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Farewell To A Border Collie Underdog

August 26, 2015
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Beautiful, sweet Nan passed away Saturday. Our border collie was diagnosed with cancer in February and given a month. They could operate, the veterinarians said, but it would buy her only weeks and her quality of life would be poor. So we prepared ourselves as best we could and tried to make her last remaining days comfortable.

Instead, we had Nan for almost half a year more than we expected—and for all but a few moments, she was herself: energetic, demanding, loving and life-affirming. Mercifully, when the end came, it came quickly. The last thing we wanted was for her to suffer.

Nan was the runt of her litter. The breeder didn’t even offer her up for inspection since she had lost her tail as a puppy, cut off on a barbed wire fence.

But there was something about that pup. Maybe true underdogs have special appeal. The first few weeks, she sat under the furniture and wouldn’t come out. But after a while, she allowed herself to be petted, then took to jumping onto the bed every night and making her personality’s full force felt.

Nan took a special interest in regularly walking us, insisting on long ambles twice a day for our health. I was expected to use the long, plastic Chuckit with the scoop-end to throw balls to keep my arms limber, which Nan encouraged by retrieving most of the balls.

She demanded squeaky ones, not regular tennis balls, so she could mock me, biting the ball to make noise, then dropping it before snatching it as I went to pick it up.

Nan was something of a survivalist. Fearing a shortage of squeaky balls, she hid a large number of them in the high grass along our walks. Neighbors took to leaving in our mailbox the balls they’d found in their bushes.

Of course, border collies are working dogs. They need employment. So Nan loved our little ranch near Blanco, Texas. There she could herd goats, cows, donkeys and horses. The first three tolerated her; the horses did not. They took umbrage that an animal so small presumed to try to boss around animals so large. But she did.

Her favorites were goats, especially the baby ones. They appreciated leadership and came to associate Nan’s arrival with the appearance of food. Blessed be Nan from whom all pellets come! That was because Nan always accompanied the ranch foreman, Jorge Pichardo, riding shotgun in the four-wheeler or running along side the truck when he fed the animals and inspected the fences. At the ranch, she wouldn’t swim in the pool, but would jump in a water trough to cool off.

Things were different in town. The farm dog became a city slicker, sleeping in one of her two comfy beds when she wasn’t trying to carve out part of ours. She would remove herself to the one in the big closet when she didn’t fancy the late-night movie we were watching, but she preferred the one in the bedroom under her portrait by a certain former president.

No matter how busy she was, Nan was happy to present her belly, back, head or neck to be scratched. She particularly enjoyed the brain massage, a vigorous head-rub accompanied by neck-scratching.

Nan followed other great dogs that I have known. When I was at the White House, I honored Harry Truman’s dictum that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. I had two—the ever-loyal Daisy and the whip-smart Gracie. Both passed a few years ago, but even now I feel a twinge when I see dogs that look like my old pals.

Nearly half of all American households are blessed with a dog. Dogs teach compassion and patience, both by what they give and what they require. They encourage habits of acceptance: They are who they are, and we must adapt. We learn true unconditional love from them. And given their lives’ relative briefness, they remind us that we must be grateful for each moment we are given.

“Heaven goes by favor,” Mark Twain once said, for “if it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” RIP, sweet Nan.

A version of this article appeared August 27, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Farewell To A Border Collie Underdog and online at WSJ.com.

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