It's a daily happening. The doorbell rings. A client, a friend, a guest comes in. Their first view of the house includes our Weimaraner, Atticus, standing over five feet tall behind the Dutch door of our kitchen, leaning over the door on his elbows and wagging his tail with such vigor that he appears to be shaking all over. He looks as though he's waiting behind a lunch counter for a sandwich. ''He looks like a boy in a dog suit,'' somebody said last year. ''Can I pet him?'' most people ask. I answer yes, qualified with ''as long as you're not afraid,'' because he needs to be handled with firmness. Then I watch with great enjoyment, and a deep feeling of satisfaction, as Atticus engages in one of his favorite activities - meeting and loving people. I love to watch him love. But I didn't always.
The fact is that John and I both wanted our dog's exclusive love. We thought Atticus was indiscriminate and disloyal because he so loved to meet other people and make bold contacts with the world. But what else could we have expected, the way we raised him? My own first Weimaraner, Sam, came into our home when I was fifteen, and the family decided to raise him according to the ''book,'' as the ''book'' was written in those days. To raise a brave and fearless dog, it was said, start him off in a room by himself, let him cry, and at night when he is lonely and whimpering, roll up a newspaper, creep stealthily to the door of the room, and whack the newspaper on the wall a few times to quiet him. Never let him see you. And never, never, under any circumstances, pick him up or take him into bed with you. Sam was a fine and beautiful dog, but he was afraid of everything. He jumped at shadows and paper bags at night when he was out for his walk, and growled at strangers and guests in our home. He was aloof. A loner except for the family. We interpreted his behavior as loyalty and protectiveness.
When Atticus Grey Pony came to us, all ears and skin, at eight weeks, we decided we simply couldn't accept fear as a reasonable method of teaching bravery - as a reasonable way to initiate anything good, for that matter. Atticus had a place to sleep in the kitchen in those early days, but when he cried I got up and held him in my arms until he dropped off to sleep. And if that wasn't enough, he came to bed with us. There was plenty of ''taking advantage'' on his part, but we disciplined him honestly - to his face rather than in secret from behind a door.
And Atticus grew up fearing nothing. In hand-to-paw combat, which he loves, he only momentarily backs off when things get too rough; then he comes back feistily beating the air. His way is to face danger head on, standing his ground rather than running away. He also has a way of defusing and disarming many animals who are reputed to be aggressive and battle-prone. I think he must simply be so lacking in any consciousness of fear that he neutralizes animal behavior to some extent. The more I think about this, the more sense it makes that genuine courage would come from a saturation of love that simply leaves no room for fear. And fear would be nothing but the empty space left when love hasn't been nurtured or understood. What we apparently did to Atticus was to allow the development of his own natural capacity to love.
It remained only for Atticus to help develop our natural capacity to love. Because now we had a dog who simply loved everybody, and we thought this was terrible. Enter hypocrisy. We who were attempting to understand and to live more fully the ideals of universal love - love that reaches beyond personal favoritism, exclusivity, possessiveness, even family ties - were angry at our dog for loving mankind and animalkind as the sun shines. Unconditionally. Apparently we thought we could own Atticus instead of share him. Apparently we thought we - being human beings - could form his individuality instead of acquaint ourselves with it and appreciate it.
What woke us up? I think it was the transcendent power of what he was, of his own unchanging, consistent, persistent character. Suddenly we realized what we had been doing and we began to relax - to accept and enjoy him, to love him unconditionally. And what a joy he is! It's perfectly clear, now that we are capable of objectivity, that we are most certainly the center of his affections. But we aren't the boundary.
The fact is that we owe Atticus a debt that can only be worked off by the way we live our lives, for the rest of our lives. He taught us the basics of an unconditional love that persists under all conditions and knows no disappointment. And he taught us that love is only love if it allows its object the freedom to be itself.