I’m a Pit Bulls & Parolees kind of gal, so I’ve never been one to watch dog shows such as the just-wrapped Crufts and last month’s Westminster. But this year, Best in Show at Westminster went to a 3-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer named CJ from my hometown of Temecula, California. Since not much happens in Temecula, he has become a bit of a local canine celebrity. Stories about CJ popped up in my newsfeed after his win, and just the other day in an interview, CJ’s pet parent, Valerie Nunes-Atkinson, called him her “heart dog.”
I love that term. It made me think of Finley, a three-legged Pit Bull I met six years earlier at the San Diego Humane Society (SDHS). He worked in our Humane Education Department, after having been rescued from a life of neglect and abuse — which stole his back leg, but not his character or heart.
When I started working at SDHS, I was 24 and fresh out of rehab for bulimia and depression. Trying to navigate in the world without binging and puking up cookies every day made me feel naked and scared and profoundly alone most of the time. I didn’t know who I was anymore, and I needed to find new ways to feel safe, so I sought comfort in dogs like Finley.
Finley, a small, reddish-gold Pit Bull, spent much of his time in classrooms filled with children eager to learn about animals. He tolerated the children pulling on his silken, floppy ears, and he adored getting kisses and belly rubs and bacon-flavored treats. When Finley was with the kids, doing his love work, I eagerly awaited the moment he’d come back to his bed in a nearby cubicle, so I could get on the floor with him to snuggle.
Sometimes, crouched under a desk beside a collection of half-chewed bones, we had quiet conversations. At the sound of my voice, his tail would start to wag softly, then beat harder against my legs. He’d look up at me grinning, wriggling into my lap, and I’d massage his flanks and tell Finley the things that not even my family or therapist got the whole version of. Whether I was spilling my guts or talking about nothing at all, it sincerely felt as though Finley was listening — his perky ears moving back and forth like antennas picking up my mood, his eyes glowing with affection, and every molecule of his being saying, “It’s okay. Just be here. You’re loved.”
I’m sure that CJ is quite wonderful. He is described as “an old soul” and walks around with so much grace and dignity that I almost feel a need to salute him. Undoubtably, CJ is very loved by his human, and he does an incredible job of loving her back.
But as so many are praising Westminster and Crufts competitors, I’m beginning to wonder why we humans get so lost in idolizing the appearance of things: a dog’s height and weight, coat, eye color, ear placement, etc. Why all this fuss about breed, when there is something so much deeper and more meaningful to examine in dogs?
What about Best in Heart?
Who are the dogs who stir our souls and make us better human beings? Who are the dogs who show us what courage and resilience is all about? Who are the dogs who transcend the trauma of their past and teach us how healing and powerful love can be? These are the dogs we should praise on such a public level. These are the dogs who should earn beautiful ribbons, even though they could care less about them.
The same week of CJ’s big win, sweet Finley passed away due to old age. I can’t imagine the grief his family must feel at his absence. I never learned much about Finley’s home life — where he slept, what kind of kibble he ate, if his paws ever touched sand on dog beach (but I now know they did, as the photo above shows). My experiences with Finley were mostly limited to under the desk near his dog bed, and yet how powerful those interactions were for me. The times he held my eyes, his pupils directly on mine. The times he was so irresistibly happy that I couldn’t help but smile. The times I kissed the nub where his fourth leg should have been, and he panted at me with the most soulful expression on his face.
So many children and employees at SDHS will miss his big grin and soft pant, his sweet demeanor, and his golden-brown eyes. They’ll remember how having one less leg than most dogs didn’t stop him from running free and how he never felt the need to tame his affection or love for life.
We will miss all the tender details that made Finley such a magnificent dog and how he changed our lives for the better by simply being himself.
Rest in peace, Finley. You will always be Best in Heart to me.
Originally Published in Dogster, March 16, 2016
During his life, it’s estimated that Finley visited more than 6,000 children, from preschool to the 12th grade. He served as a living example of patience and kindness and helped SDHS spread a vital message of compassion toward all living beings.