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PETS HELP US TO GROW

By Bob Swandby

Neka

When I was a small boy growing up in Minnesota I desperately wanted a dog for a companion. I was very shy and I hoped that having a dog might help me be more outgoing. When I put the question to my mother, she said, “Three boys are enough, I can’t take care of a dog too.” I was deeply disappointed and hurt. Neither of my brothers cared about having a dog, so I didn’t have much chance of changing her mind. It seemed very unfair to me because she had a dog when she was young.

At some level I never stopped wanting a dog, but living in apartment in Washington, D.D. made it impractical. I was in my mid-thirties when I moved to Santa Fe. Watching my neighbors walk their dogs made my longing to have one stronger than ever. One Christmas I was back in Minneapolis visiting my family. We were having diner at my cousin’s and I mistook her fluffy, lively puppy for a German Shepherd. She informed me that it was a Keeshond, a Dutch breed that was originally a barge dog and then bred in England during WWII. I decided than and there that if I got a dog, it would be a Keeshond. A little research indicated that this was indeed a very friendly and sociable breed.

One Sunday I was reading the classifieds and came across a breeder in Albuquerque who had Keeshond puppies for sale. I went down that afternoon and one puppy, who was larger than the others, crawled over her brothers and sisters to get to me. It was love at first sight. She was only six weeks old and fit in the palm of my hand. I named her Eineke, the name of a Dutch friend’s girlfriend, but it soon got shortened to Neka. Having the love of that small puppy made me happier than I had ever been in my life. My marriage was ending and it was a very difficult time for me emotionally. Neka was the perfect first puppy. She never chewed on things she wasn’t supposed to or did anything bad except pass my underwear through the hog wire fence to the neighbor’s dogs if I forgot to put it in the hamper. My embarrassment at being handed my underwear by my laughing neighbor put a quick end to that problem.

Neka taught me more about giving and receiving love than any human I had known. When I came home from work she literally danced. Her whole body wagged, and she spun in circles. She was everything I had wanted in a dog as a boy and she brought out the boyishness in me. I could never count the hundreds of miles we hiked together nor the number of evenings we sat just watching the sunset.

One day she sat down on one of our neighborhood walks and started shaking. When I took her to the vet, she had a high white blood cell count indicating an infection, but they couldn’t find anything specific. The antibodies worked for a while, but then the episodes returned and it took some time before exploratory surgery was performed and a small cancerous growth on her bladder was discovered. I was in shock. Even though she was nearly ten, it never occurred to me that she wouldn’t live many more years because she was so totally alive and vibrant. The cancer was caught early and I opted for an experimental chemotherapy treatment. I did nutrition research and changed her diet to mostly fresh foods and a high quality organic dog food with no preservatives. Every three weeks we went to the vet and I stroked her and talked to her as the inky black chemicals were injected into her leg. She never whined, never even complained. She got stronger and more vibrant again for nearly two yeas. She was actually strong until the last few day of her life when everything just seemed to shut down, the way it often does in an old person. I don’t think the cancer came back, but I don’t know for sure. It seemed more like her organs just wore out.

Neka even taught me about the dying process. If I can be as patient and peaceful as she was when my time comes, I know that it will not be such a difficult transition. My father had passed away just two months before Neka. I grieved as much for her as I did my father. When I thought about that, I came up with some interesting insights. It occurred to me that we love our family and friends dearly, but it is impossible over the course of the years not to disagree and get into arguments with humans. Our animals, on the other hand, love us regardless of the kind of day we’ve had, the foul mood we might be in, or the unkind words spoken to them in anger that was really meant for someone else. They are simply here to show us love; and, if we observe carefully, how to love more fully and unconditionally.

Even as we grow into old age, animals are a great source of love and companionship. I used to see a woman and her husband walking their two small dogs every day. One day I saw her walking alone with the dogs and asked about her husband. She looked very distressed and said that she had finally had to put her husband in a nursing home because his Alzheimer’s disease had gotten so bad she couldn’t care for him at home anymore. I asked if there was anything I could do to help, but she couldn’t think of anything. The next day it occurred to me that she might enjoy the company if I offered to walk her dogs with her. She gladly accepted my offer. We found we had a lot in common and became good friends. Her husband’s condition deteriorated rather quickly and he died unexpectedly. I kept waking with her throughout this difficult period and she said it cheered her up. So sometimes animals bring people together in times of need, and the shared experience of simply walking dogs together helps to smooth out the rough spots we all have in our lives from time to time.

This article first appeared in the Winter 1997-98 issue.

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