Dog Days of Summer

I thought “the dog days of summer” referred to the conundrum some of us face in August: Should I chase that rabbit? Or just lie here and pant?

Tiptoe around every corner and you’ll find a Classical root. Dog Days comes from ancient astronomy and refers to the heliacal rising of the star Sirius in late July. Apparently people feared the onset of disease and other disasters associated with heat of August. In the Iliad, there is an association of this period with war.

sirius

Illustration of the constellation Sirius (c. 820-840)

Knowing the background doesn’t change how we moderns use the term, though. For most of us, “dog days” evokes the late summer when we feel lazy and unmotivated. We long for crisp fall air to help us get things going again.

But what do dogs want during dog days? My guess is air conditioning and a cool tile floor. That’s how our old Border Collie Josie is spending her dog days. Stretched out as far as her arthritic body will allow, she sleeps the hot weeks away. We have to coax her out for walks: she isn’t going to move a muscle unnecessarily.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Josie was a canine bullet. She could outrun any dog on the ranch, which is saying a lot if you knew the parade of dogs we had.

We got her in 2005 from the Wise County Animal Shelter. It’s hard to get dogs adopted out in the country: everyone has too many. There’s a place in Hell for people who drop unwanted dogs down country roads on the theory that “they can survive” in the wild. Yup, until nightfall and that first pack of coyotes.

But back to the story. We had “auditioned” her the previous afternoon to make sure our tempestuous Lab-Chow “Buddy” would accept her. He did, despite disliking virtually all other dogs. So the next afternoon, we drove back to Wise County to get her.

But it looked like we were going to arrive past the closing time, so we called the attendant to ask if he’d stay a few extra minutes. “Ma’am, I don’t care if it takes you ‘til midnight. I’ll stay here if you’ll just come adopt one of our dogs,” said Joe.

I’ve never forgotten Joe’s words. Many a time I’ve recalled the commitment he expressed in that moment: whatever it takes, I’ll do it.

josie

Photo by Evgeny Fouk

So Josie got a version of his name and went on to have a great life. She had total freedom on the ranch. Every morning she would make the rounds with big dogs (Anatolian Shepherds), frolic in the tanks (ponds), and eat whatever they found in the woods or pastures.

But there were bad times. She indulged her herding instincts with a Fed-Ex truck that sped down our dirt road. I won’t gross you out describing her injuries, but let’s just say she was stitched back together by a glorious vet named Beth Winingham. Beth attended all of Josie’s disasters, included a drastic hip surgery and a nasty rattlesnake bite. She called Josie the most pain-tolerant dog she’d ever treated and she wasn’t just doling out compliments. It’s hard to diagnose an animal that doesn’t whimper, despite severe pain.

Still, Josie survived. And when we moved back to the city, Josie was the only dog to make the cut. Livestock dogs that bark all night aren’t going to be welcome in a modern urban neighborhood, nor will they be happy.

Why am I writing about this, you might ask? Ordinarily I write about the arts and education. I write about travel. But not dogs. I’m not even a “dog person” for that matter. Cats are more my style.

But I admire dogs. Moreover, I’m fascinated by how people feel about their dogs. In each of my tour groups, people start passing around pictures of their grandkids on Day 3 or Day 4. But I know they’re ready to go home (no matter how fantastic the tour) when they start pulling out pictures of their dogs.

We cherish our dogs. They exhibit virtues that our frantic, rude society has abandoned. They wait. They rejoice in a butterfly or a corner of cookie found in the grass. They rejoice in us, no matter what.

In a sermon long ago, Fr. David Allen (St. Francis Church, Dallas) made a comment that has never left me. “There is no such thing as a good dog.” I remember my eyes widening. What? He reminded us that dogs do not, and cannot, make moral choices. Yes, they have enormous capacity for loyalty and extraordinary instincts. But they learn to behave in ways that please their masters and avoid punishment. And they rejoice in what pleases us.

It is we humans who can be “good” or “bad.” We were created with a conscience and the ability to make moral judgments. That conscience has to be nurtured. Children must be prepared for a lifetime of distinguishing good and bad. Each child is endowed with the capacity to measure and understand the difference.

Josie does not wrestle with moral dilemmas. But we are called upon to make moral choices every day. Daily I need to strengthen commitment to the pursuit of “the good.” And I need not to fade in nurturing others along the same path.

May these last weeks of August bring you chances for spiritual refreshment (“cool tile”). May you find the inspiration to cut through the heat and tackle the tasks required as you prepare for the new academic year. And may you find the same kind of admiration we see in our doggies’ eyes as you begin the substantial work that lies ahead.

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