By Janet Earley and Katie Soden
Some people say that dog years are different than human years—that by some calculation, one human year equals seven dog years. We’ve always thought this was a bit silly because as any dog owner who’s paying attention knows, dogs are present in exactly the same moments we are. In fact, they are nearly always more present than we are.
If anything, we have measured our own lives in dog time. We are just starting our fourth decade together and at nearly every moment there has always been a dog or two there to be part of every important phase of our lives.
Alyx was the straight-out-of-college dog, a full-bred mutt brought home on a whim from the local animal shelter. She saw us through our lean years: Her bed was an old blanket from a dorm room and her toys were nearly all found objects, mostly sticks. By the time of her passing, we were both in our 30s, owned our own home and had something approximating real jobs.
Scientists tell us that that the critters that came to be our domesticated dogs split off from grey wolves some 32,000 years ago to take their chances with humans. Their evolution has been remarkably successful. They are now so attuned to people that they know how to follow our gaze to an object, something even our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, can’t do. Dogs need people because they’ve evolved to live with us. But do people need dogs because we’ve evolved to live with them?
Certainly we adapted to live with our second dog, Mackenzie, and not so much the other way around. The Aussie Shepard in her brought an intensity to everything about her. She was single-mindedly independent, ceaselessly energetic and boundlessly joyful. Her need for lots of exercise turned us into runners and eventually, triathletes. Her daily outings often involved her own agenda that we simply had to yield to—usually forays into the woods around our house where she virtually disappeared. By the end of the Mackenzie phase, we were well into our 40s and our household had become thoroughly dog-centric.
The Aboriginal people of Australia say that dogs make us human. Without a doubt, our own dogs have made us more human. Their shear doggy-ness has taught us patience (dinnertime will always come, if you just wait long enough), loyalty (never let your friends get too far out of sight), perspective (there’s actually no good reason not to go for a walk just because it’s raining) and most important— to always, always, love unconditionally.
So that brings us to Zoe, the big black Lab who always saw the best in us and believed we, her humans, could do no wrong. We tried hard to live up to her expectations. Over her long life, she was many things: passionate retriever, expert swimmer, tireless companion over hundreds of mountain miles and a lover of all people, especially children.
She was born with the temperament of a therapy dog and she found her niche along with Janet in volunteering for a local dog therapy organization. Each month the two of them would get gussied up—a bath for Zoe and an official ID badge for Janet—and visit a local school or library to listen to children read. Zoe would sprawl on her dog bed and the children, more often than not, would sprawl on Zoe.
In recent years, they would visit the memory care unit in our community’s nursing home, where the residents delighted in her big black head, gentle cookie-taking mouth and thumping tail. Some residents asked to meet Zoe a half-dozen times over a single visit, but Zoe treated each time as if it were the first. She was present and open to joy in every moment—something that we, as humans, have never succeeded in doing quite so well.
Knowing when it was time to say goodbye to Zoe put all the lessons our dogs have taught us to the test. We wanted more time, but she asked us to do the right thing. Unconditional love isn’t easy. If we ever get half as good at it as our dogs, we’ll call that human lives well lived.
Janet Earley and Katie Soden are longtime residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. Ryley, their current dog, merits her own story, which would mainly involve adventures in counter-surfing and visits to the emergency vet.