HisMastersVoiceSignI had a dog once, Brit. I came out of a bad marriage with nothing but that dog and she was the best thing that happened to me back then. I left with a fortune you could say.

She was a Pekingese, grayish-tan, fiercely loyal, and she’d fight a mountain lion for me. In her ninth year, something far worse that a lion confronted her: a baffling disease.

I took her to several vets, none could help her, and things kept going downhill. Her final two days were spent in an oxygen tent at a clinic. Dr. Morrison, a tall lanky veterinarian put his hand on my shoulder one summer morning in 1985.

“Son, you really love that dog don’t you.”

“Yes sir, I do.”

“That’s why you’re going to let her go.”

And I did. I said the long goodbye and was utterly lost. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Dad buried her back home in my land in Lincoln County, Georgia, a hardwood-clad hill, the kind of place Brit loved to explore. A few days after she died, a test came in revealing she had lupus.

Losing Brit hurt so bad I never got a dog again—that was almost a quarter century ago—and for that, my life has been poorer. I just can’t put myself through a loss like that again. Selfish of me in a way because homeless pets need a home.

Pets need kids, too, just as kids need pets. A family visit brought this into focus recently. My daughter, Beth, and her family paid me a visit in January. Beth has three kids but they can’t have pets because the oldest boy, Ben, has asthma and pets give him a hard time. So they’re petless, a sensible choice that nonetheless carries a sacrifice: missing out on the lessons pets provide.

Pets teach children lessons they’ll carry throughout life. Things like unconditional love—they love you no matter your failings. And vital lessons on friendship, responsibility, loyalty, and devotion come gift-wrapped in fur.

To have a pet is to be responsible. You’ve got to feed them and take care of them. You’ve got to clean up behind them at times. Not a lot of fun. You’ve got to teach them discipline but the joy of seeing them light up when you walk into the room makes it all worthwhile. Work and play, life’s great counter-balancing weights, begin with pets.

You learn, too, that you have limits. A snarl or worse a nip or a sharp rake of claws says, “Hey watch it. I have rights too.”

But what great joy their little personalities bring. My little Brit would prop against the living room window and look for me at day’s end just when I would come home from work. On seeing my car, she’d dance and bark. That’s a pretty good welcoming committee. She loved to ride in the car and every night I’d think of some reason to take her with me to the supermarket. Long after she died, I continued to go to the grocery store, night after night. It took many years to break that tradition.

A dog is woman’s best friend too. Each afternoon around 5:30, I take my daily run. I live in a planned community, and my route takes me along a trail that passes several assisted living centers. Over the years, I’ve seen women, not long for this world, walking dogs, grey and infirmed as they themselves are. The women hobble along the edge of a pond. Some struggle with walkers and a few roll along in wheelchairs. All hold leashes as their final companion takes its evening stroll with them. The ladies dote on their pets, as they should. Together, they are sharing the last days to be had on this green earth.

I’ve noticed that when their dogs die, the women soon follow, but together they enjoyed a special kinship. Together, they staved off loneliness.

From childhood to the infirmities of old age, we all need pets. Funny thing, too, about pets. They’re therapeutic. Recent medical studies indicate that having a dog lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. Experts say owning a dog dramatically increases survival odds for heart attack victims.

A study at the Medical College of Georgia reveals that having a few pets around decreases a kid’s chance to develop certain allergies. Ironically, studies suggest early exposure to pets decrease a child’s asthma risk. Maybe having a pet right off the bat would have helped my grandson, Ben.

Pets help us in ways we simply cannot fathom.

That’s why I believe all kids need pets, aside from those with medical issues. Having a little nonjudgmental friend spend the day with you is a good thing, a comforting presence. And taking care of a pet develops nurturing, sowing the seeds for parenting somewhere down the road of life.

There’s a sad side to having a pet, though. Loving a pet charts a straight path to heartbreak. A child’s heart gets that first serious bruise when a kitty or dog passes on. No matter how much you love a pet, you cannot keep it forever. In dying, pets teach children that life must end some day. It’s a lesson that casts a long shadow, lingering in the back of the mind, a ghostly harbinger of what is to come. As the years unfold, children realize that parents and loved ones face the same fate, a fate that will be theirs as well. Losing a pet prepares us for life’s toughest lesson. The end.

So we love, play, and share, while we can and yet the years they do roll by. Then one day, an accident, illness, or old age ends things. What grief a child suffers when a car hits their cat or dog. We grieve for our pets, and when the tables turn, they grieve for us. The famous painting, “His Master’s Voice,” shows the “RCA Victor dog,” Nipper, looking sadly puzzled as he hears the voice of his deceased master.

We’re all in this thing called life together. How many of us have shed tears over the death of a pet. Experiencing joy and grief builds character and it can bring out good things. Ways to cope and hope for a better future.

Not long ago, a friend asked me to write some marketing copy for a business she and her husband were starting. It was an accidental venture, borne out of the passing of their dog, Brandy. After thirteen years of devotion, they couldn’t bear the idea of burying her in a cardboard box. They made Brandy a beautiful casket that made the long goodbye more bearable. They considered it a memorial. Soon, friends, hearing what they had done, requested memorials for their pets. And that’s how Precious Memories Pet Casket Company came to be. They see what they do as part of the healing process and so do I.

Someone once said dogs are not our whole life but they make our lives whole. Louis Sabin wrote, “no matter how little money and how few possessions you own, having a dog makes you rich.” That, for sure, runs true. That’s how I felt when little Brit and I struck off to make a new life together. It just didn’t last long enough. She left me a legacy, though, that makes me appreciate every day I shared with her some twenty-four years later.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground. He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine. Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.” Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.<br /> Visit my website at <a href="http://www.tompoland.net">www.tompoland.net</a><br /> Email me at <a href="mailto:[email protected]">[email protected]</a></p> Visit his website at www.tompoland.net Email him at [email protected]