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Raised by Dogs

I believe in Doggie Heaven. That open field in the sky where all dogs go, prancing over the Rainbow Bridge with their eyes bright and their tails wagging, splashing in the rain clouds and drying their thick coats in the sun.

That’s because in my family—all the way from my grandparents to my parents, nephews and cousins—every dog we’ve shared our lives with has been treated as an icon on Earth, and as a big-hearted mischievous saint after they have passed on. Their shaggy tales, four-legged escapades, and heart soaring loyalty are the consistent narrative of our collective pedigree, and their sweet fuzzy faces stare back from among the collage of wedding, reunion, and ski photos in every room.

As I look at them—the proud mutts, shepherds, Labradors, herding dogs and Irish setters (and also the two sweet black English Labs sleeping at my feet right now)—in the animal wisdom of their deep brown eyes, I see a specific lesson they are teaching, albeit one I have yet to completely learn. Those are the best lessons, I suppose, the ones life teaches you again and again—especially when it comes to the tutorials of love, patience, and being a good person.

In honor of the infinite wisdom of all canines, I would like to share some of the knowledge five of those family dogs shared with me, and how it might apply to all the humans, dogs, and other creatures of this world.

Toby # 1—We Are All Kin

My father got Toby the Dog, a beautiful black and tan German shepherd, when he was a captain in the Air Force, before my brother I were born. He was the big brother to us both of in those early years, licking our faces, herding us back from the curb, and when we were sleeping, waiting between us and the door.

Toby went with us on every adventure, skiing, camping, and canoeing in Canada, working back and forth on the trail to make sure everyone was still together. For every 5 miles we hiked, he walked 10 more. He was the second in command to Dad, and the day Toby died at the age of 12 told me more about life than anything I’d experienced before. Especially that the best part of living is for celebrating each other, taking your turn to be the curator of every memory worth the share.

Pancho—Life Is Worth Enjoying

Pancho was a long, all-black German shepherd (Dad loved those dogs). We tied a red bandana around his neck when we went hiking so people didn’t think he was a bear. Not that they needed to worry—all Pancho wanted to do was sit beside you and lick your hands.

He liked birthday parties and ice cream. Laying in the middle of soccer games in City Park. Or playing fetch with Earl, the former Denver Public Schools shop teacher who lived next door. I remember him slowly drinking cold water from a mountain pond at a campsite, and sitting on the back porch listening as the sun went down. He understood the timeless satisfaction of a good day ending with a new one about to begin.

Toby #2—We Are Responsible for Each Other

Toby #2 was a Labrador-malamute mix from Montana who originally belonged to a drunken roommate with whom I shared a house in Jackson Hole. When the roommate asked if I could take care of his dog while he ran river trips in Alaska all summer, I said, “Sure, but when you come back, he won’t be your dog anymore.”

Toby ran away almost every day. Sometimes I got calls from the bars, sometimes from friends 10 or 12 miles away, and then the worst, from animal control. I barely had enough money for groceries, rent, or beer. But I somehow always found the $20 to bail him out. And he rewarded me for it with every powder day on Teton Pass, summer run to the Snake River, and all those nights he kept my feet warm. Or as Toby liked to say it, with his head back and his eyes wild, “A-roo, roo, roo!”

Bella—Be the Queen You Are

Of course, sometimes you just have royalty in your world. Bella, the beautiful black Labrador, was such a girl. Toby the dog and my wife Catherine’s mother Delores, the matriarch of her own home, were the only two creatures to whom Bella ever listened.

We planted 250 tulip bulbs in the backyard in New Mexico. Bella ate them all. We thought it would kill her. She lived to almost 17, always staying in charge of the meals and the walks, and then later on, she wanted her little evening sip of Shiner Bock beer. We could all benefit from enjoying our own sense—no matter how subtle—of “royal rule.”

Bettie Wonder—Be Kind

Bettie Wonder was a little blonde Labrador. We called her “Wonder” because she looked like a loaf of Wonder Bread when she was small. But she made big connections with anyone she met on the trail. People would see me walking and stop to talk to her, leaving their cars running in the road.

It was always Bettie they wanted to see. Sharing some secret or just saying hello. And she always listened. Patiently nodding and panting, leaning in if they needed another kiss. You know, just making it clear she heard you and was glad to see you too.

So here’s a cheers to all the pups and how their betterness has helped make us all better people. Better creatures. Hopefully, we are still doing our own part to contribute to a better world.

“A-roo, roo, roo!”

I am a better person thanks to a few things my four-legged friends have taught me.

— Elevation Outdoors editor-at-large Peter Kray is the author of The God of Skiing. The book has been called “the greatest ski novel of all time.” Buy it here and read it now:

Illustration by Kevin Howdeshell

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