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More Than a Dog

Updated: May 26, 2023

I wanted a puppy — a golden lab — a baby girl I’d name Grace. That was the plan.

Then I met Nabler and the plan went completely and perfectly awry.

I was working as a freelance writer at the time, and a magazine editor had asked me to write a home and garden feature about a place situated at the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The house sat at the end of a long, windy road, beneath a huge canopy of trees. It was old — it had been around for many, many years — and quaint, and while the immediate landscape was neat and well manicured, the area beyond was natural and untamed.

On a beautiful spring day I pulled up to the driveway and got out of my car. I was greeted by barks and howls emanating from a pack of dogs I couldn’t see.

I rang the doorbell, introduced myself to the homeowner — Kathy — and the interview commenced. We struck an easy rapport, talking about the history of the house, its style, décor and the individual sculptures she’d commissioned specifically for the garden.

As the interview came to an end, the dogs took up their barking again and I could tell from the tone that at least a few were pretty young. I was right. Kathy said that earlier in the year her blonde Queensland heeler and her husband’s McNab (both cattle-herding dogs) had become accidental parents of a litter of five. A couple of the puppies had found homes, but three of them — Flora, McQ and Nabler — still lived with Mom and Dad.

Kathy asked if I wanted to meet them. Of course, I said. I had mentioned that I was on the lookout for a puppy, a little golden lab.

Then Nabler introduced himself.

Kathy suggested I take a seat on the steps while she unlatched the kennel. Flora and McQ came bounding toward me, but Nabler took his time. Though he was larger than his brother, sister and both of his parents, he seemed shy and unsure of himself. All three were black and white, like their father. Nabler and Flora had the smooth coat of a McNab, and McQ's was coarse, like a heeler's.

Flora approached and said hello. So did McQ. They accepted a few pats, but quickly got bored and went off to play. A minute or two later, Nabler came up to me. I reached out and let him sniff my hand and then gave him a pat. He walked back and forth behind me and then sat down so close he was practically touching me.

Kathy shook her head back and forth. “He never does that with anyone,” she said. “He must really like you.”

I laughed and continued to pat the dog. I knew she was looking for homes for Nabler and McQ, and I took her assessment with a grain of salt.

We visited for a while longer and then I headed back to my office to write the article, which was slated for the following Sunday.

But something was different. I couldn’t stop thinking about Nabler.

Days and even a couple of weeks went by and still Nabler stayed on my mind. As a puppy, he was pretty much the opposite of what I thought I wanted (black and white, not blond; male, not female; and not a Grace). But something about him was right.

I went back to Kathy’s house to visit again. Nabler was not quite as enthusiastic as before, but still he sat down near me. It was almost as though he knew something was going on. (And now, of course, after years of living with his extraordinary intelligence, I know he did.)

That visit sealed the deal and I told Kathy I’d take him. A few days later, she brought him to our house — his new home. He was anxious and frightened and didn’t understand how he fit into these new surroundings, but from the moment he arrived, he and I became practically inseparable. This male herding dog, so much different from the female retriever I thought I wanted.

Whatever fate brought him to me — or me to him — knew we were supposed to be together. Nabler was not just a dog. He was not just a companion. He was, in many ways, my heart and soul. I loved him more than I’ve ever been capable of loving anyone or anything — humans included. And I have never felt loved as deeply or as devotedly or safely.

Now, fourteen and a half years later, he and I have to say goodbye — his body has reached its limit.

People offer their condolences, some speaking perfunctorily. "He was only a dog," I know they are thinking even though they'd never say so outright. Others do understand the depth of the loss because they've experienced something similar themselves.

But the goodbye is only for now. An energy healer once told me Nabler and I have been together in other lifetimes and in other configurations. I know that if I don’t see him again during this go-round, I’ll meet up with him in the next.

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