Thursday, July 20, 2023

My Dog Ate My Balance Sheet

Recently, I was sad to say goodbye to my border-collie/heeler rescue mix of eight years, Trapper. Maybe a hazard of the trade being a lawyer, but I’ve wondered—even struggled—to put the appropriate value on his life the past few months as I’ve attempted to process his death and its impact on me.

Most pet owners would acknowledge that pets—like boats—are sunk costs, not useful investments. Special diet food, an endless stream of veterinary bills—Trapper, was, if anything, expensive. I like to think he just had lavish tastes.

That isn’t to say that dog ownership doesn’t have its measurable benefits. Numerous studies demonstrate that dog owners have a lower risk of dying, likely by reducing stress and anxiety. Employers with dogs present at the office found less absenteeism. As reported at and Fast Company a recent survey of almost 900 CEOs revealed some interesting links between success in business and pet ownership. Not surprisingly, 93% grew up with a pet; more surprisingly, 78% partially attribute their career success in part to owning a pet. Also, nearly a quarter believed that pet ownership taught them more than their first internship!

But, of course—dollars and cents can’t fully capture the value of a dog.

For the better part of a decade—from Chicago to South Dakota, then finally Minnesota, Trapper was one of the few constants in my life. There for all of life’s proverbial peaks and valleys (he was also my hiking buddy), he was an attentive friend, as happy to sleep in on a snow day as he was ready to climb the tallest mountain. I remember the night I graduated law school—after the ceremonies and awards and the parties and celebrations had long ended—it was that dog and I sharing the last piece of cake bite-by-bite late in the evening.

I adopted another dog, Russo, about a year before Trapper passed. If I had known Trapper only had a year left, I probably would have waited to adopt another dog, but I’m glad I didn’t. It makes me sad to think that the familiarity of our routine will soon fade, then disappear. The last few months as Trapper slowed down, I imagine anyone watching me attempt to walk a dog with hip problems and a puppy with boundless energy would have found it comical: arms outstretched, I was literally pulled in different directions. But I didn’t mind. I was as amused as I was frustrated that Trapper made every 10-minute walk take 20. Our last big trip was to the Oregon coast. He was relentless and defiant even in the end swimming into the ocean every chance he got.

I like to think Russo learned at least some habits and tricks from Trapper that are likely just common to all dogs. Maybe it’s a way to excuse my poor training, but every time Russo sneaks a snack off the table, I think how much Trapper would have approved and I smile. I know it’s probably just a way for me to remember my old dog. But there’s a value in that—even if I can’t quite put my finger on it.

So, what is the value of a dog? Well, as a former law clerk, I have to defer to the case law. As reported in this article, in prose worthy of an Oscar, lawyer and future U.S. Senator from Missouri, George Vest, surmised the worth of Old Drum, a dog that had been shot by a neighbor, in a case before the Missouri Supreme Court in 1870. In closing, Vest extolled:

“Gentlemen of the Jury: The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him perhaps when he needs it most. A man's reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us, may be the first to throw the stones of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.

"Gentlemen of the jury, a man's dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fierce, if only he may be near his master's side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come from encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wing and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

"If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of his company to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in his embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death."

Vest’s closing was credited with helping win the case. His client’s damages were valued at $50. I guess that settles it…

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