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The “Best” Dogs: Reflections on Canine Companionship and Loss

I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with dogs for over a decade, ever since I founded Glencadia Dog Camp in picturesque Columbia County, New York, providing a haven for New York City dogs in need of boarding and overnight care. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of hosting more than 5,000 individual dogs, and I’ve witnessed firsthand the profound impact these four-legged friends have on their human counterparts. In this article, I’d like to share my unique perspective on the concept of “the best dog”, and reflect on the recent loss of my beloved canine companion, Gustav.

Dogs are remarkable creatures, and the bond between humans and dogs transcends the boundaries of language and reason. Louis C.K. once aptly referred to owning a dog as the “countdown to sorrow”. As someone who has cared for countless dogs and seen them come and go, I’ve come to understand the depth of that statement.

“All the original dogs I boarded here are gone,” I reflected. “I am sure that this has somehow steadied me to the loss of an animal friend, but I’m not sure how much.” When I stumble upon old photos of that original cohort of dogs, it stirs something deep within me. The reason we can sincerely claim that each dog was “the best” to its owner is that the dog-human relationship exists beyond the confines of language and categories. It’s a truth that only seems deceptive if you try to quantify it within the bounds of human language. Dogs operate in a realm of pure being, devoid of the complexities of past, future, or linguistic categorization. They simply exist.

This profound truth becomes even more apparent when a beloved dog passes away. Just recently, we experienced the loss of an old friend here at Glencadia. His name was Gustav, and he lived a full 16 years, a testament to the enduring impact of canine companionship.

Gustav shared his prime years with my daughter, both born in 2008. In his heyday, he was a fearless guardian, defending our home and the entire dog camp from coyotes. I’ve since tried to find a successor who could fill his shoes, but Gustav’s replacements have shied away from the daunting task of confronting a pack of coyotes in the middle of the night. Instead, they’ve chosen to seek refuge under the bed at the mere sound of distant howls.

Gustav was more than just a guardian; he was a brilliant watchdog who knew who belonged and who didn’t. On one memorable occasion, while my family attended a Fourth of July party, Gustav was left to watch over the house. He never strayed from his post on the porch, and he took his responsibilities seriously. However, he had one notable weakness: a profound dislike of thunderstorms and fireworks. On the eve of July 4, a neighbor’s firecrackers in a nearby cornfield prompted Gustav to seek refuge at my mother’s house down the driveway. Unfortunately, my father-in-law, who was suffering from dementia, couldn’t respond to Gustav’s knocking on the door. What transpired during those hours of solitude remains a mystery, but somehow, Gustav embarked on a remarkable journey.

Gustav, displaying his remarkable reasoning skills, found himself at the Hudson River. In an astounding feat of determination, he swam across the mighty river, covering a distance of at least four miles. He was eventually discovered in a park in Coxsackie, where a compassionate family took him in and shared his story on social media. It was through this online post that my wife learned of Gustav’s whereabouts and promptly retrieved him.

In his final days, Gustav’s mobility declined, but his spirit remained undiminished. He continued to care for an orphaned lamb, offering companionship and warmth. On a beautiful day in May, not long after I wrote these words, Gustav peacefully passed away. He ate, wandered around, and tended to his lamb companion. And then, in a tranquil moment, he lay down and departed this world.

Working at Glencadia Dog Camp has given me a unique perspective on the concept of time, particularly as it relates to the lives of dogs. Dogs come and go, and with each new guest, we are reminded of the fleeting nature of their existence. A human can live up to a century, while the average dog’s life is a mere 12 years. When we host approximately 60 dogs at Glencadia, we witness the equivalent of two months of dog life every day. Every six days, a year passes in dog time, and every 72 days, or roughly two and a half months, equates to an entire lifetime in the eyes of our canine guests. Statistically, one might assume that we would encounter the loss of a dog here five or six times a year. However, the reality is far different.

The rare occurrence of a dog’s passing at the camp serves as a somber reminder of the circle of life, a truth that every dog owner eventually confronts. Yet, even in the face of such inevitability, the bond formed between humans and dogs remains a source of immeasurable joy and companionship. Working at Glencadia, we bear witness to this connection on a daily basis.

The loss of a beloved dog is a profound and inevitable part of the human-dog relationship. Gustav’s story is a testament to the extraordinary nature of these bonds, forged through countless moments of joy, companionship, and adventure. While the countdown to sorrow may be an ever-present reality, the joy and love that dogs bring into our lives far outweigh the pain of their eventual departure. Gustav’s memory lives on, reminding us of the unique and timeless connections we share with our canine companions, and for that, we are forever grateful.

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