Book Review: For the Love of a Dog

In August, we lost our beloved 11-year-old German shepherd Alex (Alexandria) suddenly to cancer. And then along came For the Love of a Dog, a gritty memoir by Elisabeth Rose (Harmony Books, $24), that examines our emotional bond with pets and their spiritual after-life.

Oh, how timely this stirring psycho voyage proved. It asked the same questions I posed, as I sat teary-eyed on the floor of a Tacoma, Wash., veterinary hospital holding Alex and telling her good bye for the final time.

I was asking God the same question that Rose, at age 12, posed to her priest, the Rev. Van Dyke, years ago: "Do animals go to heaven?" Van Dyke replied, "No," based on his belief animals don't have souls.

This left the youngster hip deep in cynicism toward the church for 9 years. Finally, while she was taking a catechism class during her college years, Rose asked Monsignor Kelly, "Do animals have souls?" He responded, "Catholics believe that they do, yes."

This memoir details the author's love affairs with birds, a horse and foremost, a border collie named Kierney, which she and her ex-husband, Joe, obtained in 1989 as a puppy.

It appeared to be a match made in heaven. The young perfectionist Kierney's ability to grasp Rose's commands instantly, quickly wowed everyone who knew them.

"The boundaries between nouns and verbs began to shimmer and disappear," writes Rose. "Every word referred to the entirety of an experience, all the objects and activities intertwined. Say 'thirsty,' and I conjured for her 'water,' 'dish' and 'drink.'"

The author kept records of the words Kierney knew, which totaled about 130. "Friends, stunned by how conversable she was, often exclaimed, 'It's like living with a chimpanzee!' She was 'freaky' and 'weirded people out.' "

As anyone who has ever owned a border collie knows, this is not only a colorful, high-energy breed, but a discerning one, too. The dog thrives on challenge and detests boredom.

While Kierney's early days were packed with panache and precocious genius, the gifted animal by age 2 began to fall on hard times with epilepsy's grand-mal seizures. "Each day I woke up, I was uncertain what I'd get with Kierney," says Rose. "She had her good days and her bad, which affected her temperament, too."

Rose admittedly remained "blind" to some of Kierney's behavioral tendencies after the dog was diagnosed with epilepsy, which the author characterized as a "neuronic time bomb." Those "Terrible Twos" young parents are familiar with, were chafing at Rose, as her "best friend and waking dream" was experiencing one horrendous epileptic attack after another. After 2 years, (1993) she decided to have the beleaguered animal euthanized, as his health continued to deteriorate.

Losing Kierney was traumatic. "I was no longer myself," she says. "I would never be again. I was a forest cleared and subdivided. I was a city block washed empty by flood never to be refilled. I was Pompeii, buried, running for breath. I was the trusting dodo, whose every name means 'foolish,' for I had believed that if it was alive, it wouldn't hurt me."

For Rose, the elongated saga dramatized that life's reality doesn't come with no-harm guarantees. And sometimes there are losers … no matter what the heroics. After a cherished pet is euthanized, the grieving process and decision to get another is a highly individual decision. The emotional dynamics that apply to one individual may not for another.

But she didn't waste much time – about 3 months – obtaining another border collie, Pip. A year later, Casey, you guessed it, a border collie, joined the household. "The truth was that I believed Kierney could be replaced with improvements," she says.

In this context, Rose cites a passage from noted Austrian scientist and Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, "Dogs are indeed individuals, personalities in the truest sense of the words, and I should be the last to deny this fact, but they are much more like each other than are human beings. If on the death of one's dog, one immediately adopts a puppy of the same breed, it will generally be found that he refills those spaces of one's heart and life which the departure of an old friend has left desolate."

By 1998, as she finished this memoir, Rose and Joe divorced. When he was unable to take Pip, she contacted a local border-collie rescue organization that found the dog a good home. Today Casey, 7, is the centerpiece of the lives of Rose and her daughter Delaney, but Kierney's legacy looms large.

During a telephone interview, Rose said, "Kierney was not only my love, but a teacher, too. The experience taught me the value of temperament testing when choosing a dog and the importance of checking out the breeders' credentials." In that respect, she admits she didn't take her own advice with either Kierney or Pip in respect to temperament evaluation. In Casey's case she did.

"Caring for Kierney taught me to have more compassion for those involved in animal-welfare and animal-health fields, as well as for those owners involved with long-term maintenance of sick pets. In retrospect, I was too self-sacrificing in respect to Kierney and I didn't weigh the human cost on myself and recognize the time I was missing with Joe and Delaney."

For the Love of a Dog is an absorbing blend of tension and passion, firmly tethered to reality. It's must reading for anyone who has ever been owned by a dog.

P.S.: And just in case you're wondering, Rose did contact Kierney's breeder and the owner of the sire to inquire if others in the litter contracted epilepsy. Both were defensive, she said, and denied any incidence of the disease in their lines.