If I had to choose between spending time with one good dog or five good people, I’d pick the dog every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
That may sound anti-social, but it’s a pragmatic choice, driven by data.
People, even the good ones, have more flaws than dogs. People, even the good ones, struggle to love without conditions. And dogs, at least the ones I’ve known, talk less than humans while managing to say more.
We bipedal ape-descendants don’t deserve dogs, yet they accept and adore us. Then they leave, always far too soon. And we are stuck with our dumb human flaws, and a dog-sized hole in our day-to-day.
I had to say farewell to a good dog last week, on a pantingly hot July 3 afternoon. She had cancer and there was nothing we could do these past couple months except love her and spoil her and give her approximately a million behind-the-ear scritches and wait until she let us know it was time to go.
There are far more important things happening in the world right now than the death of a newspaper columnist’s dog. I know that. But here I am, writing about the dog who was near me, often with her head on my arm, as I wrote most of the columns you’ve read over the years.
She even guest-wrote a column in 2018, a letter to President Donald Trump complaining about his tendency to call certain humans “dogs,” as if that word could ever be an insult.
She wrote: “I think you are calling people dogs because you think that makes them less than human. My human says that’s something that ‘fascists’ do. I don’t know what that means, but it makes me think you are not being a good boy.”
Hers was a brief but spectacular writing career.
Zoe was about 6 months old when we got her. She had a boulder-sized head with bat-like ears, four pie-sized paws and a more traditionally puppy-esque body, making her look like something had gone tragically wrong at the dog factory six months earlier. Her body was largely white but her head was dark brown, like she had dunked her noggin in a vat of chocolate syrup.
But she was sweet and already house-trained, and her eyes revealed an intelligence that we bet would easily compensate for any head/body/paw proportionality issues.
She grew and grew, then grew some more and finally reached a robust 95 pounds. She was weirdly beautiful, and people often admired her and asked what breed she was.
“I’m not exactly sure,” I’d say, “but I believe she’s part cow.”
Zoe never took offense.
Her life story is that of any good family dog. Long walks. Fun times romping in the snow. Ample barking at delivery people and passing dogs.
In her later years she developed a strange relationship with a rabbit living in our backyard. They seemed to have reached a non-aggression pact that gave the rabbit unfettered access to all grass and plants while still allowing Zoe to occasionally save face by chasing the rabbit for about 6 feet before giving up and pretending she had better things to do.
Whatever ancestral wolf DNA she possessed had been fully overwhelmed by laziness or a tender heart, or possibly both. And that was fine. We had no need for a wolf. All we needed was Zoe.
And that’s what’s amazing about the creatures we’re lucky enough to have in our lives. They are, wholly and completely, themselves. Sure, we train them and help them adapt to our ways of living. But they train us to understand and appreciate them as beings unencumbered by the annoying complexities of humanness.
That’s what binds us so tightly, I think. Zoe’s inherent goodness made the people who loved her better by helping us see that her way of living—Love people! Love playing! Love food! —almost always made more sense than our own.
That’s a gift, one that remains long after our noble beasts have gone.
And it’s worth it. Even for the pain that comes on a hot July day, when you look at your friend and writing partner and know it’s time for her to go. And you hold her as her sweet soul leaves her body, and the humans left behind cry so hard their faces hurt.
It’s worth it, pain and tears and all.
My arm feels lighter as I write this, and notably less draped in slobber. There isn’t a bark when the doorbell rings, and there’s a 95-pound space in our family that won’t be easily filled.
We don’t deserve dogs. But we have them.
For that, I’m forever grateful.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.