Remembering A Faithful Friend

On weekends, my wife and I usually let Zack (our shepherd-husky) sleep in the house instead of on the porch. Anytime he could stay in the house with us was OK by him. He never expected it; just one of life's little pleasures. Most nights when the television was turned off he would instinctively get up, stretch his legs, then dutifully walk to the sliding glass door that opened to the porch and wait for one of us to let him out.

On weekends, though, Zack slept in the hallway that led to our bedroom. It was easier for us to fall asleep if Zack wasn't in our room. He was a loud sleeper. Just as we began to drift off he'd start one of his doggy dreams: heavy breathing followed with a low growl that crescendoed into a high- pitched bark - probably chasing the neighbor's cat or a local raccoon. As long as we didn't close our door he would end up in our bedroom by early morning anyway, strategically placed so as to catch our first waking movements.

We were always careful not to open our eyes so he could see, and our movements had to be slow and deliberate. He was a very patient and observant sentinel. I don't know if it was breeding or something he sensed, but he never intentionally woke us unless it was urgent. He seemed to know that humans don't get up at the crack of dawn unless they absolutely have to.

When he felt he'd done enough sentry duty, the next level of engagement was some reconnaissance. This usually consisted of making a close pass by my head with a gentle sniff or two, then taking up position next to my wife by resting his head on the mattress as close as possible to her head.

The minute she opened her eyes or moved, she was a goner. Forefeet (with nice big paws) would spring on top of her, while a cold, wet nose nudged her face. She would beg for a reprieve, for just a few minutes more of sweet repose. But it's hard to repose knowing there's a face staring at you within licking distance. Finally, she would relent and get up. It was usually at this moment that she questioned why he always came to her side of the bed. Once she even accused me of training him to do so. I didn't. I taught him to stay, lie down, heel, come when called, and fetch. (Although I don't think you actually train a dog to fetch, you just think you do.)

The most gracious greeting Zack could bestow on guests was to drop his soggy tennis ball in their lap, then sit at attention with great anticipation. No, I think Zack just figured out that my wife was a light sleeper and was therefore more susceptible to his charms. The minute he realized she was actually getting up he'd start his happy dance. If you've ever seen Snoopy in the Peanuts cartoon, you'll know what a happy dance is. This greeting was the same every morning, whether in our bedroom or on the porch.

The excitement and pure joy of seeing us was always expressed in the same way. Zack never seemed to have a bad day, and if he did, he never showed it. His friendly companionship was the one constant in our lives. No matter how bad our problems were, there was Zack, bouncing in the air, wagging his tail, glad you were home. Sometimes, just taking a walk in the field behind our house and watching him leap about like a deer as he ran through the tall grass was enough to lighten the load we were carrying.

If I hadn't gotten up by the time Zack finished his breakfast, my loving and thoughtful wife would tell him to ''Go and get Daddy up.'' As a matter of self-defense, I usually moved to the middle of the bed after my wife had risen. If you've ever had a cold wet nose thrust in your face after it's been in a breakfast bowl, you know it's something to be avoided if at all possible.

It might seem a bit silly to those of you who have kids, but Zack knew us as Mommy and Daddy. Zack was our only child for eight years. When you're married and without kids, a dog sort of completes the picture. Not that a dog could ever take the place of a dear child. Though, I admit that after having our daughter, there were days when I looked down at those dirty diapers and then at Zack and wondered. As an intelligent, discerning father who has raised a dog and a child, I know better than to compare the two. Stay, come here, lay down, and go potty were commands that Zack understood and complied with immediately. Our daughter wanted to discuss it, weigh the pros and cons, then do the opposite of what we wanted.

Zack passed away three years after our daughter was born. She doesn't remember crawling over him as he tried to take a nap and pulling his ears to see if they were removable or riding him like a pony. Our home videos help her discover what a special friend he was. He added so much to our lives. We loved Zack and treated him with kindness, and he gave it back in full measure and more. In many ways he's still with us. When I first wake up in the early hours of the morning, I imagine his head resting on the mattress, waiting for my wife to open her eyes.

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