It's been two years now since my dogs Harley and Duke died; Harley was fourteen when she passed on, Duke was twelve. There are few human beings I admire as much as I did Harley and Duke, and none that I admire more. They were Rhodesian Ridgebacks, a breed justly famous for their courage, speed and strength; more than once I watched Harley stand down an angry black bear, chase a pack of coyotes off our property and run a mountain lion up a tree. Duke, more impressively, stood up to my father, an angry, menacing man who, one Sunday afternoon, raised his hand as if to strike Duke, expecting Duke to cower or flinch; Duke did neither, instead taking a step forward and looking up at my father with a chilling degree of calm.
You can’t possibly, Duke seemed to say to him, be that fucking stupid.
Still, as great and impressive as their physical attributes were, they paled in comparison to – what else can I call it? – their souls. These dogs possessed qualities most humans never do: honor, dignity, loyalty, compassion. They gave back twice the love they received, and when, a few years later, our children were born, Harley and Duke immediately took them in, protecting them, guiding them away from open stairs and sharp corners, standing between them and visitors and barely whimpering when the boys pulled on their ears or sat on their bellies.
They were more than dogs
They were something different, something special, something perfect.
Perhaps that, in hindsight, is why it was so difficult for me to admit that they were eating shit.
They were older at that point, I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but they were definitely eating shit. Their own shit, each other’s shit, bear shit, deer shit, bird shit, bat shit. Whatever shit they could find, they ate.
I blamed myself, of course, as we are wont to do in these situations.
Maybe I wasn’t feeding them enough? Maybe I was feeding them too much? Had I been too permissive, letting them stay outside in the woods on their own, not stopping them when they chewed the small branches that fell from the trees? Were branches some sort of gateway drug to eating shit?
Then I blamed them. It was their fault. They were Rhodesian, maybe that had something to do with. I’d never seen a German Shepherd eat shit, maybe I should have gotten a German Shepherd? Did all animals from Rhodesia eat shit? It’s hot there, maybe they have to, maybe it’s some sort of survival instinct? Maybe they were just freaks?
I didn’t know, and couldn’t bear to admit their habit to anyone else, not even their vet, and so I did the other thing we are wont to do in these situations: I went into denial. I looked the other way. I pretended not to see them with their noses buried in a pile of deer shit, pretended not to notice them emerging from the woods and licking their lips.
Harley and Duke, I told myself, do not eat shit.
Except, I knew, that they did. And when I could lie to myself no further, I took them to the vet.
“They seem fine,” he said.
“They’re eating shit,” I said.
“That’s fairly common.”
“Shit-eating is common?”
“They’re dogs,” he said. “All dogs eat shit.”
“Even German Shepherds?”
“It doesn’t matter where they’re from,” he said. “German Shepherds, Italian Greyhounds, American Pit Bulls. Dogs eat shit.”
And that was when it hit me. They were dogs. Pretending that they weren’t – pretending that they were something more than dogs – wasn’t fair to them. Dogs eat shit. And the more I looked away, the more I ignored it or made excuses, the more shit they ate.
Last year we got a new dog, a rescue named Natasha. The shelter folks brought her over, and we all met, and we watched and laughed and smiled as Natasha ran through the woods, chasing squirrels and barking at the breeze. The shelter folks told us how friendly she was, how good she was with kids for a dog so young, how brave she was, how smart she was – “whip smart” they said – and what an incredible dog she would be for us and our family.
She is, they said, something different. Something special.
Yes, I thought to myself. She is. And one day, just like every other dog on the planet, she’ll eat shit, too.
Shalom Auslander is the internationally-acclaimed author of the memoir "Foreskin's Lament," and the recent novel "Hope: A Tragedy."