A visitor in the night

Sometime the best dogs are the uninvited

In the 32 years my husband and I have been married, we’ve had basset hounds, English bulldogs and Great Danes, all purchased as puppies from registered breeders.

The bassets and bulldogs were, and the Great Danes are, wonderful dogs.

And yet, there is nothing quite like the dog that appears at your door homeless, hungry and hoping you’ll allow him to stay.

Our stray was an old, fat and arthritic Rottweiler-type that showed up at the Coleman house last year. It was impossible to overlook the sense of destiny associated with his arrival.

I got home from work one night last winter, deduced that my husband was sequestered in his office on the backside of the house, and walked into our bedroom. There was a dog stretched out on the dog bed.

Which wouldn’t have been unusual — except for the fact that he wasn’t our dog.

We stared at each other for several long seconds, the old Rottweiler and I, and then I hurried to find my husband, who was also astonished to meet this unheralded guest.

Our two Great Danes — both male and normally highly territorial — apparently had welcomed the stranger onto the property, led him through their dog door, pointed out the food and water dishes and then escorted him to their bed in Mama and Daddy’s room.

We spent the next several days checking with veterinarians and people in our neighborhood, but nobody knew where he belonged.

He had no collar and no inclination to leave his newfound home, where the food and affection flowed freely.

Perhaps he had been abandoned. Maybe, as our daughter observed wryly when she came home from college, his huge appetite had threatened to impoverish his owners.

Or possibly, she added pointedly, they’d gotten tired of his pronounced canine odor.

By then, I had begun to call our new dog Brownie, but my husband rejected such a pedestrian name and instead christened him Nathan.

Thus did he become part of the household. And thus did I have a chance to reconnect with a bygone era in which few people we knew owned purebred dogs.

Strays and mutts were the dogs of my generation’s childhood — the dogs of questionable heritage that our parents hadn’t intended to acquire but didn’t have the heart to run off.

They played with us, protected us and even slept with us when we could sneak them into our bedrooms. Otherwise they lived outdoors, chasing cats and cars, drinking from puddles, sleeping in the soft grass and coming up to the porch for table scraps.

It was a good life, for dogs and kids alike. They had a human family and a place to live. In exchange, they taught us about responsibility, companionship and unfaltering love.

Eventually, they also taught us our first lessons in how to let go of what you love.

I learned that lesson anew last week, when Nathan the night visitor died peacefully in his sleep, stretched out on the sofa in the den, his head resting on a pillow as if he had always belonged to us and deserved all the privileges of a purebred.

I cried that morning when I found him. My husband cried later when he buried him.

And I made a promise to my inner child that no matter how hungry and how stinky he is, I’ll always make a place for the next incarnation of Nathan.

After all, you’re never too old for unfaltering love