There are hundreds of stories in every popular culture about dogs, especially about dogs and their heroic, unwavering faithfulness to human beings. Every country, it seems, has some kind of famous, legendary canine. Hachiko in Japan, of course. In Cádiz, Spain, a plaque honors Canelo, a dog whose owner died during dialysis at a local hospital; Canelo waited outside of that hospital for twelve years, hoping that his owner would once again walk through the revolving doors and take him home. In Argentina, for the past nine years, Capitán, a German Shepherd, has been watching over his master’s grave, refusing to leave—even in the most inclement weather. In Toyatti, Russia, a bronze statue called The Monument to Devotion honors Constantine, the dog who returned, every day for seven years, to the intersection where his family were all killed in a car accident.
American culture also has famous dog stories of dogs traveling long distances to find their departed owners. Bobbie the Wonder Dog, for example, became famous for traveling twenty-five hundred miles to return to his family in Silverton, Oregon. This devotion is perhaps more poignant in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when humanity’s worst aspects have been on such ample display. The mechanized slaughter of modern warfare, the incineration of hundreds of thousands of people with a single bomb, ethnic cleansing and tribal warfare in every part of the globe, the horrors of genocide— all of these are part of our current sense of ourselves, of our belief in the limits of what people will and will not do. But dogs are almost always decent—unchanging, unaltered, predictable. And their attitude toward us in unquestioningly kind. Dogs can make us more human—or more like what we imagine a good human to be. If we listen.
Maybe this is why their loss is so heartbreaking. We’re skewered by the lost-animal fliers stapled to telephone poles, by the pleading posts across all forms of social media, begging for news of a missing companion. And it’s not just dogs. Here’s the photograph of Charlie, the beloved family cat, yawning into the camera, fat and fluffy. Here’s Brantley, the eleven-pound Cairn Terrier, wearing his finest holiday sweater, a picture taken just before he disappeared in the middle of the night, digging his way underneath the fence in the backyard, unrooting the damask rose. Their loss implies the loss of the kind of innocence that doesn’t exist very often in our contemporary world.
In a 1988 study for the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, the (aptly named) S. B. and R. T. Barker found that many dog owners actually voluntarily admitted feeling closer to their pets than to their families. In “The Human-Canine Bond: Closer Than Family Ties,” Barker and Barker asked their test subjects to place icons representing their family members and pets in a circle, with the center of the circle representing themselves. The subjects were then told that the purpose of the test was to determine how close they felt to each being in their lives. The conclusions were dramatic. “A statistically significant difference was found between the self-canine distance and self–average family member distance,” the researchers wrote, “with the dog closer to self than the average family member.” The startling takeaway message? The dog was “placed closer to the self than any humans in 38% of the diagrams.” Dogs, it seems, burrow into the deepest parts of ourselves. They live inside of us, in a part of the soul that we don’t normally access. No matter what interior compartments we build, they transgress those boundaries. When they enter our lives, there is no clear way for us—Home sapiens sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris—to pull back apart.
Ginny’s handwriting in the faxes she sent across the state of Virginia expressed panic. This much is clear: the words were uneven and the letters didn’t come neatly together. She was writing quickly, provisionally, sending notes to her growing list of contacts. But something else seems to live in those letters. In their stems and flourishes, there seemed to be a wistful hope. And she was begging—pleading, really—for help. Any kind of help. This is my beloved animal, her handwriting seems to say. Won’t you help me find him? Won’t you, kind stranger, help bring him back to me?