Pet Spotlight: John Burley

ZoeThey say that animals have much to teach us if we only take the time to listen. The two dogs in my household are getting up there in years—a ten-year-old English Bulldog named Zoe, and an eight-year-old Great Dane who goes by Sterling. Zoe came first, a gift from my wife’s parents before we were married, when Lorie was living on her own and trying to keep her head above water during the 120-hour work weeks of her first year of medical residency. It was a time of pure survival, when the inside of the hospital felt more familiar than her own apartment and her pager buzzed incessantly at all hours of the day and night. In the midst of that stress and perpetual exhaustion, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re working toward. Darkness has a way of settling in. The antidote, medically speaking, is an English Bulldog puppy. And although Zoe snores like a freight train and has always been the trouble maker, the obstinate one, she helped to get Lorie through that first year of residency, to remind her that even a bad night on-call can be rectified with soft white fur and a few Bulldog kisses.

 Sterling, on the other hand, came to us in a different way. He was about six months old when we adopted him from a rescue organization. I don’t know what happened to him during the first few months of his life, but I do know that it wasn’t good. When I first met him, he cringed when I tried to pet him. He refused to get into our truck. Even to this day, he’s leery of strangers—particularly, men in hats. And he’s deferential to the Bulldog, who bosses him around as if she weren’t seventy pounds lighter and a quarter of his height. But despite his inherent fear of the world, he’s ferociously protective of my six-year-old daughter, and when it comes to my family, he’s one of the most affectionate dogs I’ve ever known. The lesson, I think—for all of us—has been about trust. Quite simply, you’ve got to earn it.

There is one more dog that I should mention, a five-year-old French Mastiff we adopted around the same time as Sterling. We named him Dante, after the mobster Silvio Dante from The Sopranos. The mobster was tough and kind of jowly, but loyal to the bitter end. That was Dante—Big D, as my wife and I used to call him. He was only with us a short time. He watched over my wife during her pregnancy, kept an eye on our new baby for the first few months of her life, then Dante died of lymphoma just as our hearts were opened the widest. What he taught us is that you don’t need to know an animal very long for it to hurt like hell when they’re gone.

In The Sopranos, Silvio Dante liked to quote Michael Corleone’s remark in The Godfather: Part III: “Just when I thought I was out . . . they pull me back in.” It’s fitting, I think. Because we never did let him go—the ghost of Big D. It’s the way it will be with all of them, I’m sure. The way it should be—something else they’ve been able to teach us. You never let go of the good stuff.

John Burley
John Burley is an author and an emergency medicine physician. His debut psychological suspense thriller, THE ABSENCE OF MERCY, features a pathologist and his 180-pound Great Dane, Alexander the Great.