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Love's Pure Light

A photo of Ralph Gardner Jr.'s dog, Wallie
Photo provided by Ralph Gardner Jr.

The absence of a dog is felt more profoundly, at least on an hour-to-hour basis, than that of a spouse or a child. I say that after our dog Wallie got sick and spent a couple of nights at New York City’s Animal Medical Center. That’s the premiere animal hospital where the room, or rather cage, rate is equivalent to a Four Seasons hotel.

I’ve been asking myself why that’s the case – not why the place is so pricey, why the presence of pets feels so profound -- and I have a few theories. For one thing dogs are habitual in a way people aren’t. Chances are you know where they are and what they’re doing at any given moment. That’s because they’re usually on the couch sleeping. And when they’re not it feels as if a piece of your personal landscape is missing.

I suspect that goes double for a working dog. I use the term working dog generously, euphemistically, almost sarcastically because, apart from putting the fear of God into squirrels, it’s hard to point to any productive purpose Wallie serves.

That’s not her fault. It’s ours. Her breed is known as a Bracco Italiano. She’s the Italian version of a pointer. There are lots of videos online of grizzled old Italian men with shotguns leading these speckled apricot and white hounds through upland fields, driving pheasant and quail, while poetic music plays in the background.

Even though an ancient breed – my wife claims she read somewhere that they were the favorite dog of the Medicis – they’re rare in the United States. And even in Italy for that matter. According to Wikipedia, only 700 of them were registered there between 2010 and 2018 and I suspect far fewer in the United States. Nonetheless, this year the American Kennel Club recognized the breed. That means they’ll be able to compete at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

We acquired our Bracco after our daughter Gracie went online and filled out some sort of personality profile. It wasn’t a profile of the sort of pet we desired; it was a profile of our family. It must speak to our eccentricity that the algorithm, or whatever it was, spit out the name of a breed that’s almost unknown in the United States.

The Bracco’s primary personality trait – at least our Bracco’s leading personality trait -- perhaps unsurprisingly, is a desire to locate and retrieve things. Wallie does so with ceremony similar to the way a sommelier at a three-star Michelin restaurant would present a bottle of Chateau Lafite; by showing you the label, pouring a small amount for your approval, and then completing the pour with a twist before wiping off the neck of the bottle with a serviette.

The canine equivalent is greeting you at the front door with an offering of some sort – a toy, a bone, a stick. We thought the ritual was peculiar to Wallie until we visited another Bracco who engaged in the identical front door behavior.

After her hospital stay and a battery of tests we’re still uncertain what’s wrong with our dog. Her problems started a couple of months ago when she seemed to be trying to cough something up, like a cat does a fur ball. X-rays discovered a mass blocking her trachea. Unfortunately, it may just be a manifestation of a larger problem – lung cancer. She’s only eight years old and in otherwise perfect health.

The problem is that Wallie’s desire to play is so strong – tug of war is her favorite game, either with a rag or stick – that she doesn’t seem to understand why she’s getting winded. Other than playing that game, the dog is never more herself than running through the woods, tracking every scent along the way. It’s the dog equivalent of Nirvana, the state of perfect happiness that humans only aspire to.

So it pains me that I can’t take her for walks, at least for now. She’s scheduled to have surgery after Christmas. Hopefully that will give her some relief. But at least she’ll be home for the holidays.

If Thanksgiving is for offering gratitude then what’s Christmas for? At least for those of use who don’t observe it in a religious sense? I suppose it’s an opportunity for families, and Wallie is decidedly a member of the family, to gather.

The hymn Silent Night has always felt important to me, with the lighting of candles at the conclusion of the Christmas Eve service, because it has the power to still the soul; to put you at peace with yourself, the world and the universe beyond.

I suppose that’s also the power of a dog, with its goofy habits and unequivocal love. It has the ability to take you out of yourself. Who knows how much more time Wallie has left and we with her? But for the moment, on this Christmas Eve, she’ll do as much as any carol to remind us of what’s important and miraculous about a world that on other days does its best to make us forget.

The views expressed by WAMC's commentators are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of WAMC or its management.