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 seem to do a far better job living in the moment than people. 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!”

17 Responses

  1. Catherine Koemptgen

    Bob, This article is heartfelt and so wise in every way…. Although Joel and I don’t have a dog, Sammy would be “our kind of dog”, a fine companion who slows us down to see the magic of the bigger picture. THANK YOU so much for sharing this with your readers.
    Catherine Koemptgen

    1. astrobob

      Hi Catherine,

      So nice to hear from you, and thank you for your kind words. Sammy’s been a good teacher. I hope you’re doing well and enjoying the beautiful wisps rising off the lake today.

  2. John Dixon

    As I watch my own dog’s days dwindle down, this line was a belly laugher – ” They can eat the same food twice a day for a decade and relish it anew every single time.”

    Thanks Bob,

    John Dixon

    1. astrobob

      Hi John! Thanks for writing. I’m discovering that more than a few of us have older dogs. Whenever I hear from you or one of the other guys at the News Gazette, it feels good.

      1. Some of us have older felines that shared starry adventures. When i finally took my glance off the sky after the 2001 Leonids, my then feline overlord was next to me looking up as well towards the radiant
        thanks Bob 🙂

  3. I’ll add my thanks, too, Bob. This is the first time I’ve read your blog, tho I enjoy your S&T articles very much. I’ve been watching my fourteen year old cat – named Sam – recently and seeing how he teaches me about eternity being in the present moment, so I loved what you have learned from your Sammy.

  4. I smiled as I remembered the 16 trips I took around our sun with our Wiener Dog,Diva. The nightly views of satalites, the ISS, Auroras, planets, constellations & time well spent outside because of our Dog. Enjoy and scratch Sammy behind the ears from me. Thanks Bob!

    1. astrobob

      Thanks Bruce for sharing your memories, Diva. Sammy’s been getting a little extra scratching lately thanks to you and a couple others 🙂

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