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What my dog Buddy gave me – I didn’t realize until too late

John Martz/The Globe and Mail

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In the week between Christmas and New Year, you can find yourself with nothing much to do. That's how it was for us when our skiing holiday was cut short after my husband hurt his back careening down a run that, let's not kid ourselves, was beyond his capabilities.

Quitting Whistler prematurely with our tails between our legs, we went home to Vancouver Island, where we found that the joys of the festive season had forsaken us. What better remedy for sagging spirits than a shopping excursion?

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On Saturday afternoon, as we rounded the corner to the main street of Duncan, we ran smack into a commotion. A number of shopkeepers were gathered on the sidewalk. As we got closer, we picked up the thread: A dog had been abandoned, cast from a truck that sped away. All day, the dog had been seen padding back and forth across the street. Soon, it would be closing time; what was to be done with him over the weekend?

Our son Steve took charge. Crouching to eye level, he took the fevered dog's head in both hands and said: "Hey Buddy, settle down; everything is going to be all right."

Just like that, the dog scored a hat trick: new name, new friend, new future.

According to the vet, Buddy was a German shepherd-Blue Heeler cross, and in excellent health. Since no one had claimed him after a week, he became an official member of our family, and joined us in learning to get along in a new environment. We had recently moved from Ottawa to Mill Bay, and were facing adjustments of our own – separation from family and friends, for starters.

Getting to know Buddy was a happy diversion. A hint of his past showed in his eyes – fervent and mysterious, with a trace of suspicion, suggesting that he had stories, some of them sad, perhaps of harsh treatment. His trust would have to be earned. But Buddy showed a gift for friendship and the qualities of an endearing companion, along with unshakable dignity. It seemed that Buddy knew his worth.

Our life together began to take shape. As soon as Lloyd and Steve had left for the day, Buddy would set off on his rounds. He'd prance, head high, bushy tail swinging like a metronome, down the long gravel driveway with a solemnity suggesting some inner purpose, heading straight for the community mailbox. If not the postman himself, with his pocketful of dog treats, there was bound to be someone fetching the mail, someone whose leg he could lean into with his massive neck, signalling a willingness to exchange pleasantries. From there, he would call on various neighbours. It might be lunchtime before he wandered home and settled down, with lordly contentment, for a nap by the wood stove.

Most afternoons, we would tramp the country roads together, Buddy taking endless sideways jaunts into the woods in pursuit of deer. Fearless Buddy became my conduit to the natural world, instilling in me the courage to explore the island's wild places. With him, I was brave and adventuresome; with me, he was as happy and carefree as a dog can be.

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Inside our home, too, the human-animal bond was proving to be good medicine, especially for Steve. From the first encounter, he had an almost mystical connection with Buddy.

Looking back, that was Buddy's golden age. It lasted only four years, ending abruptly when my husband took a job in Winnipeg. Steve stayed in B.C. for postsecondary education.

Buddy's transition to the Prairies began with him cramped in a crate for about eight hours, and he arrived in Winnipeg during a freak spring snowstorm. He was not happy.

The ultimate indignity lay in the downsizing of his playground. He would be confined to an enclosed deck, with a patch of grass serving as a litter box. But this wasn't his greatest disappointment. He had lost his epic walking companion, who now settled for perfunctory jaunts on city streets with a leash in her hand.

Bit by bit, I found things to do that didn't include him. Though there had been a time when I was glad of his company and protection, I now found him rather a nuisance with his never-ending needs: to be taken out, let in, fed and watered. But Buddy adjusted – always gentle, accepting, ready for any experience.

In our seventh year in Winnipeg, Buddy became arthritic and beset by other health problems. Fortunately, Steve was living with us again. Ever devoted, he took pains to ease Buddy's, massaging his stiff joints, wiping his infected muzzle, carrying him outside and sitting with him in the sun.

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We all knew what was coming. Lloyd and I had planned a trip to India. We wondered whether we should cancel. Steve wanted to be alone with Buddy in his final moments.

The taxi pulled up and it was time to say goodbye. One last look. Buddy – an old dog who couldn't get up – his gaze following us, attentive and knowing: This was it.

In the year since Buddy died, he has never been more with me. He scratches at the mind's door and prods me: "What might have been done differently?" he asks.

Buddy came into my life at a time when I was only too happy to receive his gifts and teachings – especially how he nudged me to be bold and curious in the outdoors, opening up a new world for me, enriching me.

I didn't repay you, though, did I, Buddy? I became too busy to spend time with you. If only I had understood what was plain to see: We weren't done exchanging gifts.

Denise Ommanney lives in Winnipeg.

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