The Scottish poet Byron had a big shaggy Newfoundland called Boatswain. A Boatswain is a rank in the old Royal Navy. Seems an unlikely name for a dog. But for all I know Boatswain was the “Scout” or “Rover” of the 17th Century. Like, you bring a puppy home and some guy in a powdered wig squeals “Omg! He’s ADORABLE! Let’s call him BOATSWAIN!”
Byron loved Boatswain. So much so that when the dog passed on, he wrote a poem in his honor, a poem inscribed on Boatswain’s headstone. I recall being touched by these words when I first read them. Sometimes when a friend loses a pet, I send it to them. It is known as Epitaph to a Dog:
He Possessed Beauty Without Vanity Strength without Insolence Courage without Ferocity All the Virtues of Man And None of his Failings
I do understand the sentiment Byron expresses, but here’s where our conclusions differ: I don’t think dogs are always altruistic and virtuous. Many of them have jealousies, fears, demons. They struggle to be good. That’s what makes them compelling.
I’m not talking about the shortcomings of dogs in cartoons and sitcoms. I’m not talking about the “Oh-Gee-Buster-Chewed-Up-Dad’s-Newspaper-AGAIN!” (Cue Music: Wah, Wahhhhh… ) types of issues. I’m talking about stuff that’s messed up. As dysfunctional and weird as any human behavior.
We had a dog named Patchie. He had many nicknames and variations of Patchie through the years, but we’ll stick with Patchie. You can stop worrying that this is another sappy dog story. It will not reference a small child pulled from the path of a speeding bus; there is no frantic face-licking to awake a family as fire breaks out, no impossible high-jump to take a bullet for humans in danger.
Patchie was a golden retriever. He was beautiful, and he knew it. He enjoyed comfortable sofas and quiet afternoons. He never chased a ball in his life and had a disdain for mindless canine frolic. He was often unkind to his brother, Ned.
While other dogs lived for car rides, Patchie squirmed anxiously, panting so heavily as to fog the windows. He’d push his way to the front seat, harummphing and glaring, periodically sticking his head through the sunroof to see where the heck you were taking him.
What he adored most was being lovingly petted and groomed and fawned over. What he detested most was another dog being lovingly petted and groomed and fawned over. It led to much drama.
This underlying deprivation and martyrdom, intolerance for others being the center of attention, wasn’t limited to dog brethren. At Christmas, the sight of humans excitedly unwrapping gifts infuriated him. He was like the crazy uncle on day-release you invite for the holiday. A few glasses of eggnog and his resentment builds and crests until he’s ripping up wrapping paper and bows and stomping off to the kitchen.
One afternoon my kids were huddled together on the floor playing the board game Life. If you remember this game, it is played by spinning a tiny wheel, located in the middle of the board, with spaces numbered one through 10. The game ends, abruptly and permanently, when a golden retriever, incensed from social exclusion, rips the little spinning wheel from the board with his teeth and runs away.
Despite his acting out, Patchie made strong and deep connections to people, and he loved fiercely, no doubt with the same frail heart that so feared loss and craved acceptance. He had a way of sidling next to you, burying his head in your chest, leaning in with all of his weight. You could feel him soaking it up.
He was a good listener. He stared intently into people’s eyes as they spoke, not so much to divine meaning, but to savor attention. When people returned home from school or work, he was the first off his perch, intensely eager to reconnect.
Patchie was most at peace sitting quietly in the garden as his humans tended the flowers and plants around him. He posed, as if he were some exotic hothouse bloom.
We’re told not to impose human emotions and motives onto animals. But there’s a theory that an adaptation, born over 10,000 years of human contact, has granted dogs the ability to understand a moral code, to abide by social rules. I do believe that Patchie struggled to become a better dog.
This was evidenced by something extraordinary that happened the day a new member of the family arrived. As a nervous Brittany spaniel puppy entered our house, the suspicious and defensive Alpha dog slowly slid to the floor, paws outstretched. As if to say to the much-smaller spaniel “You are welcome here. No harm will come to you.” To all those who witnessed, it was Patchie’s finest hour.
It is true: Old men miss many dogs. I think of him often.
There’s a picture I took of Patchie and my younger daughter that hangs in my living room. It is late summer, their faces dappled in sunlight filtered through the canopy of an ash tree. He looks directly into the camera.
That image crystallizes my memory of him in a single moment of grace. The noble protector, loved and accepted, but still, in his eyes, a faraway hint of something. Maybe a constant appeal to his better angels to dispel the demons who sometimes made it hard to be a good dog.
And it reminds me that Patchie was, in words borrowed from another Byron poem, ”A troubled stream, but from a pure source.”