"Once you have had a wonderful dog, a life without one is a life diminished.”
— Dean Koontz, author
And so it is for Jay and Mary Bentley, who lost their dog, Pal, in May to a sudden illness and old age.
As all people who love dogs do at such times, if they can, Mary was there, nuzzling her dog, whispering one last time how much she loved him, as the injection took effect and Pal took his last breath, softly and quietly.
As it is with people we love, there’s no sense in preparing for the precise moment when life slips away. There’s no way — in that sudden moment, no matter how long it has been expected — not to feel stunned and stilled with a surreal emptiness.
But fret not, for not all of this story is sad. It’s not all about heartbreak.
It’s mostly about the joy and love and light that a dog who was curled up in the back of a cage at the Butte animal shelter — so unresponsive that workers thought he was deaf — brought into the lives of a Montana couple.
Now they’re on a quest — crazy and far-fetched as it might seem — to find any of Pal’s relatives in Butte, any dog that might share his lineage.
It’s not that Pal did spectacular tricks. He didn’t sniff out bombs or save people trapped in rubble. He didn’t ride on the top of fire trucks.
But damn, he touched the hearts and lives of Jay and Mary Bentley. That’s what good dogs do for the people they love and who love them in return. It’s so simple but so powerful — in a quiet, calm kind of way.
And that’s enough.
“A dog is the only thing on Earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
— Josh Billings
When I met Jay and Mary for the first time in Butte recently, it was evident within seconds that we all shared a love for dogs.
When I first asked Jay what made Pal so special, he paused, looked down and then looked back up at me, his eyes tearing up, and said, “Well, you know.”
“Yes,” I said. “I do know.”
Even if they had told me nothing else about Pal, I knew.
And that would have been enough.
But I wanted to hear more, and though they had just returned from an emotional visit to the Chelsea Bailey Animal Shelter where they had first found their friend, they told me more.
One February day six years ago, when Jay was traveling the country visiting old friends and Mary was home alone in Bozeman, a story came on the TV about dogs adopted from shelters.
“I thought, ‘This house needs a dog,’” Mary said.
She and Jay were past 50 at the time, owners and operators of a steak restaurant in Belgrade and living in Bozeman, and it had been more than a year since Mary’s German shepherd named Sky had left this life.
She started checking out shelters on the Web and came across a picture of this dog named Pal, who was at the Chelsea Bailey Animal Shelter in Butte.
She called the shelter and talked to a woman named Erin, and later that day sent an email to her. Mary still has it today. It says:
“Erin — can I come over tomorrow and look at Pal? I have this deep feeling in my heart that a dog has found me.”
All she had was a picture, but that was enough.
“Blessed is the person who has earned the love of an old dog.”
— Sidney Jeanne Seward
Mary and her grown daughter, Addison, headed to the shelter in Butte the next day.
“I walked in and all the dogs started barking and jumping on their cages and there was this sad sack, way back in the corner of his cage, staring straight ahead, and I put my hand through the cage — right above the sign that says ‘Don’t put your hands in the cage,’ and coaxed him over,” Mary said.
She took Pal outside and learned then that shelter workers believed he was deaf. Erin clapped her hands right behind Pal’s ears. No response. They said Pal’s name. No response.
Addison encouraged her mom to take him anyway.
“Come on, Mom, you can do hand signals,” Mary recalls her saying. So they took Pal and brought him to their house in Bozeman.
Pal immediately followed Addison upstairs, and Mary, having fixed a bowl of food for the dog and forgetting he was deaf, called out, “Pal.”
Bump, bump, bump down the stairs Pal came. When she took him outside, she saw a couple of people talking nearby. Pal — clearly — had tuned them in as well.
Baffled, Mary took the dog to the vet, who confirmed that yes, indeed, Pal could hear just fine.
“I said, ‘Why did they think she was deaf?’” she asked her vet.
“She said, ‘You know, Mary, that was his way of shutting down and dealing with things. He was confused why he was there (in the shelter) — for what reason and what happened — and that was how he coped.’”
The shelter folks didn’t know much about Pal. He had been found walking behind his owner on A Street in Butte during a snowstorm, it seems, the man himself suffering from Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia. There were big ice balls on Pal’s paws, but he was there, right with his owner.
Relatives of the man didn’t want Pal back, the story went. Either they didn’t want him any longer or couldn’t care for him. Jay and Mary figured Pal was 9 years old, maybe 10.
But he had a new home now, and it was warm, and he had lots of life left, and Jay and Mary showered him with love, and he returned it ten-fold.
And that was enough.
“A dog doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, smart or dumb. Give him your heart … and he’ll give you his.”
— Milo Gathema
For the next six years, Jay and Mary say, Pal was something else. All good dogs are something else, you see, even when some people would think them just plain ordinary.
“I’ve had dogs and hunting dogs, but this dog — he became part of the fabric of our lives,” Jay said. “He was an incredible diplomat. He knew how to spread his love around. He would go over to my wife, then he would come over to me.”
On many nights, Pal slept on their bed, careful to spend some of the time lying next to Jay and some of the time lying next to Mary.
In the morning — every morning — the click, click, click sounds of Pal’s claws on the hardwood floors would fill the house. In the day, when he was tired, Pal slept some on his own little bed, sometimes in a chair, sometimes sprawled out next to Jay or Mary on the couch.
Day in and day out, year after year, he was a big hit in the neighborhood.
“The kids would see him and he was like a magnet,” Jay said. “They would run up and say, ‘Pal, Pal, Pal.’ He was just a fixture.”
Pal loved toys, especially squeaky ones, and Jay and Mary had the feeling he spent the first half of his life without any.
The Ace Hardware store in Bozeman allows dogs in the store, so Mary would take him there.
“Pal immediately sniffed out the dog-toy section and would very slowly reach up and gently take a toy and carry it around in the store,” she said. “I certainly did not want to see him accused of shoplifting so I would make him put it on the counter to scan. We would pay for it and off we went.
“Mind you — it was not just any toy — he was very discerning in his selections.”
Mary said everyone should know what a shelter dog can bring to the home. It was clear that many people in their neighborhood loved dogs, also loved Pal, and knew how much Jay and Mary loved him.
When Pal died, Jay and Mary must have received 15 or more sympathy cards from friends and neighbors.
“In our most stressed out hours, Pal was there to ease our life worries and always ready to welcome us with a wagging tail,” Mary said.
And that was enough.
“We are alone, absolutely alone on this chance planet; and amid all the forms of life around us, not one, excepting the dog, has made an alliance with us.”
— Max DePree
For months now, after I discovered that Father Patrick Beretta in Butte loved dogs, I have wanted to sit and talk with him about the spiritual connection they bring me and so many others. After talking with Jay and Mary Bentley, I decided it was time.
“There is an inseparable bond between human beings and animals, and unless we realize that closeness we have with the rest of creation, our lives are not full,” said Beretta, the priest at St. Patrick and Immaculate Conception Churches in Butte.
“There is something very noble about entering into a friendship with an animal and especially a dog,” he said. “I feel that people who have not experienced friendship with a dog or another animal are missing something.”
Dogs, you see, are a part of who Beretta is, just as they are a part of me and so many others in this world. It’s especially profound in America — this love for animals — Beretta says.
Beretta, who has giant mastiffs sharing his life in Butte now, says dogs teach him much about life. They are wiser about it, he says, and more spontaneous about it.
Many people have trouble expressing affection, he said, while dogs “are completely liberated about it.” And while he can play all kinds of games in his head about who he is, Beretta said, “My dogs know exactly the kind of person I am and they show that to me.”
Humans spend their entire lives trying to achieve qualities that are mostly elusive to us, he said.
“It takes decades to achieve just a little bit of what they have by their own nature,” he said. “Dogs come as close as it is to a perfection of loyalty, to unconditional love, to this deep, comfortable affection.”
Beretta writes columns for The Huffington Post, and of all his works, the tribute he wrote about Cleo — his 200 pound mastiff — has drawn more compliments than any.
He penned the piece after Cleo died last year, with Beretta at his side, and he recalled a cold night when he had been driving for hours on his move from California to Butte. He pulled over, made some room in a truck full of boxes, and the two of them laid down.
“Each other is all we had on that cold November night,” Beretta wrote. “Each other, she knew, was all we needed.”
That was enough.
“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went.”
– Will Rogers
Like Beretta, like Jay and Mary Bentley, like so many people, I have loved dogs and shared my life with them. I have whispered one last time that I love them as they left this life.
I have cried and grieved and years later, when thinking of Rookie or Barney or Cedar, tears come to my eyes still. But those moments are always followed by memories of joy, and the love I had for them is rekindled and is just as powerful, in a calm and quiet way. It never goes away.
Jay and Mary would love to find out more about Pal, and better yet, find a dog in some way related to their lost friend. If you recognize Pal or something in this story about him, drop Jay a note. (See breakout)
It’s probably an unrealistic hope, Jay says, but it’s worth a shot. That's how special Pal was to Mary and Jay.
They returned to Butte recently to bring dog beds to the shelter where they found Pal, as well as some of his toys.
So touched were they by Pal, they dedicated a wall at The Open Range steak restaurant they own in Bozeman to black-and-white pictures of people's dogs. Some are gone now, some very much alive, all of them are special.
There must be 100 or more of them now, including Pal, but there's room for more.
Whether or not they find that relative, Beretta hopes the Bentleys and others who have loved and lost dogs will let another one — or two, or three — into their lives. It is the best way, he said, to pay tribute to the one you lost.
“Let providence guide you and let another animal conquer your heart,” he said.
People have different ideas about the afterlife, if they believe in one at all. I’m one who does.
And if I get to Heaven, I believe with all my heart that the first ones there to greet me will be my dogs, jumping and twisting around and knocking me on my feet, licking my face, tails wagging furiously.
Why, I figure I’ll need at least the first hour or so to hug and romp and play with them before seeing anyone else.
I have also said this, time and again, since I was a teenager, and believe it to be true.
If I get to Heaven and get to ask God one question and one question only, it will be this: “Why, God, did you make the dog man’s best friend but give them such short lives?”
I have read and heard lots of human answers to this question, but I don’t think anyone has hit on it. I believe God will have an answer I have never thought of, or read or heard, and it will blow me away.
And whatever it is, it will be enough.