The first morning after I arrived in Abiquiu there was a medium sized shepherd – like dog with a broad forehead, dark pools for eyes, thick black fur and pale buff markings curled up on the flagstones outside my bedroom door. Who was she I wondered as my six pound Chihuahua’s shrill cries of outrage and my yelling frightened the large dog away. I remember being vaguely aware that the dog’s submissive body posture, head low, tail dragging, sparked a memory.
I think it was later that day that my closest neighbor introduced herself and I learned that this dog “belonged” to no one in particular in the small group of people (which now included me) who lived on the southwest side of these blue tipped reptilian ridgeback mountains.
“What do you mean, she belongs to this place?” I asked. “Doesn’t she have a real home?” I found this information deeply distressing. I was standing outside the little stone house talking to this woman while Snoopy shyly (and it seemed to me, hopefully) gazed up at me.
“We all look after her…the story is that she left the people who originally had her and never went back…she likes to be outdoors all the time except when it thunders… some of us feed her,” the woman explained. So the dog had been abused, I thought grimly. I noticed the tick imbedded in the thick sand colored fur that bordered the black ridge on her back.
“What about shots?”
“Someone apparently took her to the vet last year and Snoopy was so scared that she messed up the car…”
Snoopy? Inwardly, I groaned.
I bent over to pat the dog who seemed to be somewhat afraid of me, probably because I had yelled “go home” to her earlier that morning, before I knew she didn’t have one. My back porch was home.
She had the most beautiful chestnut brown eyes, the kind of eyes a person could get lost in… I looked away as the persistent memory pierced my awareness. I felt a surge of compassion as a wave broke over me… This dog reminded me of the Shepard –malamute puppy I had adopted the year after my brother’s death some 40 plus years ago. Sam, with her loving nature and deep loyalty helped me survive a suicide. During her life Sam taught me about the gift of receiving unconditional love; she was the first of many animal teachers… After her death fourteen years later, this dog became a “bridge to the beyond,” coming to me as a guide and teacher through dreams. This dog reminded me so much of Sam that I wondered if I had a new lesson to learn…
The high-pitched barking of both of my Chihuahuas from inside the house brought an end to this reverie. My neighbor and I concluded our conversation and the two departed down the path. “Bye Snoopy.” I murmured.
That name certainly did not fit this dog I thought irritably as I entered the house. I hated the way the culture turned animals, the most compassionate beings on earth, into human-like cartoon characters…
As the weeks went by I realized that Snoopy was indeed cared for by a number of people in her territory. One woman gave her chicken necks, another bones, my closest neighbor fed her each night and every morning the two went walking together in the washes. The latter called Snoopy “the Scoop” a name I sometimes adopted when meeting her. I also called her “the Snoop.” She responded with equal enthusiasm to all variations. Although I always spoke to her, I did not encourage Snoopy to come by the house because Hope, the eldest of my two Chihuahua’s simply couldn’t tolerate the bigger dog’s presence. Hope had never forgiven me for getting Lucy, the youngest member of our family, and she was not going to tolerate another canine intrusion – not ever.
It wasn’t until my closest neighbor and I became better friends that Hope learned to tolerate Snoopy’s presence as long as we met on neutral ground. I was delighted by this improvement and hoped that it augured well for the future. It became increasingly clear to me that Snoopy had fallen in love with my friend, a genuinely kind and caring person that I was learning to respect mightily because of her compassionate attitude towards people and animals. I stopped worrying about Snoopy…
Then my neighbors went away. Why wasn’t I prepared for Snoopy’s response to their absence? The first day they were gone I tried to encourage her to walk with us. She refused to come choosing instead to continue lying in the sun by their back door, barely raising her head to greet me as we passed by. In the middle of the afternoon I went over to visit with Beal their giant long – haired cat, who banged cupboard doors when ignored, and took Snoopy some cheese. She hadn’t moved and was still lying by the back door. When she saw that I was alone she perked up her ears and thumped her tail briefly. Although she got up to eat the cheese she continued to regard me mournfully. The dog was depressed. I felt abandonment slam through my body with a thud.
“She’ll be back.” I told Snoopy over and over patting her head.
That evening after I fed Beal I put out a bowl of food for Snoopy and sat with her as she wolfed down her dinner. When she followed me back to the house I gave her some more cheese. As soon as she had her treat she trotted back down the path to my neighbor’s house…
I could feel panic rising in me. Didn’t I have to do something to help this animal? I resisted acknowledging to myself that at best, all I could be was a surrogate. Snoopy was mourning the absence of her person. How many folks had this dog loved and lost I wondered distractedly…
I was obsessed and couldn’t stop thinking about the animal. I put Snoopy prayers into my “Bear Circle”, a prayer circle made of Zuni fetishes that I thought I made up about 30 plus years ago (It turned out that I had tapped into a Native American healing tradition without knowing it. Bears were believed to be one of the most powerful animal healers of all and sitting within a bear circle promoted healing of mind and body. Much later I also learned that bears and dogs were also “kin” evolving from a common ancestor).
The second day passed in much the same way, only now I was trotting back and forth between my neighbors’ house and my own a few times a day to check on Snoopy whose behavior remained unchanged. I couldn’t bear to see her waiting so patiently and trustingly for her people to return. Late that same afternoon a small white truck delivered wood to me. As the truck bounced up my road I saw Snoopy jump up and race across the open space to meet the truck. Of course, Snoopy knew that her people had left in a truck and she thought it might be them. When she realized her mistake she bowed her head and trotted back to her post.
I texted my neighbor that the animals missed her.
My friend responded, “ Don’t worry too much about the Scoop, she appears very resourceful. She’ll find you when she needs you.” I wasn’t convinced.
I started to fantasize about saving Snoopy from another abandonment.
It was then that it occurred to me that my deep concern about the dog might be creating problems for her. Animals know what we are feeling often before we humans do, and sometimes they will take on those feelings especially if we cannot own them. I recalled my own struggle with abandonment…
The third morning Snoopy wasn’t in her usual spot by the back door. This, I knew, was a good sign. She might not belong to anyone but surely she belonged to this patch of earth that rose up around us in pink, gold, or fiery red hills depending upon the time of day. The high desert was her “home” and she routinely defended it from wild dogs or singing coyotes. I felt palpable relief thinking about the fact that at least she belonged to the Earth, and also in knowing that she was off somewhere in her territory, perhaps visiting another neighbor. When we set off on our walk, Snoopy appeared from behind one of the bluffs and acted as if she wanted to join us until Hope’s fury got in the way.
That evening when I filled Snoopy’s food dish she wasn’t around.
Was Snoopy adapting to her loss? If so then what I needed to do was to follow her lead and choose a more flexible attitude towards this dog’s situation, opening the door to unseen possibilities. I could also choose to stay in the moment, doing what I could to alleviate the dog’s present loneliness by being her friend when she needed one. Snoopy and I were kindred spirits.
The next morning Snoopy trotted over to visit me ignoring Hope’s outrage. I noted that her ears were standing up straight. She had her early cheese snack before trotting off on her morning rounds, it seemed to me quite happily. The way she held her ears and tail reassured me that in her world all was well. That same afternoon she appeared around 4 PM. More treats were given as I walked her back to my neighbors’ house to feed her dinner.
She and I were communicating on an invisible channel. My neighbor had been right; this very special dog knew just where to come when she wanted company, a treat, or her dinner.
Almost a week has passed with Snoopy directing all of our interactions and I have finally relaxed. My friends will be home in less than two days. I learned just today that Snoopy has been regularly visiting another neighbor who also fed her every day! Although I have deep concerns about the future with regard to this dog I am doing my best to keep my heart and mind open.
It is easy to forget that Snoopy is a canine “daughter of the earth.” It is possible that the powers of place will assist this dog in ways that I can’t imagine. Perhaps the Soul/Spirit of the Earth will continue to draw in good people to this community, people who love dogs, people who will also befriend this most gracious of animals. Snoopy continues to trust and to attach herself to humans even though her first family apparently treated her so badly that she chose place as home. Someday maybe, someone will adopt her… In the meantime, if Snoopy can continue to put her trust in the goodness of people, so can I. Ah, this was the lesson I needed to re-learn!
*Postscript: Animals in mourning
As a naturalist/ethologist I have spent a lot of time observing animals at home and in the wild. Although, science is slow to admit it there is ample concrete evidence that animals mourn the loss of loved ones in much the same way that people do (see literature on dolphins, chimps, elephants, whales, bears, etc – elephants, for example, have been observed returning once a year on the anniversary of an elephant’s death to touch the bones of their dead). Snoopy’s behavior after her people went away provides us with a picture of how dogs mourn the loss of a significant person.
What is remarkable about animals from my point of view is their resiliency in the face of loss, and their ability to return to the present to live their lives in the now. When animals grieve their grief is obvious, palpable to anyone that is sensitive, but out of it comes an ability to adjust to that loss, and to let go of the past, perhaps because they allow themselves to feel in the present without censor? When humans suffer loss, they often distract themselves, or are told by others to “get on with their lives” encouraging the grief stricken to bury their feelings, or as in my own case, are pulled out feeling involuntarily. Not allowing for the process of grieving to occur naturally keeps us stuck in the past.