In October 2021 I visited relatives in southern Italy and spent a day picking grapes to make wine for our own use and to sell in local markets. On our way to the small vineyard over back roads, a woman stepped out of a thicket and stopped our car. My cousins knew her and told me she walked every day from our village of Provvidenti to the next hill town, Casacalenda, a distance of nearly three miles. Both are in the region of Molise.
The woman approached our car carrying a large cardboard box. Inside trembled two white puppies that someone had abandoned. She had come upon them just minutes before we drove by. She was afraid that foxes or wild boars might devour them, so she asked us to take them. We put them in the back of the car and continued to the vineyard. We fed them and gave them water, and they scampered around as we went about picking grapes and dodging wasps.
Something happened then that impressed me so much that I still think about it. Once the puppies got used to us and explored on their own, they followed me wherever I went. This got to be a nuisance with so much activity going on. I didn’t want them to get trampled, so I held both whenever I could. When I put them down, though, they whined and cried until I picked them up again.
We had assumed that the priority for two abandoned pets in the wild was food and water. Actually, it wasn’t even food as such but scraps of homemade pizza. But the puppies responded much more to my holding them. They did not want me to let them go and curled up in my arms, pushing their little snouts deeper into my shirt. I remember holding one of them up. He looked directly into my eyes as if studying me, imprinting my face into his memory as if I were either his mother or the leader of the pack.
Here’s the thing. I got the sense that this puppy was looking at me in a self-conscious way; that is, aware of who I was and what I was doing for him. The look of trust and gratitude astounded me. This may not be news to pet owners or people who spend time with animals or study animal behavior, but it was to me, especially since it came unexpectedly. I felt a great deal of satisfaction for saving both of them but never expected that kind of recognition.
It pained me to leave them. An older dog lived at the vineyard that did not take kindly to the pups and snarled at me, too. But I could neither take them with me nor care for them even if I got them back to the States. I am usually up for a challenge, but practicality won the day and I left the puppies with relatives at the vineyard. I don’t know if they will recognize me when I go back to Provvidenti.
I bring this up for two reasons. First, I have been watching pet rescue videos on YouTube, especially those involving dogs. Rescue teams often find them in miserable conditions due to owner negligence or mistreatment. I don’t like to pass judgment on people, but you have to wonder what drives some of us to such acts of cruelty.
Second, my daughter’s dog died yesterday. “Mister” was a Yorkshire Terrier who lived with our family for about 15 years. He died from a collapsed trachea, which apparently is a condition that affects the breed. When the time came, nearly a dozen of us squeezed into the vet’s room where they had laid out a blanket for Mister. They brought him in, gasping for air. We said goodbye and then I escorted the children out. Some adult family members stayed with him till the end.
I won’t tell you that the puppy and Mister had the same look in their eyes, because they didn’t. The puppy expressed trust in identifying me as someone he could rely on. Mister expressed fear and pain, even though he was aware that the family was with him. In both cases I learned that love consists of being there for the “other,” no matter how difficult the situation or outcome.
Actually, I knew that already. It just took a young dog and a dying one to remind me.