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Murphy, the gentle Wheaten terrier, is gone, and Laurie Best appreciates how he (and other dogs) helped forge human friendships

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I am a walker – always have been, always will be as long as my joints, scoliosis, and bunions allow me to be. Most of my walking has been done, for the past 26 years, in my close-knit suburban community.

Many (including my own children in their teenaged years) scoff at the 'burbs, at the cookie-cutter homes, at what they perceive to be the bland, soulless nature of these communities. I'm sure some suburbs are, but my experience has been quite the opposite.

But as much as I love my neighbourhood, I admit that even I had become complacent, not appreciating my "hood" as much as I should – and all it took to remind me of this was a red leash tied to the tree across the street.

The leash has been there for about 12 years, a signal that a beloved family pet, Murphy, the gentle, sweet Wheaten terrier, lived there and was ready to protect his family, greet passersby with a wag of his tail, an offer of a lick or an invitation to play. When his family's children played hockey or rode their bikes or tossed balls, he was part of it.

When his family walked to the nearby community pool, he watched, a bit morose that he couldn't join the fun. But he was always there to greet them enthusiastically when swim time was over.

The leash stayed wrapped around the tree, summer and winter, just in case Murphy wanted to enjoy the outdoors. Sometimes he lay under the tree, appreciating the summer breezes, protected from the sun, enjoying some quiet alone time. But he was always there – or you knew he was close by.

As I walked the sidewalks and trails in our suburb, I was usually accompanied by our succession of family dogs. Since the death five years ago of my well-loved Samoyed-cross, I now go with "borrowed" dogs.

It has been largely through all these dogs that I have met and made friends with many neighbours. This isn't a newsflash to anyone with a dog. We know the special camaraderie that exists among our kind.

But I wonder how many people realize that the neighbourhood dogs are a large part of what brings a community together.

As my dog and I trotted, we met new dogs – and their accompanying people. The conversations would quickly go beyond, "Oh, your dog is beautiful! What kind is he? I see a bit of hound in him, no? And perhaps some lab …"

We'd soon learn the dog's names. We sometimes even learned their humans' monikers – although it was easier to remember "Cupcake" (a fierce-looking giant) or "Flash" (a rotund, slow basset) since their names were often evocative (or ironic) in a way human names are not. "Mary" is a lovely name but perhaps not memorable. But even when we were tardy learning the human names, we still had a connection and shared our lives, joys and sorrows – eventually becoming great friends.

I credit our dogs with paving the way, making introductions easy, and providing us with the common thread that eventually would bind us together.

Our dogs grew old together, just as our children did. The children went off to university, found jobs, got married, moved away. So too, the dogs got old and passed away.

They were mourned by us all, but then, inevitably, new puppies took their place. New friends were added to the dog play groups.

When my beloved Samoyed-cross died, I was, as my daughter in England would say, "gutted." Wanting to let my fellow walkers and neighbours know, I tried to put a notice on our community website, only to discover that it had been temporarily taken down.

I told my immediate neighbours, bursting into tears each time – once while collecting mail at the community box. Word spread quickly and I received hugs, sympathy cards, phone calls of support – each and every one valued. And I was grateful to my dog for being the medium through which I met and made so many friends.

I hadn't seen three-legged Murphy (his back leg was amputated because of cancer) in some time. With winter coming, people are hibernating in their houses. Each day I walked past the red leash on the tree – until one day recently. I had a bad feeling. The leash was still on the tree, but I knocked on the door and asked the question to which I think I already knew the answer.

"How is Murphy?"

"We had to put him down. The cancer spread and his quality of life was deteriorating."

I was sad – I felt a special bond with the little Wheaten I had known first as a fuzzy puppy. He had an adventurous spirit and excelled at digging beneath the fence of his backyard, taking off, ending up at my back door, barking to be let in. Perhaps it was his way of making more friends and broadening his horizons. He will be missed in the neighbourhood.

The red leash remains around the tree. I understand – I was reluctant to clean the nose marks off windows for months after my Samoyed died. Bad housekeeping? Possibly. But it was a small way of keeping her with me.

As I walk now, I'm grateful to her for helping me be connected to my community. She still walks with me in my heart.

Laurie Best lives in Waterloo, Ont.