Fire in the night…flames spreading through the house…the alert, brave dog running from room to room barking to wake everybody up, tugging on the father’s pajama sleeve to get him to spring into action.
Until Hope, our Shetland Sheepdog, entered our lives, this was my Hollywood-ish idea of how a dog rescues a family. But something far different happened to the four of us — different, but just as wonderful.
Six years ago, my severely autistic son, Walker, then 12, had just come home from two weeks in a hospital psychiatric ward after suffering a psychotic episode. Back home, he was not doing much better. His almost continual shouting and ball-bouncing were creating an unbearable situation for his brother, his mother and me.
I began to think of something that had been, up to that moment, unthinkable: finding some kind of separate living arrangement for Walker. Just the thought was agony to all of us.
Then one day my wife Ellen popped me with a question: “Why don’t we get a dog? Maybe what we need to do is add more life to the mix here.”
A few days later Ellen and our younger son Davy walked into the house with a very young Sheltie. They had looked at a litter of pups and picked out this one because Davy liked the sweet look in her eyes. “She looks optimistic,” he said. “Can we call her Optimism?”
“How about Hope?” Ellen said.
Suddenly all our eyes were on Hope. Tiny, with dark and light brown fur and a face that radiated kindliness and fun, she became the fluffy vortex of our family maelstrom, a role Walker was happy to relinquish. Everything Hope did—all her barking and close following of our feet—brought giggles of delight from him.
She quickly learned the “farm life” Shelties are bred for was very un-farmlike at our small house in a densely populated north side Chicago neighborhood noted for its nightlife.
So Hope proceeded to create her own farm and her own jobs. Ellen became the shepherd, the only human Hope takes orders from. Walker, Davy, and I became the sheep to be watched and herded and barked at and kept from danger. Our cats became sheep, too, located and relocated throughout the day and night. Our postage-stamp sized front yard morphed into the high pastures of the Shetland Islands, to be scanned through the front window for potentially menacing critters.
We found that Hope was not a miracle cure for Walker. She brought no magical neurological awakening. But she did keep him living with us. More than that, her attempts to discipline him engulfed him tears of laughter, returning him to his normal merry self. She even elicited, continues to elicit, new words from him as he attempts to discipline her right back, shouting “No Hopie wolf today!” when she tries to steal his French fries or his macaroni and cheese.
And Hope has been a healthy distraction for the rest of us, too, a welcome addition to the mix. She’s one of the family who is truly not like us, and this in itself is very nice. Always positive and alert, ready to go, never uncertain, and making the best of her situation, she is inevitably herself in a household of shaky, hyperemotional humans. She’s our symbol of simplicity amid confusion, a commander attempting to regulate us.
Each evening I take her for a walk in our bustling neighborhood. The old, the young, the homeless, the hip—everyone—lights up and says: “Oh look! Little Lassie,” then glances at me as if to say, “You lucky, lucky guy you!” I think: Clearly, she carries with her some kind of Lassie aura of good will, an atmosphere that I, as a lone pedestrian, lack.
And I also think, gratefully: This little Lassie has saved us from our own version of a burning house. She has taught us that pandemonium and uproar are not the worst things in life, and that sometimes, if our eyes are open, they bring blessings.