Any Dog Person will tell you there is That One Dog that got them started, usually one from childhood. In my case that dog was Shep.
In my family, we hear a celestial choir singing when you utter “Shep,” (click this link if you dare and have plenty of tissues). His name is sacred and conjures the image of obedience, loyalty and adoration that is everything a dog should be. Every dog we’ve had since then has had to endure the disgusted look of my brother and, “You’re no Shep,” usually delivered when the dog has failed to roll over without being taught.
I was 13 years old when we got Shep. We had had other dogs before this, but Shep was mine, acquired at the age when a teenager is looking for someone or something to love unconditionally.
He was half German Shepherd Dog, half who-knows-what; he looked sort of like a Briard – more like a German Shepherd Dog-sized Yorkshire Terrier. The women at the veterinarian’s office called him The Disney Dog.
Shep lopes through my memory as everyone’s ideal pet. He never once messed in the house and did his business in one four-by-four-foot square area in the backyard. His paws never ventured any further than the boundaries of our suburban yard unless I invited him to walk with me. You could parade other dogs, cats, and even bitches in heat in front of him and he would not leave my side (bitches in heat coming into our yard, however, were. . . ahem . . . fair game, this in the age before spaying and neutering became the norm).
When I think back, his obedience led me to take chances that I wouldn’t think to take with my dogs now. I would go into a grocery store to do the week’s shopping and leave him in the car with the windows rolled down completely. He never jumped out. We’d go on picnics and it never occurred to us to tie him up and it never occurred to him to leave our site.
Of course, my closeness with Shep was partially due to my age and circumstance. I was an insecure teenager in a family going through the turmoil of illnesses and financial stress. I was easily lost in the crowd of well-meaning or needy relatives that were a constant flow in and out of our house. My trivial teenage dilemmas, while monumental to me, were dismissed by everyone else. Shep became my confidant; he noticed me; he remembered when I should be somewhere and fretted when I wasn’t. If it wasn’t for Shep, I’d still be standing outside the Silverton School of the Performing Arts waiting for my mother to come pick me up.
Shep remains perfect in my memory and since he was my dog through my mother’s death has probably assured I’ll never remember anything negative about him. Death brings out the dysfunction in the best of families and there is no such thing as a “peaceful passing” in mine. After one particularly dizzying blow-up among my father, brother, my grandmother and The Aunts, I fled on foot, not even realizing I’d walked out with a dog and without a leash. It wasn’t until I was a good three miles away from home, along a busy New Jersey highway at 9 o’clock at night, that I realized, that Shep was next to me in as perfect a heel position as I could ask and have never again achieved with my show dogs.
Lots of dogs have bounded in and out of my life since Shep. I like to think of him as the leader in a long line of familiars: From Bridgett the rescue Labrador Retriever who had me actually screaming out the back door, “Put down that deer head and come in the house!” to Quigley, the rescue Bichon Frise who was only truly happy driving in a car; to Dundee, our first Australian Shepherd, also a rescue, who thought of himself as Heir 1’s little brother and Heir 2’s nanny; to my pack of six now that my brothers refer to as “Jeanne’s Posse.”
When people look at me incredulously and ask, “How can you live with so many dogs?” I can only look back, equally dumbfounded. But I don’t bother to ask how they can live without. They’d have to have known Shep.