We Give Our Hearts to Dogs to Tear is not your typical, heartwarming dog story. Yes, there are heartwarming passages aplenty. But this book is also full of heart-stopping tragedy. That’s because the author and his human and animal family, including an assortment of Jack Russell Terriers, live in the wild mountains of Montana. Beautiful and rugged, the land is full of dangers ranging from hungry coyotes, bears and mountain lions to crabby 30-pound badgers, snares left by fur trappers, and poison set out by ranchers for coyotes. This is the sort of setting where any dog can get into serious trouble. And no dog can get into trouble like a Jack Russell Terrier.
These 15-pound dogs think they’re 10 feet tall, and immortal. They are fearless hunters. If you have or know a Jack Russell, you will have noticed that they consider what other dogs accept as commands to be mere suggestions. It’s because they think they know more than you do, and they may be right. Although all exhibit the breed’s typical intelligence, courage and energy, each is a uniquely complex, and often problematic, character. Chase’s Nobie was “a bundle of exasperating eccentricities,” whose “personality [had] more kinks than a corkscrew.” Ifrit “had a limitless capacity for love,” yet once, while playing, bit the author so hard he had to get a tetanus shot. Hobson was “sensitivity incarnate,” but prone to anxiety attacks that sent him diving under the bed covers.
The author buys his first Jack Russell as a birthday present for his wife, Diana—by mistake. He thinks he heard her say she wanted one; she remembers saying nothing of the kind. The couple already had plenty of animals: among them, 11 horses, two wildcats, a Mastiff and a coyote. Neither of them had any idea that Jack Russells were small dogs, and no clue that they had such huge personalities. But as it turns out, the breed was a perfect match for the big-hearted, life-loving, risk-taking couple. Transplants from Minnesota, they’re the sort of folks who, though perennially broke, fell in love with a dilapidated 3,000-acre Montana ranch that they knew was “too expensive, too primitive and too remote”—and promptly bought it.
Their Jack Russells are just as adventurous as they are. With a frenetic zest for life, these pint-sized dogs hunt ground squirrels, take out marmots and challenge badgers. They fall off rock ledges, collide with skunks, get quilled by porcupines and nearly drown in rushing rivers. Every day with the dogs, writes Chase, is “filled with love, play, empathy, anxiety, courage and near sudden death.”
Too often, death catches up with them. Their first Jack Russell, Phineas, dies in agony in less than a year, poisoned. Another is killed by a badger. One dies young of liver disease. Others live to old age—but you’ll cry when they die, too.
The deaths of these feisty dogs, as much as their lives, form the heart of the book. There are lots of great characters, moving descriptions of the land, discourses on the history of the Jack Russell and the dangers of breeding for appearance instead of performance. But these are incidental in the journey that is the book’s narrative core: Chase is looking for immortality for his dogs. Aren’t we all?
Because it’s impossible not to fall in love with characters like Phineas and Ifrit, Truffle and Tigger, Panda and Bungee—especially after you see the black and white pictures—some readers will be angry that Chase chose to bring these fearless, trouble-prone dogs into the dangerous western wilderness. Chase tackles this issue head-on, like one of his dogs might seize a ground squirrel. A former professor of philosophy, Chase takes on some Big Questions: Who are our dogs? What sort of lives do we owe them? How do we honor their spirits? What is the soul? Where lies immortality?
Bereft again and again, Chase tries to find another Phineas. (He gets two Jack Russells the next time, for emotional insurance.) He tries to replicate Ifrit. (This also fails.) He visits breeders, seeking to reincarnate the spirit of Bungee. Of course, it doesn’t work. But the vivid ghosts of Chase’s dogs demonstrate that what does happen is another kind of immortality.
Surely one of the cruelest conditions of life on Earth is that dogs don’t live as long as people. Yet, we “give our hearts to dogs to tear,” as Rudyard Kipling writes in the poem that gave Chase the book’s title. Yes, they tear our heart—but their indomitable, timeless spirits heal it again and again.