I grew up in Philadelphia during the tumultuous ‘70s. As one of five kids living in a row house, space was at a premium and the energy my siblings and I generated often created chaos. With so much going on every day, there was absolutely no way our mother was going to allow a dog in the house. No way.
But I wanted a dog.
I’m pretty sure I was born a dog person. When I was very small, I made no distinction between the neighborhood dogs and the kids who played in the streets. To me, they were all potential playmates that liked to have fun and were quick to join in any adventure.
The fact that some of my “friends” couldn’t talk made no difference to me.
Dogs were plentiful in our neighborhood. Although I didn’t have one to call my own, their presence in my everyday life sustained me through my early years.
Most of the dogs I knew as a kid were somebody’s pet. They lived in the house and were periodically let out in the yard to visit with the neighbors and each other.
A few of the dogs I saw each day were kept by local businesses as guard dogs. These seemed lonely to me, but I knew instinctively to give them their space. I think I respected the job they had to do – or I was just plain afraid of them!
The first dog I ever met was a mixed breed named Buzz. The couple next door owned him, so I saw him every day.
Buzz spent his waking hours sitting in the front yard, waiting for attention from the neighborhood kids. I remember him as an old dog, calm and gentle. He had a pointy nose, prick ears and gray hair that stuck out in all directions. Although he was not a beauty in the physical sense, he was definitely worthy of the title Mr. Congeniality. Buzz would sit for hours on his stoop, waiting patiently to greet anyone who simply offered him a gentle pat on the head.
Buzz was the kind of dog a kid like me wanted to spend time with.
Most of my neighbors would take their dogs for daily walks. Sometimes I’d tag along and ask to hold the leash. As I got older, I’d knock on the neighbors’ doors to ask if I could walk their dogs. I can’t recall as single time when my offer was declined.
Taking those dogs for walks made me responsible and gave me a sense of freedom too. I was happy when an adult handed me his dog’s collar and leash. I’d spend as much time walking the dog as I could get away with, and I remember feeling like I’d done a good job when I brought the dog back, tired and happy.
Some of the many dogs in our neighborhood were mixed breeds like Buzz, but many more were purebreds of every shape and size.
Prince was the intimidating German Shepherd Dog that lived across the street, and King was an impressive tri-colored Rough Collie. Brandy was a friend’s Boxer, as was Pepsi the Doberman and Skipper the Smooth Collie. Sassie was a Scottie with a big attitude, and Lady was a gentle Belgian Sheepdog.
I can’t remember the name of my fourth grade teacher, but I remember the names of every dog I knew growing up.
When I was about 12 years old, I got a morning paper route that took me to houses a bit farther from home. I quickly learned where all the dogs lived. This is how I was introduced to so many different breeds. Every morning I’d visit with an Alaskan Malamute, an Irish Setter, a Shih Tzu and an Old English Sheepdog. I distinctly remember the home of a very stylish woman who had an enormous Afghan Hound. I’d never seen anything quite like this dog, although he was never, ever happy to see me.
My little business introduced me to new puppies like Tinker the Beagle and Penny the Springer Spaniel. Through the years, I met dogs large and small, from Yorkies and Poms to Saint Bernards and even a frightening pair of Neapolitan Mastiffs. (I knew I was wide awake whenever I’d come across Caesar and Cleo in the morning!)
I recently had a conversation about dogs with my older brother Rob. Like my sister Eileen, he’s a dog lover, and he and his wife have shared their Manhattan apartment with several dogs.
As we talked, Rob told me how much Buzz meant to him all those years ago. He remembers the dog next door exactly as I do and feels that this one dog’s presence in his life had a profound influence on him.
Of course, I understood exactly what he meant. Even though the dogs we grew up with were not our own, they are an indelible part of the dog people we’ve become. Their legacy exists not only in our memories, but also in everything we do with dogs today.
Here’s to Buzz and to all the dogs next door.