Man’s Best Friend: Three Men and Their Four-Legged Friends

By Leslie Criss | Photos by Lauren Wood

“The dog has been esteemed and loved by all the people on earth and he has deserved this affection for he renders services that have made him man’s best friend.” – Alfred Barbou 

The extreme love affair humans have had with their furry, four-legged canine companions has been lauded by poets, philosophers and kings alike. Homer may have been one of the earliest when he penned “The Odyssey” near the end of the 8th century B.C. Odysseus had loved his Argos as a pup, but had long been away from him as he fought Troy for 10 years and spent another 10 trying to get home. And when he finally made it home, an old and dying Argos alone remembered his master.

In 1764, Voltaire wrote of the dog, “… it is the best friend man can have.” King Fredrick of Prussia referred to his beloved Italian greyhound as his best friend in the late-1700s. Much later in 1941, Ogden Nash began his “An Introduction to Dogs,” with this: “The dog is man’s best friend. He has a tail on one end. Up in front he has teeth. And four legs underneath.”

It’s clear, from literature to life, the loyalty and love of dogs are great gifts to humanity. They truly are man’s best friend.

John Willis Jr. & Pee Wee

John Willis Jr.’s constant companion is a 7-year-old miniature chihuahua formerly known as Trina. She belonged to the folks next door in Willis’ Tupelo neighborhood when he began noticing the puppy.

“One day I came home to find her tied to a tree in the middle of a rain storm,” Willis said.

He mentioned it to the puppy’s owners who told him they had no time to take care of her.

“I made up my mind that day of the rain storm that I was going to get up my nerve and take that dog,” said the 82-year-old Willis. “My wife told me I couldn’t do that, but I didn’t listen.”

One Sunday in 2012, when Trina was about a year old, Willis was ready. His wife Willie Mae Day left for church and Willis began fixing his breakfast.

“I went out to my shed for something,” he said, “And I heard this little voice. She was tied to the tree again. I went over and saw the food in her food bowl was moving because it was filled with red ants. She was sitting right next to a nest of ants. I took the chain off her and she ran straight over to my house.”

The rest? History. Trina became Pee Wee – “I didn’t like Trina, and Pee Wee just fit.”

A trip to the veterinarian brought a diagnosis of heart worms and intestinal parasites. Pee Wee also had a cracked bone in her foot. Willis and Pee Wee made a trip to the Animal Health Center at Mississippi State University, where Willis told vets to fix his sweet pup, “regardless of the cost.” After he had Pee Wee for three or four weeks, Willis’ neighbor saw him with Pee Wee out in the yard.

“He stopped and told me he knew the dog was in a good place,” Willis said.

A music teacher, minister, musician, former baseball player and insurance salesman, tall, lanky Willis enjoys spending time at the piano each day. When his hands are moving up and down the keyboard, little Pee Wee listens intently from her perch on a gold throw pillow in her master’s lap. Sometimes Willis lifts his voice in song as he plays, and Pee Wee often drifts off to sleep with her ears remaining at attention.

After lunch every day, Willis and Pee Wee nap together, and at night, the 6 1/2-pound pup sometimes falls asleep on the couch, but “80 percent of the time, she ends up sleeping with me.”

Pee Wee usually goes in the car when Willis runs errands, unless he’s going to be inside a store for a longer period of time. It’s those times when Pee Wee sits just inside the front door of the family’s home, waiting on Willis to return. He doesn’t even like to think of life without his four-legged friend.

“She has completely changed my life,” Willis said. “I am more settled, more loving, more calm. I’m a different person since Pee Wee came along.”

Neil Alford & Levon

A weekend visit to the Tupelo Flea Market one weekend about four years ago led to an unexpected purchase for Neil and Rachel Alford of Tupelo. Their shopping list did not include a puppy. Still, they stopped and looked. The 6-week-old Australian shepherd fit in Neil Alford’s hand.

“My wife and I had a discussion, and she won,” he said, laughing softly. “She brought him home.”

The tri-colored pup, now 4, was named Levon for musical reasons.

“When I was younger – and even now – I was a big fan of The Band,” said the 32-year-old Alford.

Levon Helm, who died in 2012, was a vocalist and the drummer of The Band.

For a while now, Levon has spent his afternoons at Chickasaw Equipment Company in Tupelo, surrounded by all sizes of tractors, mowers, utility vehicles and more.

“He chases every 4-wheeler or forklift or whatever he can out here,” Alford said.

After the chase, Levon can often be found soundly sleeping under Alford’s desk. He also enjoys greeting customers.

“Our customers look for him when they come in,” Alford said. “Some folks come by just to see the dog. He’s usually down here about 40 hours a week. If he wasn’t coming here with me, he would have destroyed our house.”

Australian shepherds are high-energy.

“I take him with me on bike rides on trails off the Trace,” Alford said. “The first mile and a half, I can barely keep up with him – he has one speed and that is wide open. But the last part of the ride, he can’t keep up with me.”

The bond between man and his dog likely grew stronger after a frightening experience in June 2017.

“If I go anywhere, he comes with me,” Alford said. “I was going to look at a tractor trade and I was kind of lost, not sure where I was going. My truck topped a hill on a two-lane road and a car was coming right at me in my lane.”

Alford tried to avoid a collision, hit one ditch, then another and then his truck began flipping.

“I blacked out and when I came to an ambulance was there,” he said. “I called my wife and she asked, ‘Where’s the dog?’ I didn’t know.”

Folks at the site said they’d seen an injured dog run away from the truck. Neil Alford was taken to the hospital, knowing he was lucky to be alive. His wife posted on Facebook about Levon and it was shared many times. Several days later, the Alfords received a call – Levon had shown up on a lady’s front porch not too far from the accident site. He had a broken front leg.

“He was in a cast and a cone for six weeks,” Alford said of Levon. “He was not too happy about either.”

These days, the two are doing fine and enjoying time spent together at work. “But when we get home, he follows my wife everywhere.”

Bud Nelson, Lucy & Obie

Bud Nelson grew up with dogs.

“We had German shepherds, beagles, an Irish setter once, several feists,” said the 62-year-old finance manager of Ashley Bedding.

That was when he was a young boy in Alabama and Tennessee, and later when his family moved to Tupelo when Nelson was a high school freshman. When Nelson graduated from college and married his wife Lynn, “there was a succession of cats,” until the couple headed one afternoon to Toys ‘R’ Us for a birthday present for the child of friends.

“There was a red pickup truck by the mall, selling boxer puppies,” Nelson said.

They two stopped, Lynn Nelson held a puppy and “I ended up at the ATM getting money for a dog.”

He’s had a bias for boxers ever since.

These days, Obie is the boxer at the Nelson house. The handsome boy is 6 and a lover of attention. And then there’s 2-year-old Lucy.

“We were looking for a small black-and-white dog,” Nelson said. “We thought it would be good to have one big dog and a small terrier-type.”

Lucy showed up injured at the Nelsons’ veterinary clinic. They went to meet her and fell in love. The two pups, who bonded almost immediately, love to hang out with Nelson. Anytime they hear him say the word ‘go,” they are going crazy to get to the car.

“They know we’re either going to doggie day care or to Starbucks,” Nelson said. “They’ve got to have their puppuccinos.”

A guitar player, Nelson enjoys playing whenever he can. The dogs love it, his wife said.

“I’ll walk by the room when he’s playing, and the dogs will just be sitting at attention, looking up at him,” Lynn Nelson said.

Neither Lucy nor Obie are allowed to run loose, so Nelson said he spends a good bit of time with his dogs in the backyard where there’s a swimming pool both dogs purposefully avoid.

Regarding dogs as “man’s best friend,” Nelson whole-heartily agrees.

“They are the only creatures in the world that will love you unconditionally,” he said. “And that is what that is all about. That’s how they are. It doesn’t matter what you do or what you’re going to do. They love you, and that’s a nice thing.”

Nelson said their lives are fuller – and busier – with Obie and Lucy in them.

“We get to take care of them, bond with them, do fun stuff with them – even if it’s just to go to the park or Starbucks, and we get to post about them on Facebook and talk about them,” he said. “I have friends who don’t understand why I have dogs. They simply don’t know what they are missing.”

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