Have You Ever Had a Dog With a Hard-to-Explain Quality?

Diego was devoted in a way that was hard to explain -- "He's a leaner, not a kisser" is how one person put it.


I recently visited my mom. I had not seen her for several months; we have always lived in different parts of the country. I was in her kitchen and was drawn to this amazing piece of artwork on her kitchen wall. It stirred up all kinds of memories.

The tile was painted by a talented artist and friend of our family, Julie Delton, as a gift for my mom. It’s a depiction of my brother’s dog, Diego, who passed away at age 17 last year. Diego was an unusual dog — elegant, quirky, serious, and funny, all at once. We all loved him, though it was hard to pinpoint why. He was totally devoted to my brother, Paul, and my mother also adored him.

My brother and his partner adopted Diego from the amazing San Francisco SPCA. I’d been there once and marveled at the facilities. Not much was known about his prior life, though it seemed he had some issues and possible trauma in the past. Paul freely admits that he was attracted by Diego’s looks.

When they first spotted the dog, Diego was posed in such an elegant, unusual way that my brother was riveted. Paul is a visual, artistic person. In this shelter, each dog had a room to himself. Diego was inadvertently posing on a settee, with one long leg extending down off the sofa, the other leg crossed. “Such a beauty,” said Paul.

Paul and his partner walked the dog with two shelter volunteers — a man and a woman — but Diego seemed more interested in the woman than the other three men in the group. Paul and his partner went away to consider. They returned another day and walked again with Diego and another volunteer. They adopted the dog that day, and the bond between Diego and Paul would grow slowly and deeply over time. Diego was estimated to be two to four years old, though no one was precisely sure about his age. The shelter suspected he was a Greyhound-smooth Collie mix.

Paul discovered that Diego had some good behaviors, and not too many troubling ones. He took advantage of the free basic-training classes that the SFSPCA offered. The thing that became apparent over time was that Diego had a much different relationship with Paul than with anyone else.

He would play with Paul’s partner or Paul’s friends, but not so much with Paul. If a friend mock-attacked Paul, Diego would bark at Paul and not the friend. (I will be the first to admit that we are not dog experts in my family, so I am not sure what was going on in this case.) But he was extremely tuned into Paul. He always watched Paul intently. If Paul gave one command (“no begging,” for example), that was all it took. Diego would do what ever Paul wanted, instantly.

Diego was lucky to live in a dog town like San Francisco. Paul lived a few blocks from a great park, which had a sizable dog area where they could run free and play. I have great memories of visiting my brother and going with him and Diego to the park. There was nothing more joyful than watching Diego run, and he was well trained enough to be trusted off-leash. At any instant, he would come when called.

I think my brother loved Diego precisely because he wasn’t a typical dog, whatever that is. In Paul’s words, Diego was less a “dog dog” and more a serious “guard dog.” He did have a bark that would make you think twice about coming through the door until he recognized you. But once he loved you, that never changed. And that bond was most strong with Paul.

My mom adored Diego. While Paul was at work, she would take Diego for walks and rides around the city. She loved to take him to Golden Gate Park and have a picnic. Many strangers stopped to admire Diego. I’ve often had that experience in San Francisco — there are so many dogs that strangers often stop to admire each other’s dogs. The dogs are a social icebreaker and a fun one.

Diego was also absolutely crazy about going to the beach. One whiff of the ocean air, and he was excited to get out of the car and get onto the sand. He made many happy trips to Fort Funston and probably met many dogs there.

Diego had a good long life and was my brother’s constant companion. His joints gave him trouble as he aged, and his heart had some problems, too. Paul had to make the tough decision to put him to sleep. We all dreaded it — Diego was a huge part of all our lives, even though I lived far away and hardly got to see him. But in celebratory fashion, my brother made a last-minute call to friends so they could say goodbye on Diego’s last day. Many, many people stopped by to pet Diego, hug Paul, share tears and happiness, and tell Diego what a great dog he was. There was a hole in my heart that day, even though I was several states away.

My mom told me about one time she had Diego out in public, at a pet store. Diego, it seemed, would lean into her when he wanted to reassure her. “He’s a leaner, not a kisser,” remarked a knowledgeable employee to my mom. That phrase perfectly described Diego — not outwardly affectionate in so many ways, but subtly and strongly loving, and completely devoted to my brother.

Have you ever had a dog with a quality that’s hard to describe? Share your stories in the comments.

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About the Author: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of The Great Purr, a fantasy novel, and the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time; the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books; and the author of two short -tory collections. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots, from the city.

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