The betrayal of dog by man—the “Lost Dog” story— is one of our oldest, most poignant tales. When Odysseus returns home after years of wandering, no creature recognizes him except his dying dog. “Infested with ticks, half dead from neglect, here lay the hound, old Argos. But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by, he thumped his tail, muzzling low, and his ears dropped, though he had no strength to drag himself an inch toward his master.”
Gelert was the favored hound of the 13th-century Welsh prince, Llewellyn ab Joweth . One day, Prince Llewellyn noticed that Gelert had left the hunt. When the prince got home, the bloody Gelert greeted his master exuberantly, but the prince’s infant son wasn’t in his crib, and blood splattered the walls. The enraged prince promptly slew Gelert. Moments later, he discovered his unharmed son, next to the corpse of the wolf Gelert had killed protecting the child.
There are at least 30 recorded versions of the Gelert story, the earliest before the Christian Era.
“Lost Dog” is paradigmatic; retold so many times in modern literature, it seems to be the only dog story we need to tell. White Fang, Lassie Come Home, The Incredible Journey, The Plague Dogs, my own Nop’s Trials: all stories of sundering and loss.
In Raymond Carver’s short story, “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” an overwhelmed husband abandons the family dog beside the road: “He saw his whole life a ruin from here on. If he lived another fifty years—hardly likely—he felt he’d never get over it, abandoning the dog … A man who would get rid of a little dog wasn’t worth a damn. That kind of man would do anything, would stop at nothing.”
We rewrite and reread this predictable, profoundly satisfying story, although in each recounting, we humans are cruel betrayers and dogs are our moral superiors.
The story satisfies because it is true. Yes, we betrayed the dog.
Our old partner, the animal who ensured our survival, who slipped into our genetic code like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, became “only” a dog, no more privileged than hogs or sheep. We needed to spurn him because the dog threatened the same dreams his watchfulness made possible.
Freed by dog to dream of God, freed to yearn for God’s attributes, to escape the tragedy of human mortality, man gave up his dog for the greatest vision man has ever had.
Yet the dog remains eager—pathetically eager—to renew that 100,000-year-old genetic partnership from which he has been forever banished: Lost Dog.
Man didn’t abandon his dog cheaply. He didn’t sell him for a mere 30 pieces of silver. Man asked the greatest reward any creature ever asked of his god: immortality.
We lost our dog to live forever.
Excerpted from Mr. & Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies, forthcoming from University Press of Virginia (March 2013). Used with permission.