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Love Is Where and with Whom You Find It - Chef's Choice Eight "I have fallen in love with my dog. This happened almost accidentally, as though I woke up one morning and realized: Oops! I'm 38 and I'm single, and I'm having my most intense and gratifying relationship - with a dog. But we all learn about love in different ways, and this way happens to be mine."

The words are Caroline Knapp's, from her delightful book, Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, in which she traces the historical shift in canine roles from working animals to family companions to emotional nurturers.

Funny thing about getting old, I started out certain I knew everything, particularly about love. As the years went by I realized I wasn't nearly as smart as I thought. Today the only thing I'm sure of is that I'm not sure of anything.

What's more, all that I've learned these past eight years, especially about love, my dog has taught me. That's how long Buddy and I have been together.

Nine months after moving to the beach in January of 1994, the old and cherished friend who accompanied me passed away. Brittany deserved her last bright season drowsing in sun-warmed sand, but I desperately wished she could have been with me for one more summer. I could do without people, I found out when she died, but not having a dog by my side would be intolerable.

Six days later I drove to Portland and returned with a 10-week-old Australian Shepherd named Buddy Holly Fisher. That's the name I wrote on the American Kennel Club papers I never mailed because I wound up spending the registration fee on a bottle of scotch to toast the rest of our lives together.

Since then Buddy and I have spent virtually every moment together. Comfortable in the ebb and flow of each other's eccentricities and needs, he keeps me company while I work, I join him often in his play. His unflagging high spirits encourage me to cram activity and joy into every waking moment as he does. Not a bad way to look at life, I tell myself.

Half of you are murmuring Yes! Yes! Yes! right now, while the rest are making that familiar circular motion with a forefinger in the vicinity of your foreheads. For there are dog lovers and there are cat lovers, and there are those who consider the first two groups to be seriously off plumb.

Which is why we're cautioned on revealing the depth of our emotions about Fluffy and Fido, says Knapp, regardless how powerful the attachment, how rewarding the union, how sustaining the relationship, or risk hearing those most condescending of non-pet-owner words: Oh, please, it's just a dog!

Well, yeah, that's the whole point.

It's because they're dogs -- because they're what we can't be, hard as we try, that we cherish their virtues. It's why we idealize and extol their unfailing loyalty, constancy, selflessness and devotion - so exemplary in them, so elusive in ourselves.

Knapp acknowledges another common view about pet-owners -that we turn to our animals for love and affection by default because the "real" thing is so hard to come by in our fractured, isolated, alienating world. And maybe there's truth to that.

But so what? "Love is love," is how Paula, a 46-year-old L.A. author, puts it. "I don't care if it comes from humans or from animals: it's the same feeling."

Still, it bothers many of us that the human variety often pales beside the canine kind. But that's not a sad commentary on our modern culture, Knapp points out. It's simply the nature of "the remarkable, mysterious, often highly complicated dances that go on between individual dogs and their owners."

The dance is about love, she says.

"It's about attachment that's mutual and unambiguous and exceptionally private, and it's about a kind of connection that's virtually unknowable in human relationships because it's essentially wordless."

Much, I imagine, like our connection to God.

And whenever the complexities of my comedic existence begin to overwhelm me, I find I can rediscover the simple meaning of life in the face of the only thing I truly understand anymore: My dog.

Uh, oh, there goes that finger again.

Lionel Fisher is the author of Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001). Reach him at beachauthor@hotmail.com to share your thoughts on magnificent aloneness.