Mr. Fehrley was not Just a Dog

“It’s just a dog,” he said. “We can’t help but grow so attached to dogs that we end up loving them, but in the end, they’re just dogs.”

Just a dog? Just a dog?!” we say. “Do you have any idea how much I loved that dog?” In their reaction to our defensiveness, we see that while we all grieve in own ways, some of us console in our own ways too.  

Years prior, I took a vacation. I had another dog that I had to kennel him for that time. “What if he comes back different?” I asked in a rhetorical manner. “I’ve heard it happens. I’ve heard that some dogs don’t want to play as much when they come back from a kennel stay. What if my dog is different when I pick him up?”

“Get a different dog,” he said. When I argued, he added, “What is a dog’s job? Their job is to play with you, let you pet them, and provide some companionship. If you pick up your dog, and he’s not doing his job anymore, get another one.” This unemotional, almost mathematical response did not come from Siri or Alexa, but from a living, breathing human.

“When your child begins to turn on you, in all of the rebellious ways our offspring will, are you going to get another child?”

“A child is a complicated human being,” Alexa and Siri, disguised as a human, said, “but a dog is just a dog.”  

In science, a dog is just a dog, and he shouldn’t matter as much as human do in our pack. In mathematical principles, a dog has a lesser denominator. When they remind us of the equations involved, it should console us to know that math and science offer more permanent and indestructible solutions that contain order and eliminate the random matters that are so difficult to control, and chasing an emotion like happiness is a messy, chaotic proposition that never ends well.  

Contrary to his anthropomorphic name, Mr. Fehrley was nothing more than a dog who managed to carve out a prominent role in our lives, our family, and a prominent and permanent place on my list of best friends of all time. As painful as the shock and awe of his demise was to us, we all knew we would have to move on in life. As Franz Kafka once wrote, “Everything you love will probably be lost, but in the end, love will come back in another way.”

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance are the traditional stages of grief. Everyone grieves in their own way, and some of us go through reeling, feeling, dealing, and healing. In the dealing stage, we accept the idea that “Everything [we] love will probably be lost,” and that it’s the nature of existence for survivors to be left behind, but for some reason the math doesn’t make it any easier to sort through all of the messy emotions involved in trying to achieve the healing stage.  

We’ve all experienced loss of loved ones, and as painful as the reeling stage is of it is, we know we’ll recover. We’ll never forget, but we will move on. When we make some strides to move through the reeling and dealing stages, the pain of routine takes its place. The immediate memories strike us during the reeling period, but when we encounter the little moments of routine, they can prove just as emotionally crippling in the healing stage.

We had a morning routine with Mr. Fehrley, a treats routine, the routine of the “bye-bye” car rides, the long walks to the fence, and the night routine. When the morning after arrived, it dawned on us that there was a gap in our being that we never knew existed until he filled it by resting between our legs on the ottoman. When the time for the other routines arrived, and the new dog didn’t respond with puppy-like glee, we realized that we made those routines so exciting. When the wound is still fresh, our routines of life feel just a little more empty, and boring. If we explain this to anyone outside our home, they might smile politely, and they might recognize the power of routine through those they have with their own dog, but they’ll never understand how important these little routines were to us.  

Mr. Fehrley was just a dog, but I never realized how affectionate he was. I never realized what a luxury it was to have a dog who always wanted to be around me, leaning on me, and touching me. I sit on the couch now, and no one leaps into my lap anymore. I go out to the backyard, and no one wants to join me, and no one even notices when I’m gone. I return home, and no one is overjoyed to see me. These are but examples of what a dog can add to a person’s life, and if the reader has a dog who is so affectionate that it can be annoying at times, I tell you to appreciate it for what it is. It doesn’t last forever, as we all know, but we should all take a moment to create a memory we’ll wish we created when they’re gone. 

We had a basketball routine. Every time we went to play basketball at the park, we almost always brought Mr. Fehrley along. Mr. Fehrley stayed on the outskirts of court, sniffing everything available to him, running in circles for no apparent reason, peeing, pooping, and playing with imaginary friends.

“Aren’t you afraid he’ll run away?” an observer asked when he noticed that Mr. Fehrley wasn’t leashed, and that he stayed within certain parameters. There was no accusation or condemnation in the man’s voice. He was in awe of the discipline Mr. Fehrley displayed by not running off. 

“He ran off before, numerous times, and we had a number of reactions. One of them was to leash him up. Another was to take him home and not take him on such outings again for a while. After a number of these incidents, he learned that if he wanted to go along with us and remain unleashed he would stay within certain defined parameters.”

It might seem far-fetched to say that a dog can learn lessons in this sense. Most people don’t think a dog can associate not going out with us as a punishment for a momentary, small transgression. Most people don’t think a dog could make that type of connection, especially when an amount of time between outings occurs, but I’m telling you, as I did the observer that day, Mr. Fehrley did make those connections.

A friend of mine once said, “A dog spends their whole life trying to make us happy.” Based on the actions and behavior of my dog at the time, I disagreed with her. Mr. Fehrley taught me that he learned when we’re happy, he’s happy. Mr. Fehrley was a bright dog who learned his lessons well. He was, by far, the best dog I’ve ever owned.

“My dog would never stay like that,” this observer added. “You give him an inch of freedom, and he strives to take a mile.”

The initial instinct is to regard that comment as a compliment to the manner in which I raised and trained Mr. Fehrley to stay within imposed limits. If I didn’t train him to learn those imposed limits, through repetition, I wouldn’t have been able to do half of the things I did with him. I would’ve had to leave him at home in the manner everyone else leaves their dogs at home when they go out to do such things. Yet, when a dog passes away, and the cavalcade of emotions penetrates all of our vulnerable nerves, we think back on these conversations, and we wonder if we trained him so well that we trained him too well. Did we deprive him of some initiative, and did we inhibit some of what it means to be a dog?   

I initially thought the reeling stage would be the most painful part, but as with the progression of a physical injury, the healing stage proved almost as painful as the reeling stage. The realization that all of the routines we built up for ten and a half years were over proved to be one of the more painful elements. 

We had our little fella for a glorious ten and a half years, so it would prove difficult to appreciate him to the level I wish I would have every day for that long, but I regret some of the moments when I could’ve appreciated him more. Weather permitting we took this little 33lb, Puggle everywhere we went. Friends laughed at us for feeling guilty on those occasions when we had to leave him at home alone. Someone once said, “When I die, I want to come back as your dog.”

As happy as Mr. Fehrley was, and we provided him a fun, full life, I wasn’t spared the road of regret I feel that I took him for granted in some ways.

*** suggests that there are approximately 68 million domesticated dogs fulfilling families in the U.S. alone. Even if we wonder how they arrived at such a figure, we all know that the figure is very high. What role do these dogs play in all of these households? Visit a home without children, and the dogs’ roles tend to play a more prominent role in that household. Even in homes with children, however, dogs play a prominent role. As kids love their dogs as much as adults do. Most of us love our dogs almost as much as we love our children, but we might never know the prominence they have in our lives until they’re gone.

If you’re anything like me, one of the first things you do when you enter someone’s home is seek out their dog. If you love dogs that much, you’re bound to encounter a dog you don’t enjoy. Some say they’ve never met a dog they didn’t like. I’ve met two. I thought their owners, guardians, or whatever people prefer to call human companions were relatively nice people. I later found out I was wrong, and I realized that our relationships with dogs tend to be symbiotic in that a dog can define a person in some ways, and a person can define a dog in some ways. Our personalities rub off on dogs, and their personalities rub off on us.

How much time do we spend around our dogs? How much time do we spend playing with them, talking to them, petting them, taking them to parks for walks, and everything else to shape and mold them? Dogs notice things. They pick up on behavioral cues, patterns, and routines, and they learn how to behave to get along with us better. If we say hello to everyone we encounter in a park, for example, they will too. If we’re confrontational people, our dogs might be more confrontational. How often do our neighbors have to raise and develop crazy dogs before they realize they’re the problem? 

Have you ever met a neighbor you initially considered relatively stable and friendly, only to find out their dog was out of control? Did it shape how we viewed that person? There’s usually a reason a dog is so out of control, and when we find out that that neighbor has another side to him, a nutty, out of control side, when he isn’t leaning over the fence for a chat, we learn to read our tea leaves better. We learn to pay more attention to their dogs. Our personalities help define our dogs, and they define us, and everything in between.

As we often say of those who pass, Mr. Fehrley died doing what he loved best. He died chasing a squirrel across a street. If you were lucky enough to know Mr. Fehrley, you knew that chasing squirrels was his joie de vivre (exuberant enjoyment of life), and he loved it so much that it became his raison d’être (the most important reason or purpose for existence). To deprive him of that would’ve been the more responsible thing for me to do, and I was warned, but I didn’t want to deprive him of that joy. 

Years prior, I saw a junkyard dog check both ways before crossing the street. The junkyard dog was everything you’d imagine. It had various sores, patches of hair, combined with some spots of mange and bald spots, and it also walked with a noticeable limp. I never saw a dog check both ways before crossing a street before, and I considered hilarious at the time. The more I thought about it, however, the more I considered it a little sad. This dog, obviously, had no one to protect it from harm. It obviously had to learn, from firsthand experience, how painful cars can be when they hit. The key to the junkyard dog’s survival involved checking both ways before walking across the streets cars drive on. Mr. Fehrley never checked both ways of course, because he didn’t know any better, because he never had to develop that survival skill. I did that for him. So, I could wallow in the misery that I forgot watch for him that one, fateful moment, or I could think about all the times I prevented him getting hit. Developing coping mechanisms such as this one help, as does having a family with which to share the pain, but when incidents like these happen, we all go through them alone.