When you have four dogs—a weird number of dogs—people naturally ask you which of them is the most this or the best at that. I’m not sure that Dot was the most of any particular thing. I would talk about the other three—Grover the big sweet lumbering doofus, the perpetually confused, who dunks his face in the bowl of water and takes bites of it, who sorta plunks his big paddle of a paw on you or pushes his forehead into your leg when he would like to request some closeness; Chop, the vibrating runt with the light-speed metabolism, the boundless enthusiasm for smooching, the strange total commitment to indoor silence, who will not bark until he has trotted all the way downstairs and out the dog door into the backyard first; Bea, Dot’s sister, the neurotic and noisy hyena of a mutt, all wiry paranoia and intensity, who fully reclines next to her dinner and daintily selects and chews and swallows one piece of kibble at a time and will not be rushed, who cannot ever be close enough to my wife that she will not want to get even closer—and then it is time to talk about Dot, Dottie, Dottie Do-Right, and all I could ever say is just, “She is just the best damn dog. She’s the best dog.”
Bea and Dot were born stray somewhere in the Carolinas, generations removed from anything anyone would recognize as any particular breed of dog; they stuck together through pounds and rescues until we found them, tiny, wormy, and glassy-eyed, living in someone’s kitchen with 11 other dogs. Dot—her name was Jackie, then—stretched her neck forward until we were nose-to-nose and stared into my eyes for long seconds, then turned her head and pressed her cheek into my surprised face, in what could only have been analogous to a hug. That was her move, a brilliant mutt’s key for unlocking people: staring into your eyes, with her big long pointy wet nose a centimeter from your face, and then pressing her cheek into your chest. We called it The Cheek.
Dot did not ask for much. That may have been her defining trait. When people talk about the intelligence of dogs, I think mostly they are talking about dogs’ genius for figuring out how to fit in among humans, a whole different species from them—in my imagination, in some ancient time some of the wolves set themselves apart from the others via their curiosity about these weird smart hominids who were good at hunting food and could make fires, and that curiosity was an evolutionary advantage, because it meant easy access to abundant food and warmth and relative safety, hard things to secure for wild animals; those wolves’ descendants were dogs, canis lupus familiaris, which after all are just wolves that have adapted to living in communities of humans rather than communities of wolves. Mutts are the ultimate expression of this: When there are not idiot people selectively breeding them for adorably squashed faces or foofy fur or a psychotic fixation on sprinting after small things, what aids a dog’s efforts at surviving and thriving and mating and having babies are things like adaptability, resourcefulness, a keen eye for figuring out how to fit in with and around the people. Anyway, by this standard Dot was the smartest dog I ever met, patiently and dutifully fitting into the background of the needier three and the bustle of a busy human family; and then, once in a while, weeks or months in between, The Cheek. To make sure everything was OK.
I have so much more I could write about Dottie. How she was the most conscientious and responsible dog I ever knew. How every waking minute of her life, right up to the last, you could witness her earnest effort at figuring out what the pack needed from her and quietly doing it. About the room she made for the klutzy, clueless purebred puppies, when they came along, about the patient “I guess this is just how things are now, huh” look she’d give me when they were crowding onto a small dog bed with her.
About how she was the one my son always felt safe walking on the leash, because anything else might happen except for Dottie pulling or giving him trouble. About the time my mother-in-law fell and hurt herself on her way up the stairs, and Dot came and sat silently next to her. About the time there was a new baby over to visit, and the quiet and steady eye Dot kept on her all day. About how when Bea would get wound up with anxiety and climb over the fence, Dot would bark at her in alarm, and then dutifully follow her over, to make sure she didn’t get in trouble alone. About the weird ragged moaning howl she’d make as she raced the other dogs down the stairs to dash back and forth and flip out at deer, her one indulgence; about how annoying that could be when I was trying to work, and about what I’d give to hear it now. All of this hurts a bit to think about, today.
Dottie died on Thursday around lunchtime, in a little patch of cool grass with her family around and me feebly pressing my face into hers. She was a good and faithful dog who gave us everything she had, and I will miss her forever.