What My Dog Taught Me About Time and Space

Sammy and her namesake, Sirius the Dog Star, on a winter night. Photos by the author

Like many of you, I’m the owner of a furry Canis Major. Her name is Sammy. We always thought she was mostly border collie, but my daughter gifted me with a doggie DNA kit a few years back, and now we know with scientific certainty that she’s a mix of German shepherd, Siberian husky and golden retriever. Yeah, she’s a mutt.

Sammy’s going on 17 years old now — that’s human years — and has neither the spunk nor bladder control of a young pup. She wanders, paces, gets confused. In her aging, I see what’s in store for all of us as we pass from one stage of life to the next.

Intentionally or not, we humans often leave a legacy before we depart. Maybe a big building, a work of art or an exemplary life. As I stare down at my panting dog, it occurs that she’s leaving a legacy too, one she’s completely unaware of but which I’ll always appreciate.

Thanks to my dog I’ve seen more auroras and lunar halos that I can count. That goes for meteors, contrails, space station passes, light pillars and moonrises, too. All this because she needs to be walked in the early morning and again at night. This simple act ensures that while Sammy sniffs and marks, I get to spend at least 20 minutes under the sky. Nearly every night of the year.

Warm under her thick coat, she’s not bothered by the snow.

I’m an amateur astronomer and keep tabs on what’s up, but my dog makes sure I don’t ignore the sky. Let’s say she keeps me honest. There’s no avoiding going out or I’ll pay for it in whimpering and cleanup.

There were times I wouldn’t be aware an aurora was underway until it was time to walk the dog. When we were done, I’d dash away to a dark sky with camera and tripod. Other nights, walking the dog would alert me to a sudden clearing and the opportunity to catch a variable star on the rise or see a newly discovered comet for the first time. Thanks Sammy.

Amateur astronomers are familiar with eternity. We routinely observe stars and galaxies by eye and telescope that remind us of both the vastness of space and the aching expanse of time. I have only so many years left before I spend the next 10 billion years disassembled and strewn about like that scarecrow attacked by flying monkeys. But when I see the Sombrero Galaxy through my telescope, with its 29-million-year-old photons setting off tiny explosions in my retinas, I get a taste of eternity in the here and now.

That’s where Sammy offers yet another pearl. Dogs are far better living in the moment than people are. They can eat the same food twice a day for a decade and relish it anew every single time. Same goes for their excitement at seeing their owner or taking a walk or a million other ways they reveal that this moment is what counts.

The famous Sombrero galaxy (M104) is a bright nearby spiral galaxy. The prominent dust lane and halo of stars and globular clusters give this galaxy its name. Credit: NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

People tend to think of eternity as encompassing all of time, but Sammy has a different take. A moment fully experienced feels like it might never end. Lose yourself in the moment, and the clock stops ticking. I love that feeling. That’s how my dog’s been living all along. Canine wisdom: one billion years = one moment. Both feel like forever.

Sammy’s lost much of her hearing and some of her eyesight. We’re not sure how long she has. Maybe a few months, maybe even another year, but her legacy is clear. She’s been a great pet and teacher even if she never figured out how to fetch. We’ve hiked hard trails together and then rested atop precipices with the sun sinking in the west. I look into her clouded eyes these days and have to speak up when I call her name, but she’s been and remains a “Good dog!”

15 Replies to “What My Dog Taught Me About Time and Space”

  1. Heartwarming Bob. Our two dogs have many ills as they age but I cherish the moments I have with them. Every walk, every time they get up in the morning, every time I get home from work, those are the two waiting for me. This was just a great piece, Happy Holidays to you and Sammy.

    1. Hi James,
      Thank you so much for writing, and I’m glad you liked the piece. It was “not my usual”, but I felt it was time to recognize dear, old Sammy. Happy Holidays to you and your pups, too!

  2. This was a VERY fine article, speaking as both an amateur astronomer and a dog owner/lover. It would appear Sammy’s master (not a great word, but better than “owner”) is of about the same quality, as people go, as Sammy is, as dogs go.

    1. Thank you Random Sample. Very kind of you to leave such a nice comment. I wish you, your family and of course your pet a great new year ahead.

  3. Great to have some company while out star gazing! My cat.. Mon. Ms. Mr. Merlyn is also into star gazing. He accompanies me almost every time I take the telescope out front – not on road trips though – something dogs have over cats! Yeah.. he doesn’t much like cars or vacuum cleaners.

    Problem is.. that Mr. Merlyn is mostly black (White armpits and Buddha belly) and nearly impossible to see on a dark night. OH SO many times.. I’ve accidently kicked him as I moved around my scope. That hurts me almost as much as him? Regardless.. he always comes back. After I apologize…

    1. Hi Aqua,
      A stargazing cat – how do you like that? I know what you mean about black. Sammy is mostly black and consequently much easier to track on winter nights than in summer!

  4. G’day Bob;
    I too am an amateur astronomer with a dog (two, actually, can’t forget the Snapster), and his name is…Sirius 🙂

    1. Hi Wayne,
      Yay – Sirius! I should have picked that one for Sammy when I had the chance or at the very least Procyon, but we let our daughters name the dog. “Snapster” – hmmm – a telling name?

  5. Hi Bob 🙂

    Maybe, in your Sammy’s eyes, you’re her Orion, and she’ll be next to you, following you in your starry adventures until the Milky Way, rotating unstoppably, very slowly part the constellations, but never completely leave each other.

    Happy 2017 Bob 😀

  6. Bob, Beautiful tribute to your dog and all our canine friends, may the live in our hearts forever.

  7. nice article. I like to take my dog out for late night walks during the various annual showers. I’ve seen so many more than before thanks to her.

      1. Thank you P. Pantzov. And that’s a good idea to walk the dog late during meteor showers. You’re guaranteed more meteors. The top photo’s a funny illustration I created. Secret meaning: Sammy’s in heaven when you give her a Milk Bone treat!

  8. Wow Bob what a great article it brings back memories of my wonderful 19 year old dog who was mostly Dalmatian but only had 2 spots so (being 99 % white) he was not so easy to see in the snow on a winters night in Wales as I was gazing at the Cosmos I still miss my dog who had the proud name of Bob even 40 years later..thanks Bob for the memories and Happy New Year.

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