i sleep with other people’s dogs

A guest review by Susan Caba

Susan Caba is a writer who has been house – and dog – sitting around the country for the past few years, caring for beloved pets while their human companions travel. She and her son read many dog-focused book when he was a child, including Where the Red Fern Grows. Spoiler alert: This essay reveals the outcome of that classic children’s novel. Some parents may appreciate knowing the ending before their children read the book.

When my son was six, we were reading Where the Red Fern Grows, the 1961 classic coming-of-age story of a boy and his dogs. Max loved the adventures of Billy Colman and his red bone coonhounds, Old Dan and Little Ann. 

But the story turns tragic at the end. Old Dan and Little Ann save Billy’s life by fighting off the attack of a mountain lion. The next day, Old Dan dies of his wounds. Little Ann, injured herself, drags herself to his grave and dies of a broken heart.

“I buried Little Ann by the side of Old Dan,” Billy says. “I knew that was where she wanted to be. I also buried a part of my life along with my dog.”

I was reading aloud over the lump in my throat and Max was just holding back tears as the tragedy unfolded. 

“Who picked this stupid book anyway?” he asked, as the narrator described visiting the graves and finding that a red fern — symbolizing the presence of angels — had sprouted between the dogs’ final resting places. 

What is it about dogs?

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, is one of innumerable books about the stalwart nature of dogs and their relationships to humans. Think “Call of the Wild,” by Jack London; “Old Yeller,” by Fred Gibson; the Lassie books, of course, by Eric Knight; “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein, and “Marley and Me,” by John Grogan. The classics that come to my mind are from the first half of the last century, but there are plenty of more contemporary volumes, too. Amazon lists more than 70,000 books written about dogs.

A good proportion of recent books are non-fiction and science-based. When I was a kid, English teachers discouraged us from attributing human feelings or motives to animals. The idea was, animals aren’t capable of emotions. Turns out, our teachers were wrong. Advances in neuroscience research indicate that dogs a: may have emotions, b: can read human emotions, and c: have evolved expressions and behaviors to manipulate the emotions of their human companions.

Researchers call it the field of dog cognition, and it spans the fields of psychology, anthropology and neuroscience. They are developing theories and insights into how dogs experience the world. (No surprise, smell plays a big role.)

One of the themes of Red Fern — and it runs through myriad books — is that, by recognizing the feelings and capabilities of our canine companions, we learn lessons about resilience, devotion, selflessness and love. Dogs, as Billy says, can make our hearts jump “like a drunk grasshopper.” 

I’ve never considered myself a dog person. As a family, we always had dogs — Pierre and Freddy, both miniature black French poodles; Friday, a black lab mix, and Scooter, a hand-me-down mix of poodle and sheep dog (back then, we considered him a mutt, not one of the original “designer” dogs). My siblings were more attached to the various dogs than I was. As an adult, I mostly had cats.

Bandit — stuck yet cheerful

But in the past year, I’ve been house-sitting for people who leave me to serve as caretakers for their pets, mostly dogs. I’ve been charged with redirecting Bandit, an elderly Australian shepherd, when she found herself inexplicably boxed into a corner (I could relate!); hiking through the foothills of the San Francisco Bay area with Duffy, a regal Golden Retriever; chasing a giant white puff-ball designer mix in games of keep-away, and most recently, sharing a bed with a long-suffering Vizsla and her diva sister, an Italian greyhound.

Puff Ball — Penny Lane

This morning, as I dressed Brooklyn, the 8-pound greyhound for a morning walk, I found myself nattering on about the importance of mixing texture as well as color when layering for warmth. She was chic in a grey thermal cotton under-layer topped with a cable-knit cream sweater. Her much larger sister Cadence danced with impatience at the delay. They are on either side of me on the couch as I write.

I’ve seen, too, how human companions go to great lengths to provide comfort and solace for their beloved creatures. As a result, I’ve come to two conclusions. The first is that I may, indeed, be a dog person. Why else would I sleep with other people’s dogs?

My second conclusion is that dogs embody both the joy of (mostly) uncomplicated love and the exquisite pain of loss when they die, long before their owners are ready. The emotions of our own lifetimes are purified, compressed and exaggerated in the short span of a dog’s life. The intensity of the connection allowed an adult Billy, reliving his grief at Dan’s death, to muse, “You were worth it, old friend, and a thousand times over.”

As I said, both Max and I were in tears by the end of Where the Red Fern Grows. The ending is undeniably tragic — as is true of so many children’s and young adult novels. Has anyone, ever, gotten to the end of Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, without the aid of a box of Kleenex?

And yet I recommend both these classic books for children. Why? Why subject a child to these heart-wrenching tales? Why not stick to the happily-ever-after stories and shield them from the hard realities of life for as long as possible?

Well, because as any parent inevitably discovers, there is no fool-proof shield to protect our children. Bad stuff happens. When Max was in fourth grade, his father and I divorced. When he was a senior in high school, the parents of a longtime classmate — a battle-scarred couple who stayed together for their son’s sake — finally got divorced, and the kid was devastated. “They should have gotten divorced in fourth grade and he’d have adjusted by now,” said Max.

Some tragedies are more catastrophic than divorce, some much less so. What stories like Where the Red Fern Grows and Charlotte’s Web teach children is not that bad things happen. The real lesson is that heartbreak visits all of us, at one time or another. We aren’t alone. And, while we may never be the same afterward, we’ll be okay. 

Dogs have been helping us learn those lessons for centuries, if not longer. 

The philosopher Voltaire observed in 1764 that “It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defense and his pleasure. Of all the animals, it is the most faithful; it is the best friend man can have.”

When it comes to our connections with dogs, I’ll let Mr. Kyle, a character in Where the Red Ferns Grow, have the last word:

“People have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. One never knows what they’ll do. You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love – the deepest kind of love.”

The lesson in love is worth the price paid in tears and Kleenex.

Brooklyn (wearing the jaguar print shirt) and Cadence

A bonus read – Susan Caba’s poem of the same name: 

I Sleep With Other People’s Dogs

The greyhound slips beneath the sheets

like the wraith she is

curling in on herself

and settling against my back

a tiny heat bomb through the night

The Viszla makes no presumption

of an invitation and

waits for me to notice

her hesitation and wave her into bed

a russet carpet across my legs

In borrowed houses and borrowed beds

I sleep with other people’s dogs

Memory is the fleeting scent

of my head upon the pillow

erased and replaced by the next new thing

demanding their attention

Their love for me not lost, just forgotten

All silken ears and velvet tongues

my canine companions

lavish their affection unburdened

by loyalty to absent masters

they love the one they’re with

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

2 replies on “i sleep with other people’s dogs”

A beautiful statement of the love dogs provide and that they elicit in return. Bruno was our new puppy when my wife suddenly died. His sliding on the tile floor while chasing a ball evoked the first laugh I’d had in months, and he has been a sustaining presence in the ensuing years.

Liked by 1 person

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