I am not a “dog person.” I grew up with dogs, but I have always considered myself more of a cat lover. There’s one dog, however, who was special enough to make me reconsider my position in the cat/dog debate. His name was Khyber. Sometime after I left home and moved out on my own, my mother developed a love for golden retrievers. When she learned of a 14-month-old dog whose owners couldn’t keep him, she “rescued” him and brought him home. The name came with him; we didn’t know why he got it, but it seemed to suit him.
At first Khyber was a hyper, hole-digging, lap-running wild thing with a tendency to use his teeth inappropriately when playing with his human companions. But with a little gentle discipline mum soon put a stop to his bad habits, and it became apparent that what she had was a very affectionate and intelligent dog. He made up games to amuse himself, and had an impressive ability to manipulate a tennis ball with one paw. If mum said casually, “I guess maybe you should go outside for a while so I can sweep the floor,” he would trot out the door as if he’d understood every word. He knew which rooms in the house were off limits to his muddy feet, and he didn’t need doors or barricades to remind him. If I took him for a walk on the country roads near home he had his favourite route… and would let me know if I took a wrong turn.
Any time I went to visit I received such an overwhelming welcome, I assumed I was Khyber’s special friend. If I spent the night, when I stepped out into the hallway in the morning he’d be there – peering around the corner, waiting to see me — tail wagging, feet dancing back and forth and a smile on his face. I liked to think he was my special buddy, but I think the truth is that he greeted most people that way. He was mum’s dog, but he made everyone feel they were his “special” friend.
And you never saw such a gentleman. When lying on his rug in the evening, he usually had one paw tucked elegantly back as if posing for a picture. If he was coming into the house with you he stood back and let you go first — then waited on the mat to have his paws wiped clean. When he was about seven years old another “rescued” golden retriever joined the household; a lovely young female named Josie. She had lived her life to that point in a home with several other dogs, where food and everything else was fuel for competition. The day she arrived, Khyber made the mistake of coming too close to one of her toys and she quickly had him pinned to the ground with her teeth bared. He didn’t retaliate or even defend himself against this feisty new addition; he just patiently kept his distance for a while until she settled in to her new surroundings and relaxed.
Although he calmed down as he matured, he always had a spark about him. I swear, when he was happy – which was most of the time – he had a smile on his face. A genuine, happy grin. After a healthy life unmarred by illness or injury, at the age of eleven Khyber started to lose a little of his energy and spark. A trip to the vet confirmed that he had cancer – too many tumours to operate. All that could be done was to medicate him to relieve any pain. Chemotherapy was not considered; it would extend his life a few extra weeks, but those weeks would have included many frightening visits to the vet, not the kind of twilight days he deserved.
The last time I saw Khyber… and I knew it was likely to be the last time… I stayed for the weekend and took a lot of pictures. As it turned out, in many of the photos he just looked old and weak, not the way anyone wanted to remember him. But we took him to the lake one day, and that was when I took my last picture of him. The only other people on the beach were two young men with a golden retriever puppy, looking a lot like Khyber must have at that age. The contrast between the galloping, splashing puppy and the noble, dying dog was poignant.
I took other pictures that day with better composition and hue but this last photo of Khyber, with the colours of the lake fading in the early evening light, best captures the joy and spirit that I remember in his face. In that moment, as he was distracted by the younger version of himself playing at the water’s edge, he had that youthful twinkle in his eye again. So am I converted to the dog lovers’ side of the debate? Not exactly. I have a cat – with the kind of feline independence that “dog people” often scorn, but I admire. As an apartment-dweller, I may never have a dog of my own. But I’ve been lucky… after knowing Khyber I’ve already known the best of what a dog can be.
Khyber never performed any heroic acts, never saved anyone’s life, or did anything else out of the ordinary. He was just a sweet, smart, loving animal with a look in his eye that said he understood you. He wasn’t my dog, but he was my friend.