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. 

Art is Dog. Dog is Art

Art is a dog. Dog is art.  

Nothing that can make one feel like a stranger in a strange land more than witnessing a homeowner release a rooster in his backyard. The homeowner spotted me walking my dog after opening the backdoor to let his rooster outdoors. I tried to look away quickly. My hope was that he might consider it plausible that I didn’t see him do it. By avoiding eye contact, I hoped to avoid an exchange that might lead me to search for a comment. I also didn’t want to share that uncomfortable smile that occurs shortly after witnessing another act in an embarrassing manner. Just before I could look away, I noticed a wave. I looked back, it was a warm, small town wave strengthened by a pleasant smile. The man’s smile and the wave suggested that letting a rooster out in the backyard was routine for him, and there was no reason for me to stress out about the moment. I returned the smile, waved back, and continued walking my dog. The rooster did not relieve itself after the man retreated inside, but it did rush the fence when it saw how close my dog and I came to its territory. The rooster eyed my dog, and it was a foreboding eye. The rooster did not cockle doodle doo us, but its actions suggested that that was the next logical course of action.

I forgot about this incident soon after the walk ended. I considered a “you had to be there” story where many of my stories have gone to die. Yet, the story made me uncomfortable, and when someone else told their uncomfortable story, I brought this one up to top him. After receiving a reaction to this story, I began telling it so often that it became my story. I told it so often during the next year, that when I returned to the locale I began telling it again without sufficient foresight.

“That’s my brother Harley,” a man said. “He has a pet rooster.”

Harley’s brother interrupted me in full story mode. He locked me up. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I thought of driving down the street at eighty miles an hour and slamming on the brakes.

My favorite stories are the “strange but true” varieties that don’t require creative additions or guidance. Stories like the rooster that thought it was a dog are my favorites, not because they’re hilarious, but because they’re so true that they leave the listener with that “All right, but what do you want me to do with this?” reaction. When I’m in the middle of one of these stories, and someone interrupts me after I’ve worked hard on my timing and my emphasis, it annoys me. When that interruption deflates me story, I can become visibly flustered.

I had a finger in the air, and a smile on my face, as I prepared to launch into my critically acclaimed punchline. This man’s intimate familiarity with the rooster’s owner brought me to a screeching halt. I froze. It locked me up so bad that for the next couple of guilt-ridden moments I wondered if there was a colloquial antonym for verbal diarrhea. I considered the term verbal constipation, but I wasn’t sure if that captured it.

“Harley had two dogs,” this man added. “They died. That rooster is the only thing he has left.”

There was compassion in the man’s words, and I assumed he directed at his brother. The more I thought about it, however, the more I began to believe that he might have been directing his compassion at me, and the mean case of verbal constipation he gave me. He might have noticed how much I enjoyed telling this story before his interruption, and he might have recognized that he had taken one hell of a good story away from me.

Whatever the case was, the man provided me an answer for why a homeowner would release a rooster in his backyard. The rooster grew up around dogs. The rooster thought it was a dog. I did not ask if the rooster scratched at the door when it wanted to go outside, or if it saw my dog and I approaching and began doing canine circles around Harley, until Harley noticed whatever visual cues the rooster learned to give him when it wanted outside. I didn’t ask about Harley, and if Harley participated in this because he missed the dogs so much that continuing the routine was therapeutic for him? I didn’t ask if Harley thought the rooster’s actions were kind of cute, or funny in the beginning, and he ended up doing it so often that whatever drove him to do it in the beginning was gone by the time I saw the routine of the act on his face. I wish I asked some of these questions, just to fill out the details of this story, but Harley’s brother caught me so off guard that I had a mean case of verbal constipation.

The Art of the Nod 

A speaker began speaking about himself. He began informing us of his talents, what he planned to do with them, and all of his subsequent dreams and expectations. His life story was interesting in the beginning, but he spoke for too long. I did manage to maintain a polite intrigue for the speaker, and this led me to become the center of his attention. When that happened, maintaining interest became more of a chore for me.

My friend, a third party in this conversation, was not as successful in her efforts to purport interest. She nodded off. I was, presumably, the only one that saw her nod off, and I was the only one to witness her artistic recovery.

When she nodded off, her head went down and some instinctual part of not wanting to appear so bored that she fell asleep took over, and she jerked her head up. The art of this nod occurred a second later when she nodded down again. This second nod was not a result of falling asleep, but an attempt to rewrite any theories we might have had about her falling asleep in the first place. She performed the second, voluntary to re-characterize the first one as nothing more than the first in a series of nods of agreement.  

She even added a “Yep!” to characterize the hearty series of nods further. 

She had no idea what she was agreeing to, but she got away with it. I looked out at the faces of the others in the room. No one else saw it. I was impressed. I looked back her, and she had not only maintained her agreement, she strengthened it, until she was garnering more attention from the speaker than I was.

In the halls of social protocol, I considered this art.

I all but applauded her for this reaction when I asked her about it later. I mentioned that I didn’t think a person could carry something like that off once, that it was too artistic, and that it required practice. I wanted to know if she did this to me. She said she hadn’t. She said I was never that boring. I was grateful for that comment, but I had to know how often she did that. She said as far as she was concerned it was the first time. She had no other explanation for it, other than the fact that she was trying to avoid appearing rude. She tired of my questions after a while, and she stated that the moment embarrassed her, and she asked that we move onto other subjects.

Old People

Old people? Old people? Let me tell you something about old people. Old people set the parameter. If it weren’t for old people, your nuance would have no contrast. All that rebellion you cherish, that avant garde comedy, would just be blather. Old people. Have you ever watched the movie Caddyshack? Did you find it humorous? Uh huh. Ask anyone that knows anything about comedy, and they’ll tell you that that movie would not have been half as funny as it was, were it not for the old person in that production, Ted Knight, providing contrast. Without contrast in comedy, the movie is just a bunch of buffoons standing around reciting lines to one another. Contrast provides the pivot point for comedy, and that old man in Caddyshack, that fuddy duddy as you call him, set the standard for the role that straight men would play in comedy for the next four decades. The straight men set the parameters for other players to bounce off, and that’s what we old, boring types do. We set the parameters for the rest of you to be funny, cool, hip and sexy. Try writing a cool, hip, funny scene without a Dean Wormer, and we’ll see how far you get.

Like Boxing for Writers

Some writers believe that what they write is witty, humorous, or a display of their as of yet undiscovered talent in the art of comedy? We’ve all watched them write about clouds and trees, and we’ve all let that go, because we know all writers have to preen themselves every once in a while, but when they attempt comedy some of us think these writers need an intervention. One of the dangers inherent in comedy is that it’s relative, and every audience member should acknowledge that before they castigate another’s attempt at being humorous, but some attempts at humor are so bad that I want to say that we can all see the writer’s haymaker coming. When the author writes about a disagreement they had with their daughter about what television show to watch, we know to put our laughing galoshes on. We also know that every author, if they are male, will provide exhaustive detail about how they regard their daughter a superior intellect. They will provide us with eyewitness testimony of their daughter’s brilliance, and for some authors this will last for about a quarter of the story. At this point, many of us envy those that can start a story and ‘X’ out of it when it fails to intrigue them. Those who are able to find their way through the maze of the author’s shame, apologies, and qualifiers are introduced to a flurry of jokes that are intended to impress the judges. There’s no power behind the punches, because the author doesn’t want to offend the reader, their daughter, or any judge that might happen upon their story. We see their effort dangling, and as the joke plays out we all learn what not to do when we’re looking for a laugh. The author is the butterfly that floats merrily through our head without the fear, or the need to fear, the bee sting. They’re the Pernell Whitaker, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Floyd Maywhether of the writing world that gets points from the judges, but bores those of us that don’t understand the art of boxing. We want something exciting to happen, the judge can call it blood lust if they want, but if the reader wanted to witness the majestic art of dance, they would’ve attended the ballet.