There was nothing I dreaded more as a young teenager than waking up way too early on a Saturday morning to the far-off baying of our good hound dog Jake as he was on the scent of a cottontail in the fields that surrounded our suburban home. When we adopted him—from a Hoosier farmer with half a right arm—they said he was half beagle and half basset hound. Since we (me and my dog-starved brothers and my mother and father) only met the beagle mother and littermate sister, who was decidedly more feminine with dark eye shadow and long lashes, weren’t so sure. But when my father pulled the pup’s hangdog ears a good inch past his moist black nose, we never doubted his stated pedigree. After much arguing and discussion, my father declared his name Jacob, because it was biblical and the monosyllabic nickname was Jake, which was easier for a dog to learn, he explained. Jake’s muted majestic call meant one of us boys had to climb out of bed and pull on our blue jeans and follow the trumpeting pronouncements until we’d successfully cornered and leashed our winded escapee and dragged him all the way back home.
Jake was my best friend since the moment our eyes first met when I was nine years old in 1969. Dogs so occupied my thoughts as a boy that—when my family moved from Indianapolis to New Jersey, in an effort to smooth the transition across country—my mother had each of us boys select the fabric for curtains as well as a wall poster to adorn each of our new bedroom walls. My next-oldest brother Craig picked a Peter Max poster, but I selected a poster of all the recognized dog breeds in the United States just like the one that hung in the waiting room of our veterinarian’s office. I memorized each of the breeds. It wasn’t long before Jake and I tackled obedience school together (we had to take the beginner’s class twice until we mastered the basic commands of “sit” and “come” and “heel”). I even worked up the nerve to enter Jake in an amateur dog show (we took home an honorable mention…I still have the ribbon). Jake loved nothing better than to play in a pile of oak leaves or a good game of tug-of-war. He was a steadfast friend who listened patiently as I poured my heart out to him, and he was always good for a reassuring lick on the cheek. Sometimes, at just this time of year, when I was taking him on our requisite evening walk after dinner, I would sing to him my favorite songs from Oliver or The Sound of Music as we watched the twinkling lights in the foothills that surrounded our neighborhood in New Providence, New Jersey. By the time we moved to Missouri when I was 15, I had signed up to volunteer at the Humane Society of St Louis and I eventually found a job at a dog kennel about a mile up the road from where we lived. I thought I wanted to be James Herriot, whose first book my mother gave to me to read when I stayed home sick one day from elementary school.
Jake lived a good long life for a hound dog. He used to wait up downstairs under the front hall light until the very last member of our family was tucked in safe and sound. The last night of his life, he was parked under the front hall light when I finally arrived home from college for Thanksgiving vacation at 2 a.m., his white-tipped tail thumping on the floor. He was almost a decade old and my steadfast companion, but he didn’t make it through that night. I like to think I spot his spirit when I look into the eyes of my good terriers Scout and Finch. In fact, I feel that I’m looking into Jake’s big brown eyes whenever I gaze deeply into the eyes of most friendly dogs. I don’t know about you, but the dogs in my life have made me a much better person.