Georgie disavowed these stereotypes exactly. They were not soft, docile creatures but strong, lean masses of muscle with square, forbidding jaws. If you were a squirrel, bird or small dog and wandered onto their property while out scurrying or flying around, it was probably your last day of scurrying. I don’t think my friends’ parakeet, Jade, has lived an anxiety-free life in their home. For years Georgie would look at that little green bird in its cage and see lunch.
I saw the two dogs fight once, and it was ugly. My friend’s husband and his friend had to pull their locked jaws apart and nurse their bloodied faces after a pre-kids, raucous dinner party had riled the dogs up. But my friend tells me this was the only time it happened, and while they could growl or bicker, for the most part they loved one another.
Most of us are not St. Francis, who befriended wolves, birds, fish, and animals of all temperaments. Which animals are easy for you to love?
Georgie was female with a black, shiny coat. Easy to love, she was outwardly affectionate and attentive. She would greet me at the door when I visited, circle me a few times and wag her tail, and repeatedly return to be pet. Timmy, the male with a brindled black-orange coat, was more reserved. He showed his love more discriminately, though when it mattered most.
The first weekend I met them, my friend left to run an errand, and I was alone in the house with the dogs. I was eating breakfast in the kitchen while Timmy and Georgie were unseen somewhere at the other end of the home. A man outside had been renovating the garage for weeks, and the dogs knew him as a regular fixture. They had just met me.
A few minutes after my friend had left, the man came into the kitchen for water, as he’d probably done many times before. But that day I was in the kitchen, and before I knew it, Timmy was sprinting toward us across the vast space between the two wings of the house. He stopped abruptly in front of me, facing the man and growling.
“Timmy, it’s me!” the man said congenially, offering his hand. But it wasn’t until I gave the ok that Timmy stopped growling and eventually left his spot in front of me, turning his head every few paces to look at us.
I had shown no sign of distress. Timmy’s awareness of and speed in response to the small change in the balance of physical power in the house, astounded me. He was not out of control or taken over by aggression, as he made no move toward the man. I assumed he simply saw it as his job to protect me, either as the more physically vulnerable one in the situation, or as the friend of his owner. Though I felt bad for the guy renovating the garage, I knew this was a dog I could respect.
On my next visit I would be dog sitting. It had been more than a year since the first visit, and I had only met the dogs once. I would be arriving after dark to their empty house out in the country. Would they remember me? If not, I thought, I would be dead and mangled with nobody to hear me scream.
“Don’t worry, they never forget a person’s scent,” my friend said. “They’ll remember you.”
She was right, and after a quick hand-sniff Georgie was wagging her tail effusively and Timmy, well, allowed himself to be pet, did not attack me.
Later in the weekend, Timmy and Georgie sound asleep across the room, I began to tear up at a sad television show that reminded me of a painful situation for a family member. Suddenly, Timmy sat up straight, his ears perked before he turned around and stared at me. He left his warm bed, crossed the room and rested his thick jaw on my thigh. He did not lift his head until I had stopped sniffling a few minutes later, and after watching me a moment longer, he headed back toward his bed next to Georgie, stopping every few steps to face me. I heard him as clearly as if he’d spoken out loud.
“You sure you’re alright? Because if not, I can come back.”
In recent years, I saw him extend this protector role to children. When I visited one summer for a party, I glanced across the room to see him standing in the middle of a crowd of kids, who were running and yelling all around him. A two year-old boy was hugging Timmy by hanging jubilantly around his neck. Timmy stood still amidst the chaos, succumbing while wearing a slightly annoyed but tolerant expression.
“Really?” his face asked, “This is what you want from me now?”
Georgie died this past May at 15 years old. Like long-married couples who pass within months of each other, Timmy followed last month at 14 years old. Their family was heartbroken, and I had lost two protectors.
I spent more time with Timmy this summer than usual, as my friends offered their house as a place to recharge while I was staying with my grandmother in her last few months of life.
During this time, says my friend, Timmy would regularly search the car that had taken Georgie away the last time, trying to figure out just where she had gone. In just a few short weeks I would be asking the same questions about my grandmother after she died.
Even in his sleep Timmy was more attuned to shifts of emotion and changes in the power dynamic than many people are while awake. One of the most emotionally intelligent animals I’d ever met, surely he knew we were kindred in our struggles through loss.
He attempted to climb onto the couch where I slept. I had seen him attack squirrels in his dreams before, and I didn’t want to be that squirrel. So while I slept in the nook of the wraparound couch, he slept in the corner it created on the floor. Multiple times throughout the night, I awoke to the smell of bad breath in my face to find his jaw resting on the couch directly in front of my face, his grieving eyes staring straight into mine.
In the months after Georgie’s death, Timmy behaved much more like Georgie had, following me so closely that I tripped over him multiple times per day. When I would leave and nobody else was home, he would try to climb into my car and go with me. When that didn’t work, he would stand directly behind my car so I could not back out, and he would not move unless I got back out again to move him.
Timmy was old, with gray hairs weaving through the colors of his coat. He could not run quickly as he had run across the kitchen to guard me on that morning nearly ten years before.
But he was still the Timmy whose emotional wisdom I’d learned to respect on that day.
In July, a man came to the house to seal the driveway, and Timmy did his usual sniffs of approval, taking my lead that this was just another expected entity doing home improvement rounds for a few days. When I came outside to relay questions to the man about the driveway, Timmy was with me. After the conversation, I couldn’t find him. I called his name repeatedly, walking around the side of the house. I didn’t realize he’d gone back inside and the door had closed behind him. The man heard him first.
“He’s inside,” he said. “He is barking every time you call him.”
Relieved he hadn’t run off, I walked back around the house, only then hearing the alarm in his bark. I opened the door to find him shaking with anxiety. Was I in trouble? Had he mis-sniffed the man who had seemed so friendly moments before? He’d been powerless inside, unable to defend me or the property.
I spoke in soothing tones and rested my hand against the hard knot of his belly, feeling his racing heart pulse against my palm. Even after he’d calmed down, he still wanted to smell and re-approve the man in the driveway, who fortunately seemed unafraid and comfortable around him. Despite his years and loss, Timmy still knew who he was.
But he was spent, and slept in sunshine for the rest of the afternoon. It was the last memory he left me with, as my friends moved at the end of the summer, across the country to a new home in the mountains.
After surveying their next home and spending his last days on a sunny porch in Big Sky, Montana, Timmy died in much the same way Georgie had just a few months earlier: exhausted from a living, love-filled life, leaving me grateful for each dog’s way of giving over ten years of visits, teaching me just one more way to fall in love.
Why is your pet different from every other pet out there? Why did you fall in love?