The Family Dog
Many who have spent a lifetime in it can tell us less of love than the child that lost a dog yesterday.
– Thornton Wilder
It’s hard for me to believe, as all of the dogs I’ve had as an adult have truly been family, sharing our home and our bed and our laughter and tears, the life of a typical “family dog” when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. It’s not that our canine companions were mistreated; they were just treated like dogs.
Dogs back then were named Spike or Butch or Lassie or Laddie, never Joe or Tommy or Phoebe. They were fed Alpo or Purina or Skippy dog food, which back then was made out of unmentionable parts of animals or unmentionable animals and a whole lot of cheap grain and fillers. Or they ate table scraps, and when those ran out, stale bread and milk. If they were large dogs, they lived outdoors in the summer heat and winter snow. Often they lived out their lives behind chain link fences or on chains. No one saw anything wrong with that.
My parents had a German Shepherd dog named Burek before they had us, while still living in Poland. I recall one picture of him on a picnic with my parents, curled near his people and smiling over his shoulder at whoever was snapping the picture. In that picture, as in others from that era before we kids were born, my parents also looked happy together (which was not how they were when I was growing up, but that’s another story). I never met Burek, but imagined him as a gentle, yet vigilant and loyal companion.
As for the meaning of “Burek,” back when I was a little kid, long before the Internet, I made (sometimes very wrong) assumptions about definitions of words. This was pretty rampant in my world. For years I thought that when my parents pointed to the back yard and talked about “topole” (pronounced tah palleh, meaning poplar trees) they were actually talking about “to pole” or “”that field,” behind our house, instead of the stand of Lombardy poplar trees that acted as a wind- and snow-break between our back yard and the open field.
So, I didn’t know exact what “Burek” meant but in my little kid mind I figured that Burek was a back-formation of “bury” (pronounced boo-reh), which in retrospect is probably how my parents meant it all along. “Bury” is a color, dark grey with flecks of brown (sometimes called “sable”), the exact color of a German Shepherd dog’s coat.
Anyway, today I looked up “burek” and was surprised to find that the word means either a fried pastry eaten in some Balkan regions, or “mongrel.” So maybe that dog Burek was sweet and crusty, or maybe he wasn’t quite a purebred German Shepherd. Or – more likely – maybe he was just black and brown.
Not long before we moved out to the farm, Dad brought home a German Shepherd puppy who must have been about three months old when we got him. My parents unimaginatively named him Burek. Growing up with that dog for 13 years, we’d often be asked our dog’s name, and my brother and I would tell people his name was Prince. Because we got tired of explaining “Burek.”
I recall baby Burek tumbling down the carpeted stairs of the house on Rollins Place as he tripped over his oversized feet. We’d catch him at the bottom of the stairs and he’d wriggle out of our arms and take the stairs back up, hauling his little body up one step at a time, so that he could tumble back down all over again.
He didn’t stay small for long; by the time we moved to Winston Churchill he was pretty close to full grown, typical German Shepherd size. He was bigger than I was, which he didn’t know but which I learned fast. He could play rough. We played “chase me” in the yard one summer day and he caught me, tackling me to the ground and nipping at different parts of me in what he thought was a playful way. This play resulted in a dog bite scar to my knee that took years to fade. My love of all animals, especially dogs, and particularly our dog, was such that that didn’t bother me at all. As a kid, I’d bravely approach almost any dog – big or small – unless I heard snarls or saw bared teeth, and even then I sometimes still tried. I still do if they look even the slightest bit friendly.
Dad built Burek a dog house that was double-walled, insulated, and had a front hallway in the winter (a mudroom of sorts), which would be removed every spring around the same time as Dad replaced the storm windows and doors on our house with window screens and screen doors. He had two of his own weeping willow trees for shade. Now and then a squirrel or raccoon or possum would wander by and entertain him by getting stuck in one of his trees.
I’m sad to say that Burek lived on a 20-foot chain for most of his life, coming indoors only in the worst blizzards. In the last year or so of his life, he was allowed to wander around our property, and would often cross the muddy fields and come back filthy. At that point, he had bad hips, as German Shepherds often do, and we think he enjoyed the soothing mud baths.
Even when allowed indoors for bad weather, he never left our mudroom and our parents would certainly not have welcomed him in our kitchen or our beds – especially as I don’t recall ever giving him a bath. He was considered part of our outdoor landscape and he had a job to do out there, which he did superbly well; no one ever approached our house without being announced. Unwelcome guests like solicitors were given a particularly frosty hello and would often not even get out of their cars before making a hasty retreat (especially as his dog run was by the driveway, right next to the driver’s side door).
We kids played with him every day; his face would light up when he saw us and he’d come running for pets and ear rubs and head scritches and hugs. We learned early on that if we were snacking on something indoors and heading out of the house, we’d have to wolf it down before opening the door unless we wanted to lose whatever was left of it. His big brown eyes were irresistible and he knew it.
He shed crazy amounts of fur every spring, blowing his thick winter undercoat in giant fur-bunnies that would drift across our yard like tumbleweeds.
We’d load him in the car now and then on a hot summer day (he’d leap around madly as he’d never learned car manners) and drive him up north, along Winston Churchill Blvd, up into Norval where we’d throw him into the Credit River. He loved dog paddling around in the river and we loved watching him do it. It was even worth spending 30 minutes in a car breathing wet dog all the way home.
I believe that the beloved dogs of our lives never leave us. Each one finds a permanent home in our hearts, and there is always room for one, two, or six more. Burek was woven into the fabric of our childhoods, a faithful pal, great listener, guardian, entertainer, and a rock. When the world was scary or sad or angry, he was our refuge.
When it was stormy or chilly indoors, as it often was, all we had to do was go outside to find Burek, our seeing-soul dog, who was always there to lead us to back to the sunshine and remind us that life is, actually, really great.