Zoe The Happy Dog (The Story)

By Robert Starkey

Occasionally some people are able to catch a glimpse of a parallel universe where everything is in order. It’s a place where fear does not exist. It’s a world of limitless undying love without conditions. Some people are able to step through the looking glass to enter that world without boundaries. Then their lives begin to flow effortlessly, because they have chosen to walk down the path the universe intended for them.

That parallel universe is where the story of “Zoe The Happy Dog” takes place. Zoe was no ordinary dog and this is no ordinary dog tale. But it will surely touch the hearts of everyone who understands the natural bond between dogs and humans.

In the beginning of time, as the world was being created, it was decided that dogs and humans would form intimate bonds. The humans would provide food, water and shelter. The dogs would provide undying devotion along with unconditional love. But the most important aspect of the bond between dogs and humans would be the bridge between the cognitive abilities of each. Dogs would remind human companions that there are many times in life when the so called superior human intellect could be a burden instead of an advantage.

Most domesticated dogs are separated from their mothers at a very early age. Their instincts for joining a pack allow them to rapidly adapt to their human environment, often forgetting they are dogs, not humans. This is especially true of dogs who are forced to adapt to city life.

Zoe was a city dog most of her life. Like most city dogs, her life consisted of walks along concrete sidewalks leading to public parks. She was trained to stop at crosswalks and never went into the street unless her Daddy Tim gave permission. Zoe would sniff out small patches of grass carved out of the concrete, a concoction of many scents, layered one upon the other. She always looked forward to parks and beaches where her special canine sense of smell could be put to a more natural use.

Zoe as a puppy

When Bob met Tim, Zoe was already eight years old. After a polite introduction and a brief exchange of casual conversation, Bob continued on his way. But something about that first meeting triggered memories of other special encounters. Bob was compelled to come back to Tim to tell him of his premonition. He understood that not everyone would be open to what he was about to say. “You will be a part of my life for the rest of my life,” he told Tim. “I’m not exactly sure what that means, but if I don’t tell you this now, the opportunity will be lost.” Tim smiled, showing a surprising openness to Bob’s revelation. As the two men exchanged contact information, destiny was served.

The first time Bob came to walk Zoe, she thought he was probably just another disinterested dog walker.

When Bob and Zoe returned from their first walk, Zoe climbed onto the couch to position herself on the bed sheet that was meant to protect the fabric. The unprotected side of the couch was reserved for humans, the sheet was Zoe’s domain. But Bob didn’t seem to understand those rules. To Zoe’s surprise, Bob sat with his left leg overlapping her sheet. Then he gently picked up her head, placing it on his lap. With his left hand strategically positioned upon her head, he gently massaged between her eyes with his index finger. This was the exact moment the bond was sealed. Bob was unquestionably not just another dog walker. Zoe wondered, "is it possible to have two Dads?" She let out an audible sigh as she allowed her body to sink into the moment.

Bob had always considered himself a "dog person." The developing relationship with Zoe seemed as natural as breathing itself. He quietly acknowledged the slight flutter as his new best friend curled up inside his heart. Bob was never afraid to offer unconditional love once a serious bond was developed. This often scared humans away. The great thing about dogs is their capacity for giving it back, as well as accepting it with no questions asked.

In the spring Tim went off on an adventure to South America. He climbed the Andes Mountains of Peru to see the ancient Inca site, Machu Picchu. While Tim was off on his trekking adventure, this provided Bob with the first opportunity to take Zoe on daily walks to nearby parks.

Zoe in San Francisco

Just about the time Tim was making his way back down the mountain from Machu Picchu, Bob came down with a serious respiratory illness that would leave him suffering for the next ten months. Every morning he would awaken with doubts of his ability to walk Zoe. But as he described in his diary, he was like a mother who is not allowed to be sick because she must take care of the children. At that moment his relationship with Zoe shifted to another level. She became the light of every day. She was the reason he was able to get out of bed in the morning. She was the reminder of how to rise above perceived physical limitations and go on with life by adapting to the moment. She reminded Bob that he was still able to climb through the looking glass, to continue down the path already chosen for him.

Bob continued to walk Zoe for the next two years. Their relationship developed into an exchange of mutual trust and respect. But then circumstances changed and they were separated for three years. During the separation Bob frequently dreamt of Zoe, which always prompted a call or E-mail to Tim to be sure she was okay.

Bob had moved to Sonoma County wine country, a one hour drive north of San Francisco. Zoe’s photo was framed, resting upon a shelf on the bookcase near Bob’s bed. Deep down in his heart he had wondered if it was possible that Zoe felt he had abandoned her. He suffered from separation anxiety, a term Tim had once used to describe Zoe. Bob understood what it meant to love someone that much. Zoe was still resting in his heart, never forgotten for one moment.

In June, 2012, Bob was focused on his youngest sister Chris who had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. When he received a phone call from Tim, he was not surprised at the timing. Zoe was a senior dog now, her face framed with white hair that made her look wise and gentle. She had many of the typical health issues of older dogs of her breed. One vet had predicted she would not live another six months. That was two years before. As Bob contemplated his sister’s struggle with cancer, he thought of his many years as a caregiver. This time is different, he thought. This is really personal. This is my “baby” sister. So when he heard the words Tim uttered over the phone, he thought, this is synchronicity at its best. Life was about to take over again, sending Bob down that familiar path without boundaries. The path of right action always presents itself as the only choice when contemplating issues around the end of a life.

Tim explained he was about to go on a trip. He had arranged for a man to stay with Zoe while he was gone, but the guy seemed very unreliable. Tim opened his proposal by pointing out that Bob was really good with living beings at the end of life. Bob’s heart began to race. He stopped Tim in the middle of his sentence. "Yes, yes, yes!" "Bring her to me!"

Zoe seemed tired compared to the dog Bob remembered from three years before. Her body had developed several large fatty growths that were thought to be harmless, but could not be removed without great risk. She had digestive issues that would often flare up with the wrong foods. But none of these things mattered to Bob. When called upon to care for someone at the end of their life, he figured nothing matters but their happiness and comfort. He was in a unique position where he could devote all of his time to making Zoe happy. He would be so focused on this endeavor that he would fail to notice how happy it would also make him. There was a complex tapestry being created. It was hard for Bob to separate the various pieces. The struggle to accept his sister’s terminal disease could not be separated from his need to confront his own mortality as a member of an adult community. The pain of not being able to save his sibling was lessened by his ability to make Zoe’s life more comfortable. This complex tapestry was held together by the threads of unconditional love. There was nothing Bob would give that wouldn’t come back to him tenfold. That’s just the way things work on the other side of the looking glass.

After Zoe returned to San Francisco, Bob’s house seemed extremely lonely. Already, in those few days of visiting, Zoe had left her impression upon his home. Bob consoled himself with the knowledge that Tim traveled often, that Zoe would return soon. He returned to the parks where they had walked together a few weeks before, but it was not the same. Once again, there had been an incredible sense of purpose in walking Zoe, in caring for her needs.

Zoe’s first walk around Spring Lake

At the end of August Tim called again. He was traveling back to Europe to visit his parents. Bob prepared for Zoe’s arrival by buying yearly passes to all the surrounding parks. He visited the local pet shops to stock up on all the things he thought Zoe might need during her stays.

When Tim dropped Zoe off for her second visit he cautioned Bob that she had not been well. He wanted Bob to clearly understand his appreciation. Tim wanted him to understand that if Zoe’s life ended before he returned, he would know that she had been well looked after. That night Zoe was at the door every 30 minutes, crying in extreme pain. She was such a lady, she would have been mortified had she had an accident inside the house. When Bob called Tim at the airport just before his flight left the next morning, Tim was surprised that Zoe was that sick. He though he had stabilized her condition before dropping her off. Bob’s maternal instincts went into full force that morning. There will be no more thoughts of dying, he said to himself. We are going to find the right path to healing.

The next morning as Zoe and Bob were driving to the park, Bob pulled up behind a van with a bumper sticker that said, “Baby On Board.” For the first time Bob understood that sentiment. He would drive more cautiously when Zoe was in the car. If he was called upon to suddenly apply the brakes, his hand would automatically go back to support Zoe, to keep her from falling off the seat. He knew what every mother knew in her heart. If anything bad should ever happen to Zoe, that could be remotely attributed to him, he would never forgive himself. Research shows that hormones in women may trigger a maternal protective instinct that does not exist in men. Bob doesn’t believe that it’s limited to women.

In the next few months Zoe came to visit Bob several more times when Tim traveled. But the new year brought a new challenge. Tim’s return to school would require him to be gone eight hours a day four days a week. Tim and Bob worked out a schedule where Bob would keep Zoe for eleven days and Tim would keep her ten days. This meant Bob would have her for eight of the twelve days Tim was in class.

By combining holistic practices with conventional practices, Bob was able to find a perfect balance for healing Zoe. Using herbal remedies alongside allopathic medicines, he was able to stabilize Zoe’s health. But this often required weeks of strict regimens. Slowly the practice of bringing Zoe back and forth between San Francisco and Oakmont fell by the wayside. It became more practical for Tim to simply come to visit. This was an extremely difficult sacrifice on Tim’s part. Zoe had been a daily part of his life for fifteen years. It’s the kind of heartbreaking decision often required of parents in the best interest of the child. Each time Tim arrived for a visit, Zoe cried with joy. As he drove away to return to San Francisco, Zoe would sit by the front door whimpering until he was far out of range. Perhaps she sensed Tim’s sadness as he drove away.

Bob and Zoe had managed to fall through the looking glass together now. Each morning at 9:30, Bob would slide back the glass door leading to the patio, announcing, “it’s time for the adventures of Zoe and Bob!” Right on cue, Zoe would jump up, tail wagging and run to the garage. She would patiently stand beside the car waiting for Daddy Bob to open the door.

Once Zoe moved in permanently, Bob made a pact with her. He would never leave her alone unless absolutely necessary. Before he made his daily visits to the West Pool, he would sit on the floor with her and stroke her head. Each day he would calmly assure her that he would be gone no more than 90 minutes at the most. Each day upon his return Zoe would cry with joy, her tail pounding upon the floor as if Bob had been gone for days.

Very slowly, Bob and Zoe developed a mutual trust that the universe would provide the right path for them together. In spite of advice from others about the need for older dogs to rest, they began to extend the length of their daily walks. Bob allowed Zoe to choose when they would rest and when they would go home. It soon became obvious that the more Zoe walked the healthier she became. Each morning they would hike through the trails of Sonoma Valley Regional Park for two to three hours. After lunch they would travel to Spring Lake Park for a trek around the lake. In the late afternoon they would walk down Channel Drive in Annadel State Park or hang out on the Polo Field. And many evenings would consist of socializing at the Polo Field before sunset. All total, no day consisted of less than five hours of walking. This proved beneficial for the health of both Zoe and Bob.

Each evening before dinner Bob devoted an hour to combing Zoe with the flea comb, to be sure no fleas or ticks had hopped on board during their walks. In the beginning he thought this exercise might be annoying to Zoe. But it became an intimate exercise of love instead. The routine soon lost its negative connotation. Fleas and ticks were no longer found. It became an hour long meditation of gentle healing touch. A ritual of devotion that said, “this is how much I care about you!” “This is how important you are in my life.” After taking a course in dog massage, Bob was able to help Zoe stay more limber and fit for their daily adventures.

Within the context of their relationship on the other side of the looking glass, magic was bound to happen. After all, that’s where magic lives. One hot day, on one of their longer walks in Sonoma Valley Regional Park, Bob heard a voice inside his head. “Zoe is the teacher, watch her and learn!”

Bob had never really given much thought about how life must look from Zoe’s perspective. “Let’s turn the tables,” he thought. Instead of trying to mold Zoe’s life around the human point of view, Bob decided to make a conscious effort to be more like a dog, to understand the dog’s point of view. He stopped tugging on her leach when she stopped to smell something. He simply waited for Zoe to decide to come along on her own. He tried to imagine what made the smells so interesting, so important to her. If Zoe wanted to take a side trail, Bob followed her willingly. He quickly learned that Zoe had a much easier time living in the moment, as well as accepting what the next moment had to offer. Once Bob surrendered to Zoe’s lead, that’s when the real magic began. Within the comfort of their daily routine, almost unnoticed, his life changed more than he could have imagined.

Zoe and Bob were now sharing something essential in their life together. Inside each of their minds they were thinking the same thought. “I love my life.” In surrendering to Zoe’s need to follow her canine instincts, Bob had entered a place where giving becomes receiving. None of the actions of either were deliberate any longer. They just walked happily together down a path where life renewed itself in each glorious moment. There were no longer any expectations, just many surprises.

Bob had been excited and grateful when Zoe first came to visit Sonoma. He was determined to chronicle their life together in photographs. He made sure his small Canon pocket camera was fully charged before each outing. As their relationship developed, the photography became an important part of the magic. Whenever Bob would stop to take photos, Zoe would seize the opportunity to either rest or do an in-depth investigation of the scents of the surrounding area. Whenever Zoe would suddenly stop for no apparent reason, Bob learned to open the camera lens and be ready to shoot. It was a perfect symbiotic relationship.

Bob soon realized his small pocket camera was no longer adequate. His relationship with Zoe had compelled him to pursue the creative part of his nature. She became both his Muse and his guide. Bob bought a better camera with a zoom lens for his 64th birthday, as the inseparable duo strolled into 2013, off on more of the Adventures of Zoe and Bob.

Magic is not always as dramatic as pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Most of the time it’s as subtle as a drop of dew reflecting sunlight on a green leaf, while most of the world passes by without noticing. In deciding to see life as a dog, Bob unwittingly opened his eyes to magic all around him. Zoe led him into a world of careful examination, where everything was first dissected by her incredible olfactory ability. He learned that Zoe’s nose could see beyond barriers of trees and grass as well as across great distances. He was no longer able to walk through the forest without being totally present. He learned to identify birds he could not see by their distinct songs. He no longer dismissed the rustle of the surrounding brush as simply the wind. Bob was no longer just another human walking through the forest. He had become part of the forest. Although he could never compete with Zoe’s sense of smell, he had learned to develop the human resources he had allowed to lie dormant as a member of a so called civilized society. Now he understood that stepping through the looking glass meant that he was no longer just an observer on the other side of the glass. He was now a full participant.

The act of loving Zoe and receiving her unconditional love in return, opened Bob’s heart to all other living beings. There was no longer such a thing as “just a dog.” There was no such thing as just a bird, or just a squirrel, or just a cow. Each time Bob focused his camera lens on one of nature’s beautiful creatures, he felt the same expansion in his heart that came with focusing on Zoe. Within the realm of that heartfelt connection, he discovered that he could communicate with the other animals in the same way he communicated with Zoe. Each time he pointed his camera he would speak these few words. “You are beautiful, I love you and I will do you no harm.”

Zoe and Bob had just left the parking lot near the boat launching ramp at Spring Lake Park, beginning their daily trek around the lake. Zoe kept stopping to look at the ducks. She was usually indifferent to their presence. On this particular day it was Bob who was indifferent to their presence. He had already photographed the Mallards in every position possible, he thought to himself. Bob gave one more gentle tug on Zoe’s leash, but Zoe refused to budge. She walked off the pavement and sat under the bench where she would usually rest while Bob was busy taking pictures. Bob sat down on the bench, gazing out onto the water, wondering what was going through Zoe’s mind. “Oh my God!” Bob shouted. There among the Mallards was a beautiful pair of wood ducks. Bob had never seen wood ducks before, except in bird books. Was it possible this was another of Zoe’s natural instincts? Finding rare ducks?

The next day Bob and Zoe returned to the place where the wood ducks had decided to take up residence. A large bush hung over the edge of the lake, offering protection and shade. Bob lifted Zoe onto the bench nearby, then slowly made his way to the edge of the water to take photographs. Suddenly the male wood duck let out an ear piercing screech, then flew to the other side of the lake. The other ducks followed. Then an otter came splashing through the water, jumped onto the shore beside Bob’s foot and scurried under the bench where Zoe was resting. Zoe whimpered, sat up and looked somewhat bewildered. That put an abrupt end to the day’s photo shoot.

The next morning Bob and Zoe arrived at the lake about the same time as the previous day. The ducks were all congregated under the bush as if nothing had happened.

After lifting Zoe back onto her bench, Bob once again made his way to the water’s edge. In a soft voice he began to talk to the male wood duck. He recounted the incident with the otter the day before. Bob explained that he wanted to capture the beauty of the pair of wood ducks in photographs. He explained that he would do them no harm. Bob felt a palpable shift in the energy that morning. For the rest of the day and the two days following, the ducks allowed Bob to get closer. At times it seemed as though the male wood duck was posing. He often made eye contact with Bob. On the fifth day a foot race was being held nearby. The starting line was just beyond the protective bushes at the water’s edge. The race began with a shot fired into the air. At the sound of the gun the wood ducks took flight for Mexico and were never seen again.

Bob’s three day relationship with the wood duck also marked a significant shift in his relationship with Zoe. He was surprised at the sense of loss when the wood ducks were gone. Bob never imagined the interaction between a duck and a human could become so close and intimate. The wood duck had been a catalyst to some kind of spiritual awakening. His “Lucky Duck” had expanded his heart into new territory, where he could no longer be easily distracted from the connection of all living things to each other. This epiphany opened Bob’s heart to the greater realization of what a precious gift his time with Zoe was.

In the days immediately following the departure of the wood ducks, Bob spent a lot of quality time with Zoe on the Polo Field in the afternoons. As he was lying on the grass with Zoe, he realized there was a whole new world to be seen through his camera lens when the camera was held down near the ground at Zoe’s level.

Photographing from the perspective of a dog was the most important change Bob made in his photography style. It was an accident of love.

At the time Bob had no conscious awareness of the process he was involved in as he rolled around in the grass on the Polo Field. He had no idea of the impact his photos of Zoe would have. He was simply in love with Zoe, in love with his life, in love with the moment. Every moment presented its own special kind of beauty and magic. So Bob just kept clicking the shutter, with no special intent. Within the context of all that love, in the midst of all that positive energy, the camera captured Zoe’s soul. It captured something that is a part of each living being, a part of us that never dies. In a way, each and every portrait of Zoe is a portal to the eternity where we all go to rest. Bob realized that the physical forms he now captured with his camera were representations of the unseen spirit that gave each and every one of them life. By making heart connections with each of his subjects, Bob was able to bring their spirits into view of the temporal world, adding a detectable radiance to each subject, to each photograph.

Near the end of 2013, Zoe was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. The diagnosis came within weeks of Bob’s youngest sister’s death from cancer. Zoe had provided Bob with a positive distraction during his sister’s struggle. He felt he could make a difference in Zoe’s life while he was helpless to change the outcome of his sister’s fate. After Zoe was unable to walk on her own, Daddy Bob pulled her through all the familiar trails in a small red wagon.

He was determined to give her life quality to the end. Bob had heard all the standard observations about the end of a dog’s life. “She will let you know when it’s time,” people would say. But it was his heart that let him know. He loved her so much he could no longer bear to watch her suffer. So he was forced to make the most difficult decision anyone could ever face. He was forced to let go of what he loved more than anything else in the world.

Since her trip to the Rainbow Bridge, Zoe’s story has inspired people from around the world. Each day now, Daddy Bob does the ritual walk to Zoe’s memorial table in Sonoma Valley Regional Park to honor her memory. Zoe’s spirit walks beside him. Zoe’s life and Daddy Bob’s life were intertwined in a way where it was almost impossible to tell one from the other. Daddy Bob had known that kind of spirit connection once before with a human. Many call it a soulmate connection. Some say it only comes once in a lifetime, if you are lucky, so cherish it. Bob experienced it twice. Therefore he experienced the loss twice. So he knows the pain never really goes away. One simply finds a way to live with it, to try to understand the mystery we call eternity. The flowers on Zoe’s memorial table symbolize the incredible bonds of love that exist between humans and their animal companions. Zoe’s table and the love that emanates from it provide light, a ray of hope in a world that seems to have lost its way. Zoe embodies every dog who has ever been loved by a human. Daddy Bob epitomizes every human who has ever been loved by a dog. And Zoe’s table is a shrine for every animal waiting at the Rainbow Bridge, to be reunited with the humans they love.

As Daddy Bob contemplates his life without Zoe, one thing is certain. Zoe occupies a place in his heart that will remain exclusively hers for the remainder of his life. Zoe has changed his life in so many positive ways. Every time Bob is lonely, Zoe reminds him to hug someone. She reminds him that giving love is the real gift. Every time Bob snaps a photo, Zoe is there to remind him that loving them is what captures his subjects spirits. Every time Bob is afraid, Zoe is there to remind him how to face life one moment at a time, accepting and accommodating what life offers, the way a dog does. Every time the problems of the world seem overwhelming, Zoe is there to remind Bob that dogs don’t have newspapers or TV. That there is a whole beautiful world that exists only within the range of one’s nose, eyes and ears. In any given moment of life, that’s all that really matters.