One of my favorite dog movies is My Dog Skip. It’s sad, sure. But it’s also heartwarming and funny, and does a great job of illustrating the spiritual bond we have with our dogs. That deep love I often mention when talking about our book Gone Dogs.
The first time I saw it I was convinced that Kevin Bacon’s character, Jack Morris, was a villain. Jack was a hardened war veteran who had a wife and young son. The boy, Willie, an only child, wanted a dog, but Jack refused. And when his wife brought a dog home without his approval, Jack rejected it.
Villain, right? I mean what kind of dad wouldn’t want his only child to have a dog?
But soon enough we realize that Jack’s not a monster. He was simply trying to protect his son from the inevitable heartbreak that comes with a dog—death. A loss he once experienced, and something that lingered into his adulthood. And this idea of death was reinforced in the horrors of war which changed him into the man he was now—a father trying to protect his child from pain.
Besides, Jack is a serious man. And play is the province of children and dogs. Not men. The role of a father is to guide his children on a path with the least amount of pain. Because life is painful enough. No need for anyone to endure the pain associated with losing a family dog.
Eventually, of course, Jack relents and Skip becomes the family dog and a constant companion to his son. And despite his hyper-awareness to the pain that will come from Skip’s passing, Jack is happy watching Willie grow up with Skip. And play.
Deep down every parent is like Jack Morris. We all want to protect our children from pain. But what I’ve learned about parenting parallels what Jack learns—you have to let life happen. You have to allow your children to experience life so that they learn to appreciate every beautiful moment.
When my wife and I had our first daughter in 2001, we already had two dogs. Shepherds. Both played a part in the development of our book. Tucker’s story, Just a Dog, is in it. Sydney is featured on the cover. When Tucker died in 2010, our daughters were devastated. But they were still pretty young and they weren’t there for his final moments. But when Sydney died, everyone was gathered in the room. The girls were 13 and 11, and it was time to experience this part. After all, this dog was part of their lives since birth. She was literally their dog mother. It was a heartbreaking moment for sure, but one I’ll never forget. And I’m pretty sure they won’t either.
Was it worth it to have dogs around children? Yes. Were we bad parents for allowing them to experience the heartbreak that comes with loving a dog? No.
When we sign on with a dog, we do it for life. Their life. And that means the whole thing. And looking back at our two Gone Dogs, the love and joy they brought into our lives far far FAR outweighed that one devastatingly sad moment at the end. And you know what? Today their memories continue to bring us joy. We can’t look at old photos of our kids without seeing Tucker and Sydney in them. Vacations. Day trips. Playing in the yard. Christmas. Life.
Since making this book I’ve heard so many people say, “Dogs are like family.” But I say, dogs are family.
Next year my dog Strider turns ten. Where his fur was once ink-black, crops of silver are moving in around his eyes. Only, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He just wants to play. Every day. But in a couple of years, he’ll begin to slow. And in a couple more, he’ll be gone.
And while this awareness is awful, Strider, like all dogs, doesn’t let me linger there. He’s too grounded to what’s real—each moment he’s alive. Only.
Here is the last five minutes of My Dog Skip. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and rent it. Just don’t watch this clip.
If you have already seen it, I dare you not to cry watching this last scene.
Dogs are family.