We don’t ever say good-bye when we leave our dogs, we always say, “Guard the house.” We’ve been using this phrase for so long that we never think twice about it. It’s as natural and easy as breathing, as consistent and dependable as knowing that the moon follows the sun, night follows day. What we mean when we say this is: “I want you to know that I’m leaving you for a short while. I promise that I’ll come back to you. Wait for me. “
I introduced this phrase into our family’s vocabulary 20-plus years ago when we brought Diamond, our first Great Dane puppy, home. Eight months after we got him, the two of us were enrolled in our first formal dog obedience class. Despite his young age, Diamond was the
most intimidating largest dog in a class overflowing with dogs and their human partners. He didn’t have the best leash manners – on one of our recent walks he’d decided that chasing a squirrel at top speed was more fun than walking sedately at my side. As I unwrapped myself from one side of the tree all the while glaring at my happy dog (so pleased with his lazer focused, like-a-bat-out-of-hell run gallop down the sidewalk), I instantly decided that dog school was our next step.
I’m a quick study. That first night of dog school, I learned how important it is to teach your dog how to associate an action with a verbal command. The easy ones would be “sit, stay and come.” As Diamond and I learned together, I added some extra words and phrases that I wanted him to know. “Guard the house,” was a natural slip of the tongue on a day when I had to go somewhere without Diamond. Part of what was working was that timeless reason for why a lot of people get dogs – who better to guard our houses while we’re away?
After I’d gathered up my bag and my car keys, I put my face down at nose level with Diamond, looked into his eyes and calmly said, “Diamond, guard the house.” Then I shut my mouth, turned away from him and walked out the door, locking it behind me. Other than the one time that this dog completely trashed the kitchen, somehow opening cupboards and drawers to get to bags of flour, boxes of crackers, bottles of syrup, rolls of paper towels, spices, cocoa mixes, boxes of loose tea, bags of rice and boxes of raisins, ALL of which he opened and either rolled in or pushed with his nose from one end of the kitchen to the other (and, yes, he did get into the trash bin so that whatever was in that container added such a yucky blend to all of the dry goods), barring this one episode, Diamond guarded the house every day of his life.
When he was riding shot gun – and for Diamond, riding shot gun meant that he had all of the back seat of my Ford Fairmont for his own comfort – if I had to stop and run into a store for five minutes, I’d fix my eyes on his and calmly ask him, “Diamond, guard the house.” When I dropped him off at the boarding kennel for a week’s stay, the last thing he heard me say after getting him checked in as one of the kennel employees was waiting to take him back to the kennel area was, “Diamond, guard the house.”
“Guard the house,” always meant, “I’m leaving. You have to stay. I will come back to you.”
Over the years, as we shared our lives with many dogs, every one of them learned to associate that phrase with “I’m leaving. You have to stay. I will come back to you. Wait for me.”
Not surprisingly, the very last words that all of our dogs hear me say, on those days when it’s time to release their spirits from their physical bodies is “Guard the house.” It’s what I whisper into their ears while the competent hands of the vet administer the liquid solution that will peacefully slow and then stop their hearts from beating. I say it calmly and with great conviction because it’s my promise that we won’t ever really leave each other. This final time, the meaning shifts because they’re leaving and I’m the one, my husband is the one, our son is the one, we’re the ones who have to stay behind.
I almost forgot to say it with Jasper. Habit reminded me and just as I felt his body slowly give in to the act of euthanasia, I bent my head and put my mouth up to his ear, held his great head between both hands, and filled his nose with my scent. “Jasper,” I silently mouthed, “guard the house. Wait for me.”