I never really understood dog people.
From “Dog is My Co-Pilot” bumper stickers to the saying often attributed to Mark Twain (“The more I know about people, the better I like my dog”), the difference between a Golden Retriever and a golden calf seemed to be a small one.
Then I got a dog. We found her at the animal shelter last summer. She was a scrawny, whimpering five-month-old puppy, and when she walked over to my teenage son and curled up in his lap, my heart was stolen. We brought her home, bathed her, and named her Amber for her brown and black brindle fur.
Image by Grace Hwang Lynch
Owning a dog was supposed to be a good experience for my sons, but in many ways Amber turned out to be my dog. She quickly latched onto me, cowering under my desk the afternoon we first brought her home. Over the next nine months, she followed me everywhere, baying at the window when I left for a few hours and squealing ecstatically when I came home.
I thought owning a dog would be a way to teach the kids responsibility, but she ended up teaching us about relationships. They say a dog—especially a puppy—lives in the present. She woke up every morning with the energy of a jackrabbit and hated when I worked. As I sat at my computer, she often honked squeaky toys at my feet, chewing on my chair if I failed to understand her invitation to play.
In my relationship with Amber, I saw a microcosm of human relationships, their complexities distilled into more basic shapes. A morning walk, preferably before sitting down to do anything else, was vital to starting off the day right. She was completely dependent on me, looking to me to fill her food bowl and give her cues on whom to trust—or not. Our bond was built over countless quick check-ins—a pat, a few throws of a tennis ball, some tricks rewarded with treats—scattered throughout the day.
Amber was infinitely curious, stopping to sniff every plant and crumb on the sidewalk. She quivered with a combination of excitement and nervousness at the sight of other dogs on the street. Because Amber enjoyed being out and about so much, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed strolling leisurely around our neighborhood when my sons were small enough to push around in a double stroller. I began to strike up conversations with strangers and looked forward to chatting with neighbors every morning.
Every afternoon, Amber and I would walk to pick up my eleven-year-old from school. While it may be embarrassing for a fifth-grade boy to be hugged by his mom in front of his friends, it’s totally cool to be greeted by your puppy, all wagging tail and tongue. When my thirteen-year-old came home, Amber would snuggle up on the couch next to him while he played games or did homework on his laptop. I’d look at them across the room and wonder at the devotion and unconditional love of a dog.
Not that dog ownership was all kisses and snuggles. Training a dog, especially one whose formative early months we knew nothing about, proved challenging. We juggled our weekend activities to schedule numerous training sessions. Even as her early fearfulness was increasingly replaced with confidence, Amber had a streak of defensiveness rooted in anxiety that we were concerned about. According to an animal behaviorist, it might be something we could train out of her or it might be her genetic temperament.
We’ll never know what kind of dog Amber might have grown up to be because, a few weeks ago, she was hit by a car and died instantly. Now I’m dealing with the microcosm of grief that comes with losing a dog I loved.
I’ve reflected much that maybe this is a way God uses animals in our lives. The relationships we have with them give us simpler glimpses into love, faith, and eventually, loss. I’m trying to allow myself to sit with these feelings and not diminish or ignore them. Even in her wake, Amber continues to teach me about relationships.
There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number--living things both large and small.
Psalm 104:25 (NIV)
Grace Hwang Lynch is a freelance writer and editor and full-time mom. You can find more of her musings on raising a mixed-race Asian family, as well as some great family recipes, at HapaMama.com.