Good Dog: Activities & Sports
A dog with a job makes the perfect hiking partner
Trying to hitch a ride from Kennedy Meadows to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Sonora Pass in the eastern Sierra, we didn’t see our handsome dog Ely as liability. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a nice couple—freshly showered, with laundered clothes—and their fuzzy, backpack-sporting dog?
Every car that passed, that’s who. Cars sped by, but still, no one stopped.
Finally, a pick-up truck slowed down. Three happy dogs vied for window space. The driver told us to hop in. “Good looking dog,” he said, pointing to Ely.
My husband Tom got in the back with Ely, and I sat up front with the driver and his dogs. It turned out that the driver had picked us up because he liked the look of our dog. So Ely really had been an asset, not just hiking the trails, but also, hitchhiking the highway.
At the Sonora Pass parking lot, I walked to the back of the truck to grab my pack and we started our 80-mile hike home to Tahoe. We continued up the pass, past the snow-patched, volcanic Leavitt Peak and granitic Tower Peak etched into the southern sky. When the trail crested the saddle, we could see aquamarine Wolf Lake nestled in the rocks below; the forested Carson-Iceberg Wilderness stretched beyond. Clouds had already begun to form on the horizon.
At home, Ely barks his head off at any sign of bear, coyote, squirrel or human. If a stranger happens to try to walk up our driveway, Ely springs into protection mode, barking, and eventually, if the warning is not heeded, biting. These are the kinds of things that we see as bad-dog behavior, antisocial problems that have resulted in complaints from neighbors and visits from animal control and even the police. These same behaviors become good-dog behaviors when Ely is on the trail.
Ely would never show aggression to a passing hiker, but once he’s tied up at our campsite, watch out. He stays up all night protecting us from all manner of bear and chipmunk. Though we bring a bear canister, no bear has ever gotten close to our food with Ely around. And strange humans elicit the greatest response, with is fine by me, especially if I’m hiking alone.
Ely was a rescue, formerly known as Buddy. And before that, Yeti. And before that, possibly Cujo. He had cycled through at least three households—places that we have since learned must not have been very nice to him. My husband and I had been trolling Petfinder.com separately, and we each came to the other, saying we thought we may have found “the one.” We showed each other pictures of the same dog, a smiling Chow/Shepherd/Elk Hound. He was scheduled to be at an adoption fair at the Petco in Carson City. “Let’s just go down and check him out,” my husband said. “We need running shoes anyway.”
We both knew that neither of us could just go “check out” a dog without bringing him home, but the people at Petco said this was a very special dog. They said we would have to fill out an application to get on a waiting list, and we wouldn’t be able to take him home right away.
The lady at Petco asked about my elderly dog, Riva, whom we had brought with us to make sure the dogs got along. When she found out that Riva had undergone TPLO on both legs—a $7,000 expense—she told us, “You can take Buddy home!”
“But I thought there was a waiting list.”
“You’re at the top,” she said, looking down at smiling, 14-year-old Riva. “He’s yours. You can take him home now.”
We didn’t buy running shoes that day, but we did end up with a dog.
On the car ride home, the newly named Ely squeezed himself out of the car window. I grabbed his hind legs and dragged him back in as we sped down the highway. Then my husband and I decided to stop at the dog park on the way home. To this day, I am not sure why we did this. With all the trails and open space in Lake Tahoe, there is no real reason to ever visit a dog park. Having a new dog apparently muddled our thinking.
Neither dog seemed interested in socializing with the other dogs. However, Ely trotted over to a seven-foot-tall man in a motorcycle jacket and leather riding chaps. He circled the man, then lifted his leg and peed on him. Proud of his efforts, he did a celebratory after-pee kick, showering the man’s urine-drenched pants with wood chips. We apologized, telling the man that we had just gotten this dog, that we didn’t really know him—he was just barely ours. This did nothing to appease him; he scoffed at us as he tried to wash off in the drinking fountain.
This was just the beginning of Ely helping us make friends.
Ely quickly showed signs of food aggression and guarding, so we fed the dogs separately. Full of wanderlust, Ely taught himself to scale the roof of my two-story A-frame and slide down the other side to the unfenced part of the yard. Once he attained freedom, he took himself for a long walk by the river. When I saw the movie Marley and Me, my first thought was, That’s nothing! Ely makes Marley look like a furry saint. Riva would just look at Ely and shake her head.
But put a pack on Ely, and he is the best hiking companion we could ask for. Ely looks forward to wearing his pack, and once it’s on, he’s all business. Passing hikers exclaim, “He has his own pack. How cute!” but Ely marches by, logging 20 miles a day without complaint. Depending on the terrain, we put his hiking booties on, too, and then he’s a real showstopper. “That dog’s wearing shoes!” people will say. One PCT thru-hiker even said in earnest, “I love your dog. No, really, I love him,” while another thru-hiker whose trail name was Train and who wore a wedding dress (one of the 26 he brought with him on his journey) featured Ely on his blog. While Ely doesn’t exactly love his shoes, and if he wears them too long, he’ll get blisters (like we do), they save his pads on shale and sharp granite.
With his backpack and booties, he’s not only cute, he’s a dog with a job. And as my friend Sandra says, “A dog without a job is a bad dog.” We often forget that dogs are animals. Their affinity for humans has helped them survive on an evolutionary level, but they are still animals with animal instincts. As we have learned from Ely, a questionable puppyhood will hone instincts that clash with household rules. But give a dog a job and those instincts will work for everyone. The behaviors that make Ely a very bad dog—his tirelessness and desire to protect us—make him the perfect hiking partner in the backcountry. Aside from offering us his protection and packing our trash (along with his own food), Ely helps us live in the moment. Backpacking is, after all, a metaphor for life: many miles of slow progression punctuated by moments of excitement and epiphany, beauty and bliss.
We descended into the valley of the East Fork of the Carson River, where we stopped for a splash in one of the many pools along the way and enjoyed a creek-side lunch and nap.
After a few days along the Carson, the trail then climbed again along a wildflower-decorated ridge, offering views of the granitic valley below. In another couple of days, we reached the Ebbetts Pass area, where Kinney Lakes offered good camping. Our route then climbed through another surreal volcanic landscape, craggy cliffs notching the Sierra sky. The trail clung to the edge of this ancient volcanic flow, with its rusty pinnacles hovering above like the spires of gothic cathedrals; Indian paintbrush, pennyroyal and mule ears scattered flashes of orange, purple and yellow across an otherwise rocky landscape.
We followed the trail back into the forest, passing a chain of alpine lakes that we all enjoyed swimming in. At the Forestdale divide, we entered the Mokelumne Wilderness, and leashed Ely to comply with wilderness regulations. We traversed the edge of Elephants Back, catching views of the appropriately named Nipple to the southeast and hulking Round Top Peak ahead. The afternoon sun drained us all, especially Ely, who struggled to find shade in the treeless landscape. There would be no place for a belly soak until we reached the saddle and arrived at Frog Lake, so we took off his pack and Tom carried it. I poured the rest of my drinking water over him, hoping it would help. Still, he didn’t want to get up and hike. Sitting there in the sun wasn’t going to work either.
“Try giving him treats,” I said.
Tom took the treats from Ely’s pack and set them in front of him. He ate a few and looked up at us.
“Give him some more,” I said.
Tom gave him a few more, and Ely ate them and then picked himself up off the ground and continued walking. I was relieved; it is one thing to carry his pack, another thing entirely to carry him. But Ely wasn’t overheated, just low on energy, which happens to us all when we spend the day hiking. Considering the exposed ridge of Elephants Back, we were lucky to have the sun. We would not have been able to safely cross the ridge in a lightning storm.
At the saddle, we stopped for a late lunch and a dip in Frog Lake before continuing across Carson Pass. The trail skirted along the side of Red Lake Peak through granite, aspen, juniper and wildflowers until it reached a small pond. Beyond it, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Tahoe—in Mark Twain’s words, “The fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Seeing the lake made us feel like we were already home. At Meiss Meadow, we turned off the PCT and followed the Tahoe Rim Trail toward Round Lake and Big Meadow.
Every day, we hiked as many miles as we could until the afternoon storms forced us to find shelter. Some days, we found a safe spot in a strand of trees, where we would sit on our packs and wait out the lightning. Once the skies cleared, we’d continue hiking until dusk, locate a campsite, feed Ely, then feed ourselves. Ely slept until we got into our tent and then woke up for his all-night patrol duty.
Each afternoon storm seemed more violent than the one of the day before, but the reprieve that last afternoon made us think that maybe the weather pattern had changed.
We woke up at Round Lake and headed for home, more than 20 miles away, hiking the easy three miles to the highway before breakfast. We crossed Highway 89, ate granola and then started up the grade to Tucker Flat. It was still early, but gray clouds tumbled over the pine-swathed horizon.
I asked Tom if he thought we should keep going.
“What are our choices?” he asked.
“I don’t know … turn around? Call someone to pick us up at the Big Meadow parking lot?”
“No way,” Tom said. “I want to hike home.” Ely seemed to agree.
So we continued up the pass. Clouds laddered the sky, shadowed by the first roll of thunder; white flashes ignited the sky. The rain started, and I said, “We’d better find cover.”
The trail clung to the edge of the ridge, exposed. The distance between thunderclaps and flashes narrowed. The gray sky fell as rain, then hail, soaking and then freezing us.
“Here,” Tom said, pointing to a small outcropping of rocks. We crawled under the granite and sat on our packs. The boulders had fallen down the side of the mountain and leaned against one another, creating a space beneath just big enough for the three of us.
The hail bounced into our small cave, but for the most part, we stayed dry. I looked down at Ely, who saw this as the perfect opportunity for a nap. I wanted to be more like him. We couldn’t do anything other than what we were doing—sitting on our packs in what we thought was the safest spot around—so what good would panicking do? Dogs live in the moment, not fearing the real or imagined dangers of the future. This is probably why we love them so much. They teach us how to be happy where we are, even if where we are is squatting in lightning position, rain and hail soaking our skin and fur.
“Is this safe?” I asked.
“Safest place around,” Tom said.
“But we’re right under that giant red fir,” I pointed. “And what if lightning strikes the granite above us? Won’t we get ground splash?”
“We’re okay,” Tom said. Really, we were in the best place within a terrible set of options—the front had moved in too quickly for us to make it back down the exposed ridge. Hovering under this outcropping of rocks was better than standing out on the trail, but just barely.
Rain seeped into the cracks between the granite and fell in curtains around us. That’s when it occurred to me that the water might dislodge the boulders, which would crush us. I tried to concentrate on the smell of wet minerals and earth, of pine sap and sage, but I could smell only my own fear—a mixture of sweat, salt and insect repellent. I pulled my legs up so I wasn’t touching the ground. I tried to see the situation through Ely’s perspective—we were just taking a nap break. Tom had managed to learn a thing or two from Ely; he too had fallen fast asleep. I took out my journal and began to write.
Tom opened an eye and said, “Does it calm you to write?”
I agreed that it did, even though the rain smeared the ink.
That’s when a clap of thunder accompanied a flash of lightning directly overhead, and I yelled, “Frick. Frick. Frick.” Though frick isn’t what I said.
“Stop yelling,” Tom said. “I thought you said writing calmed you.”
“I am calm. This is as much calm as I can manage.”
“Are you sure we’re safe here?”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do, so you might as well get some sleep,” he said, and nodded off again. Ely adjusted his position under his pack and let out a sleepy sigh.
Water pooled beneath my pack. The hail had turned to rain, blurring out the forest with its gray veil. Even the air held a smell of burning things, of fire and ash.
Nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a lightning storm—a sky cracking open. Unless, of course, you’re a dog. Then life is here in the present tense, where even if there’s imminent danger, there’s no reason not to be happy. I worry so much that I’ve practically reached professional status, and I am here to say that worrying has never saved me from anything, except maybe happiness.
The hail started again and lightning flashed so close that I could see the after-image in the sky. Tom woke up and said, “Another front moving through. We’re probably going to get some close hits.” This is not something anyone hovering under a pile of rocks in a lightning storm wants to hear.
I counted between the flashes and the claps of thunder. Each one less than a second apart. “Frick,” I shouted again.
“Shhh! With love.” I have always hated being told to be quiet, so this is the way we have come up with for Tom to tell me when I’m being too loud. Which is often.
“I can’t help it.”
“Keep writing,” he said.
The creek bubbled with its white noise. The dog remained unbothered, curled in a ball, asleep. Unflappable dog, unflappable husband. Panic-stricken me.
A mosquito landed on my knee, also seemingly unbothered by the storm as she looked for a way to drill into my skin with her proboscis. I admired her fearlessness as I brushed her away.
The worst of the storm rumbled off into the distance. “Let’s go,” Tom said. We got our packs on and climbed the ridge toward Tucker Flat. A soaked chipmunk lay twitching on the trail, had perhaps fallen from a lightning-struck fir. I could not help but think, That could have been me. The blackened trees charted a history of fire and storm. “I think we should pick up the pace,” I said. I am famously slow except when lightning is involved.
Dusk fell, and we followed the yellow spray of our headlamps. The forest hunched over us, and I jumped away from a bullfrog in the path, an animal I had never before seen in Tahoe. I thought of something E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This has gotten me through writing books and now it would get me through hiking home at night in the rain. I could see only a few feet in front of me, but I knew that after enough dark steps, I would reach the front door of our house. Ely ambled along, wagging his tail. If Ely could make the choice to be happy, so could I.
“I love hiking with you and Ely,” I told Tom.
“I love hiking with Ely, too. And I love having you in my life.” Rather than to try to decide if this was Tom’s way of getting out of telling me he loved hiking with me, too, I told my mind to Shh! With love, and like Ely, accepted everything for what it was.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Daily routines provide welcome relief at both ends of the leash.
Back in 2004 when my daughter was 10, she and my husband were united in their desire for a dog. Me, I shared none of their canine lust. But why, they pleaded. “Because I don’t have time to take care of a dog.” But we’ll do it. “Really? You’re going to walk the dog? Feed the dog? Bathe the dog?” Yes, yes and yes. “I don’t believe you.” We will. We swear. We promise.
They didn’t. From day one (okay, maybe day two; everyone wanted to walk the cute Cavalier puppy that first day) neither thought to walk the dog. Worse still, when I said, “Misty needs a walk,” they both had excuses at the ready. With Becky, it was always about her homework or extracurricular activities; with Joe, it was his journalism assignments or gym workouts (not to mention his games of Free Cell that he thought I didn’t know about). Hey, I had work, workouts and whatever else, too. But Misty needed walking. Why was I the only one who seemed to get that?
Despite my insistence that I didn’t have time to take care of a dog—really—I gradually came to accept that I would be the one to keep track of her shots, to schedule and keep her vet appointments, to feed and groom her. In short, to be the alpha in her life. Misty, of course, figured this out on day one. She peered up at the three new humans in her life (small, medium and large) and quickly calculated, “The medium one, that’s the sucker in the pack.” While, like most Cavaliers, she wasn’t a candidate for Mensa honors, her survival instinct was exceptional.
Quickly, Misty brought everyone in the household to heel. She trained Becky to sleep with a dog on her head. She trained Joe to brush her teeth (this because I had to draw the line somewhere). She trained all of us to give belly rubs on command. For everything else—well, let’s just say she and I developed something akin to a Vulcan mind meld. She’d look at me with those doleful brown eyes of hers, beam her need, then wait, trusting I would understand—which, bizarrely, I almost always did. In no time, she became my fifth appendage, snoring on my home-office couch as I worked, cradling against my feet as I read, splaying across my stomach as I watched television.
Even so, part of me continued to resent walking duty. Not just once a day. Twice a day. Every day. Joe and Becky had sworn. They’d promised. Yet it was very clear that if my schedule didn’t find the give, Misty wouldn’t get exercised, which exercised me plenty. Not fair, I’d balk silently as she and I walked. Not fair, I’d loudly remind anyone within earshot upon our return home.
Then one day—January 1, 2007, to be specific—my husband’s hematologist uttered an unthinkable word: leukemia. With that, my walk-and-balk tirades evaporated, my head too filled with worry to leave room for petty resentments. Save the two days a week I had to meet magazine deadlines in Manhattan, I now spent eight to 10 hours of each day with Joe in the hospital, doing anything and everything I could to ease his discomfort as he stoically withstood chemo, surgery, then a stem-cell transplant. During those six months of intensive hospitalizations, Becky, 12 at the time, adjusted to other adults being in the house when she returned from school. My work colleagues adjusted to my taking off at a moment’s notice to respond to a medical emergency. Every part of my life shifted; no part of my old routine remained.
Save one: Misty still needed walking. Each day. Every day. Once, preferably twice a day. Initially, when friends and neighbors offered to step in and take her through her paces, I declined because I knew they had their own households, jobs and dogs to deal with. Though I knew they meant well, I couldn’t see my way to further burdening their schedules.
As the months went by, I began to realize that my rejection of people’s kind offers was no longer spurred by considerations about their overcrowded lives. Rather, I actually wanted to walk Misty. Not once a day. Twice. It wasn’t just that the walks were my only opportunity for exercise and fresh air. The walk in the morning before I headed to the hospital was quiet, peaceful, a time to gather my thoughts or just be before the day’s medical drama unfolded. The evening walk was a time to shake off the day’s upsets and let the worry tracks in my head go to white noise.
And then there was this. When dire illness visits your household, it’s not just your daily routine and your assumptions about the future that are no longer familiar. Pretty much everyone you know acts differently. When they see you, their smiles crumble. Invariably, they steer the conversation in the same mind-numbingly repetitive direction: How’s Joe? How’s Becky? How are you? They mean well, but their expressions, their body language, their questions are a constant reminder that your husband might die. In other words, like everything else in your life, the people around you have changed.
Not Misty. Take her out for a walk and she had no interest in Joe’s blood counts, chemo concoctions or bone-marrow test results. If it was just the two of us on the street or in the park, she had only one thing on her mind: squirreling! If we crossed paths with another pet owner walking her pooch, she had a different agenda: sniff that dog’s butt! As she chased ecstatically after a furry rodent or thrust her nose eagerly into the hindquarters of a dog 10 times her size, she was so joyous that even on the worst days, she could make me smile. On a daily basis, she reminded me that life goes on.
Somewhere during these months, she stopped sleeping on Becky’s head and started sleeping at the foot of my bed. After Joe died in 2009, she shifted to his pillow. Sometime after that when a new human named Bob entered the picture, she shifted to the rug, her pillow in tow. Quickly, she trained Bob to give her belly rubs and baths. She’s even trained him to take her on walks.
I’m grateful—but only up to a point. The truth is, after years of balking, I’ve come to savor my walks with Misty. As I watch her chase after a squirrel, throwing her whole being into the here-and-now of an exercise that has never once ended in victory, she reminds me that it’s the effort, not the outcome, that makes life rich. She reminds me, too, that no matter how harsh the present or unpredictable the future, there’s almost always some measure of joy to be extracted from the moment.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A most unusual adoption arrangement
One summer, hoping to be a role model for my kids, I volunteered at a local animal shelter as an assistant helper—in essence, a pooper-scooper.
Starting at 6 am, I bagged poop and hosed down dog cages. I remained on poop patrol until my shift ended at 11 am.
During the training orientation, I was instructed not to feed the dogs, as this task fell to the full-time senior staff.
I abided by these rules until a Monday morning in early July when I met Murphy. His 96-year-old owner Lila had passed away, and Murphy was found sitting beside her on the bathroom floor, head on her shoulder.
When Lila’s body was transferred to a stretcher, Murphy climbed aboard. Unable to reach next of kin, a kind EM T brought him to the shelter.
He looked exactly like a Labrador in every way, except he was a color they don’t usually come in: pure white.
My morning routine at the shelter always began with a cacophony of barks, growls, yips and yaps—your basic pandemonium. This particular morning was no exception. My canine friends acknowledged my arrival with a standing ovation.
Our newest guest didn’t budge.
I introduced myself to him. The rest of the crowd went wild. Murphy didn’t move.
I knew conventional wisdom says to let sleeping dogs lie.
The only problem was, I didn’t think Murphy was actually sleeping. I thought that, at best, he was ignoring me and at worst, he was really depressed.
That’s the moment I decided to break the “no feeding” rule. Grabbing a dog biscuit off the shelf, I placed it by Murphy’s nose.
He wouldn’t touch it. I pretended to leave the room.
He devoured it. I repeated this routine at least five more times. On the sixth go-around, I decided to stay. Murphy decided he’d eat.
More than three weeks passed before Murphy decided to take part in the standing-ovation segment of the morning.
After that, he was first off his feet and after that, I was hopelessly in love.
The end of summer was now approaching, time for the shelter’s annual “Adopt a Furry Friend” campaign. I made posters and greeted many of the prospective adoptive families. The event was a huge success!
Fifteen dogs were in need of homes.
Fourteen were adopted.
No one chose Murphy, and I couldn’t understand why until the shelter director explained.
“All the other dogs play the part. They work hard at making themselves appear adoptable. They allow themselves to be petted, they lick hands and faces, give out their paws and play with the kids. Murphy mopes. That is, with everyone but you.”
We lived in a condo with a no-pets policy. It did not seem fair. Murphy and I belonged together.
I knew that. The shelter director knew that. So we made an arrangement. I would be allowed to “adopt” Murphy. The only caveat: he would sleep at the shelter. I would provide love, nurturing, food and exercise. The shelter would provide, well, shelter.
And so Murphy and I began our unorthodox partnership. Every morning after I put the kids on the bus and before I left for work, I’d head out to feed Murphy breakfast, take him for a run and cuddle with him on a chair in the employee break room.
Dog treats and toys became staples on my weekly shopping list. Every afternoon, once the kids finished their homework, Murphy and I played Frisbee in the exercise yard and then stretched out on the lawn for a hug-fest before I left.
It took time, but I taught him how to keep a biscuit steady on his nose and not move until I said “Okay, buddy, chew!” He never cheated. Not even once.
Sometimes, on the very best of summer days, we walked to the park down the block and ran through the sprinklers together. He chased birds and ducks and geese and squirrels and little kids in wagons. I chased him.
Our love affair lasted nearly two years.
Murphy passed away quietly in his sleep. I was just one block away when it happened. I placed a biscuit by his nose. Murphy was the only pet I was ever privileged to have.
Some would argue I really wasn’t his owner because he didn’t live with me.
I would argue back that he did indeed live with me, in the most important place of all: my heart.
Culture: Readers Write
Small Dogs Healing Ways
2009 was a terrible time in our household, just plain grind-you-to-pulp kind of year. My partner had a soul-splattering, over-bearing job dealing with others’ money, where her only bonus was the fun eight mile commute out to the suburbs on her speedy and shiny orange bike. Then in late spring, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. It was low-grade (good) but large (bad), and in my lymph node (bad), so I had to have surgery and chemo. I had only been out of vet school for a year and I suddenly had to take five months of medical leave. The cancer year is its own monster of story, for another time. But what happened during and after because of the Chihuahuas, well, that’s a tale for here.
After my mastectomy, I had to be careful around the dogs and my stitches. We had at the time one large, one medium, and one small dog. But they seemed to understand right away what was going on. Wren, the tiniest, slept on my pillow, almost in my hair, like a cat, every single moment I was in bed, which was a lot. When my hair fell out, she slept on my shoulder, curled into my hatted head.
To this day, I tend to say how Wren saved me by sleeping on me. She was my anchor.
And later, when I was healed, and zoom out three years later and we adopted Chibi, aka Tiny Dog, the six pound Chihuahua with dry eye, I realized Tiny Dog liked being in my sweater for heat and comfort, and I liked her being there for heat and comfort too. She fit exactly where my breast used to be, and I could zip her into my vest in the winter, and she’d fall asleep, content. I also had a prosthesis to wear out in public, but at home, I did not, and wore the Chihua instead.
I would never claim cancer gave me gifts. Cancer made me believe in randomness and not fate. But Wren, then Tiny Dog, made niches for themselves, a kind of commensalism, lovely for all of us. And when Tiny Dog is in my vest, she’s right against my heart tick ticking away, her pulse fluttering back in counterpoint.
Dog's Life: Home & Garden
Digging and weeding and vermin control, oh my!
"Here,” my friend Jeanette said, shoving a plastic grocery bag at me. Limp daffodil foliage flopped out of the top. “They’re a gift from Pepper. She dug them up—again!—in the flowerbed by the back porch and I didn’t have the energy to plug them back in for the third time.”
Those of us who love gardening and love dogs have days like this. It’s tough to find a good garden dog, one who will hang out with you without trashing the tulips. Cats, spectators to the core, are better suited to the job. They can lie there for hours utterly content to simply be, occasionally exchanging a look with you that says: “Isn’t this the life?”
Not dogs. Dogs are participants. Idleness is anathema. If you don’t give them a job, they’ll find one on their own. Though I’d lived with dogs for years, I still didn’t really get that fact when Else, our German Shepherd, arrived. At six weeks old, she was little more than a ball of fluff with two big eyes and two big ears, one of which flopped sideways as though its crinoline stiffener had gotten wet. Since she was so young, I assumed I could mold her into the garden dog of my dreams, teach her to hang out with me, lazing about the place companionably. I didn’t suspect that she would view hanging out as dereliction of duty.
She was four months old that first spring when I gathered my tools and the two of us went out together. She trotted alongside with a relaxed, loose-jointed gait that made her look as though she had been put together with rubber bands. But her attitude, eager at first, grew alert as we went into the fencedin vegetable garden. When I stopped to survey the place, she sat down as though programmed to a perfect heel-and-sit. While trying to decide what to do first, I absently reached down to grab out a clump of errant timothy grass, self-seeded from the surrounding fields. Like furred lightning, Else clamped down firmly on my hand (gloved, thank goodness) and began to pull. I corrected her.
“No, Else. Leave it.”
She looked puzzled, slightly hurt. I reached for another weed; she chomped down on me again.
“No, Else. Leave it!” I insisted.
She sat down again, mystified. She was a team player. She was helping. It’s what German Shepherds do. They protect and serve—even in the garden. And it was obvious that as she looked around, she could see a lot of opportunities to serve. A vermin population needed keeping in check. Barn swallows needed discipline, accomplished through a series of deep-chested woofs during what looked like a game of quiddich played back and forth across the yard. And the compost pile clearly needed regular excavations. She saw her duty then and over the past eight years, she has done it assiduously.
But while she has plenty of jobs to occupy her, she remains convinced that she was born to weed. That’s probably because at heart, like most working dogs, she likes to work in tandem. I get that now. Fortunately, she has matured. She no longer grabs my hand the minute I go for a weed. She stands by quivering in anticipation, but not doing anything until given the order.
So when my daughter, Abby, and I revamped the weed-filled raspberry patch, we recruited Else. The patch was a mess. In addition to monster pokeweed and a miserable tangle of bindweed, we were dealing with saplings of invasive white mulberry that had sprung up.
We were a little daunted by the prospect before us, but Else, now part of our response team, was in her element. In the course of the morning, she helped yank out wads of bindweed and taught the pokeweed who was boss, but her favorite part of the project was getting rid of the mulberries. This was major weeding; the trees are deep-rooted even when young, and require digging. At each tree, Abby and I dug down to loosen the dirt and expose a length of long yellow taproot while Else waited, big ears erect and twitching, eyes riveted on the growing hole. When we reckoned there was enough root to grip, Abby deployed her.
“Okay, get it, Else!”
Legs splayed out like the platform on a drill rig, Else went at the root with gusto, growling as she yanked and yanked and yanked that thing out of its lair. After wresting it free, she brought it to Abby and spat it out at her feet, clearly pleased. Score one for the team. We did everything but high-five her.
Else will probably never be the garden dog of my dreams. She will never just hang out from morning to evening. She’s too committed to participation. But over the years, I’ve adjusted my expectations and methods. I make sure she’s had plenty of exercise and has done some kind of satisfying (to her) duty—ferreting out a mouse or rabbit, aerating the compost, playing another game of quiddich with the barn swallows, maybe doing a little more excavation behind the honeysuckle in her on-going quest to reach China. After a day spent participating, she’s learned to relax. Although she remains on standby, ready for deployment, she’s content to lie on the path at my feet while I sip a gin and tonic, the two of us watching the bees together companionably.
Culture: Stories & Lit
One lick at a time, a reformed Terrier helps the unemployed find reassurance.
Einstein greets my clients with an enthusiasm no paid receptionist could match. I mean, even if I paid a receptionist $100,000 a year, he or she wouldn’t give each client a big sloppy kiss. He then escorts the client to the sofa, sitting right next to him (if not on his lap) and bestowing another round of kisses. An occasional client prefers career counseling without a face-washing and eases Einstein off the sofa. Undeterred, Einstein assumes the position: head on the client’s shoes.
Sometimes, a client gets anxious during a session. After all, it’s not easy to discuss having been unemployed for eons and trying to land a good job at a time when they’re harder to find than a perfect (and cheap) dog-sitter who’ll stay at your house 24/7. When clients feel stressed, they often pet Einstein; if they were already petting him, they tend to speed up—a useful anxiety detector for me.
Einstein is also my stress management consultant; I’ll often snuggle up to him on the floor, nose to nose, and rub his belly. Thirty seconds of that makes anxiety a physical impossibility. He’s my fitness trainer as well. Without him, it would be too tempting to stay on my butt, but Einstein needs his exercise, so we take walks four times a day.
Lest you think Einstein is the perfect dog, let me tell you what he was like before he matured into a multitasking professional.
When I walked into the shelter’s adoption area, I was greeted in the first cage by a Pit Bull, who sort of snarled. I sped up. In the next cage, a Rottweiler retreated in fear. I walked on by. But in the third cage, a little white Terrier with a Poodle-y face stood on his back legs and pawed the cage, squealing: “Please take me out. Puh-leeze!” The attendant told me this sweet dog had been thrown over the fence into the pound’s parking lot in the middle of the night.
Unfortunately, the shelter policy required My Doggie to stay there for seven days lest the owner decided to reclaim him. The nanosecond the pound opened on the seventh day, I phoned: “Is that white Terrier/ Poodle mix still available?” Yup. I jumped in the car and retrieved him. He jumped happily on me, then equally happily into the car. He didn’t, however, like our next stop—the vet, for neutering—quite so much. But he handled it without a hint of a growl.
Alas, while his trials were over, mine were just beginning. Although he was almost a year old, he still had a bad case of puppy hyperactivity on top of new-home anxiety. Within the first week, Einstein had eaten the only pair of eyeglasses I’ve ever felt looked good on me, and chewed a hole in three, yes, three, carpets.
And those weren’t the worst things. He decided to make a meal of my medication. The fact that it was in a sealed pill bottle didn’t stop my goal-oriented boy. He treated it like a chew toy. Alas, his reward was 20 pills. Off to the vet to get his stomach pumped.
But the scariest episode of all happened one morning when I opened the door to get the newspaper. Einstein escaped and tore down the street. I—in T-shirt, shorts and slippers—raced after him. While there are many turns he could have chosen, he picked the one that put him on the freeway on-ramp. I chased him up the ramp and, for the first time in my life, was grateful for traffic. Cars on the freeway were at a dead stop. Knowing Einstein likes being in the car, I yelled, “Someone open your car door!” Miraculously, someone did, whereupon Einstein jumped in and was saved.
Believe me, it’s all been worth it. Einstein is a beloved family member. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I care more for him than I do for most people. (I love him almost as much as my wife.) He’s a true member of the family, not to mention the world’s best receptionist, co-counselor, stress reducer and fitness trainer
Culture: Stories & Lit
A creation story that makes sense
Once upon a time, back in my teaching days at Minnesota State University in Mankato, the Chair of the Agronomy Department, Dr. Mohammed Azad, lived in the modest white stucco house clinging to the James Avenue hillside like the American middleclass clutching by its bloody fingernails to its disintegrating economic status. Mo had two PhDs—agronomy and hydrology—so I called him Dr. Dr. I often queried him in the words of Harry Nilsson: “Doctor, Doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take, Doctor, Doctor, to relieve this belly ache?”
I’m an atheist; Mo was a Bangladeshi recovering Muslim. He’d come whistling down the sidewalk on his way to catch the bus, swinging the old-fashioned leather briefcase his father had bought in London when he was a student and given to Mo when Mo moved to the States. I’d be sitting on the porch reading, and I’d holler, “Yo, Mo!”
Mo would stop and poke his head through a thin spot in our hedge and reply, “Is that Teresa Dave-Ass on his porch daveno reee-ding like one little girrr-l?”
In a moment of weakness induced by Mo’s post-Simpsons martinis, I had revealed how the kids in elementary school teased me about my name.
Before you call me a bigot and admonish me for not allowing this man the dignity of his name, let me say that we grew to be friends watching The Simpsons. He didn’t specify the show when he invited me over to meet his favorite TV character. He told me he’d blend me up one chutney squishie. I didn’t know what chutney was, let alone something called a chutney squishie. When I wasn’t reading student work, all I watched on TV were the animal shows. Mo’s favorite character was Apu, the Indian from India, who runs the Kwik-E-Mart.
I know what you’re thinking: “How is it that a cultivated fellow like Dr. Mo Azad, a guy with two PhDs, would tolerate— let alone enjoy—a cultural stereotype like Apu?” The answer is that Mo didn’t have a gram of pretense or political correctness in him. I suppose the answer could also be that Mo was Muslim and Apu is Hindu. Yes, Mo was in recovery, but the residue of any monotheist delusion is tough to shed. I prefer to believe that Mo’s expansive heart had room for a good laugh on anybody.
What Mo’s heart did not have, however, was room for dogs. This was the only character flaw I observed Mo to suffer; it clung as tenaciously as a devout dingleberry. So, of course, I went right for it.
This was a golden time for Beck and me and the kids, who were still in high school. One February, our dog Snickers gave birth to six pups in a big cardboard box in the dining room. As the trees filled out and the cattails grew so high we couldn’t see the marsh across Stoltsman Road, we did get to see the momma ducks lead their ducklings across the road, creating traffic back-ups that were fine with everybody. (It’s hard to find a duckling-hater anywhere.)
The pups were now knee-high and ready to give away, except for Norton the runt, who—at that stage of his evolution— looked more like a possum than a dog and barked like a seal. We decided that Norty’s utterance wasn’t a bark at all; we called it a barp. Norty barped like a seal forever; years later, at a gas pump east of Sturgis, South Dakota, a few days before the legendary Harley-Davidson rally, his barp aroused the attention of the famous actor Peter Fonda, who walked over to the old Ford with me, peered into the cab at Norton considering what he might be, and refused to acknowledge that my Dear Nort was a dog at all. It was Fonda’s contention that Norty might be the infamous Chupacabra. Gawd, I hated it when people said that.
Snickers was a Siberian Husky-Golden Retriever mix, and the puppies’ father was a Golden; the pups themselves were beautiful, wonderful American mutts, except our beloved, oxygen-deprived, always-last-to-the-tit mutant Norton, with whom I identified most closely, and who seldom left my side for 12 years rich to overflowing with love as true as a dear friend of any species.
I would gather my attack pups around me on the porch and wait for Mo. I’d hear his door open and close, then the leather soles of his wingtips on the sidewalk.
“All right, muttskis,” I’d say. “We are the old-world colonial power, and that guy up there is a tiny, third-world country dipped in ham juice. Go get’im! And off they’d go a hikin’—as my Dear Old Mater, Lucille Bernice, used to say— Yodi with his grown-up bark leading the pack, Norton chugging along behind, barping, wondering what his brothers and sisters were up to at such a pace. The Nort’s right hip never worked right, and he had to throw his leg out in a wide arc to get up any steam. He also suffered a lack of balance: he’d walk along the edge of the porch and fall into the bushes. That could have been his lousy eyesight, too.
You figure an animal possesses all kinds of animal litheness and cunning and communion with nature. But nature shortchanged Norty; he was flompy and guileless. With each example I observed of nature’s gifts denied, the more I loved him. Parenthetical admission: I have a mental illness, and that could be the reason—along with love, of course—that I identified so closely with the Nort. I know what you’re thinking: “Really, Davis? You’re missing some fasteners? Geez, we sure can’t see that in your persona here.” And my response? “Oh, ha, ha.”
Norton’s brothers and sisters had received their names first, mostly from Nikki: Yoda, Coda, Bolshoi (Yes, Nik was a musician and a dancer), Walter, Custer. We learned later that she meant Custard because of his color. My enduring terror of copyright infringement prompted the change from Yoda to Yodi.
Josh named Nort after our old British motorcycle: he was Norton Commando Davis. That was his name, but you know how it goes with the names of creatures and people we love: Josh began calling him Nortskur; one of us shortened that to Skur, and it evolved to NortskurBear, SkurBear, Skurbeery.
We found good homes for Coda, Bolshoi, Walter and Custer, and Yodi found a home with the Everywhere Spirit, whom our friend Jim Petersen said must have needed a good dog over there beyond the third bank of the river.
Mo expressed his condolences about Yodi, and we knew he was sincere. But he was also glorifying in the absence of our gang of muttskis gamboling at his heels twice daily for a solid block, nipping his pant cuffs and breaking off their milk teeth in those little round holes in his shoes.
I was teaching the young Nortberry to catch biscuits when Mo walked down the sidewalk one stunning afternoon in May. Every tree and plant was budded out, and the earth was redolent, as the poet says, with the assurance of new life and continuing possibility. H.G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds, would probably have waxed lyric and referred to Nature’s profusion as eloquent, a predicate adjective with which he was never stingy. I sat on the porch couch, and Norton sat with his front paws at the toes of my boots; he always sat a few degrees off-kilter because of his bad hip. He was ringed by biscuits whole and in pieces, and a film of light brown biscuit dust accented his muzzle like nutmeg on a latte.
Mo walked up the steps and extended his hand at the moment I tossed yet another. So far, I had not motivated Nort to open his mouth, or even move his snoot, let alone catch a bisky: this one landed on his head equidistant between his ears and stayed there.
Mo and I shook hands as we always did. He looked down with heightened disdain at my poor addled Skurberry with the biscuit on his head. Norty’s little black eyes, always slightly crossed, almost seemed to acknowledge the weighty presence above them. I grabbed the biscuit, Mo sat down; then, Norty worked his way to all-fours, climbed onto the couch and lay his head in my lap. I held the biscuit under his nose; he opened his mouth and I shoved it in. He pondered a moment; then he chomped away with vigor and determination. I smiled pridefully.
“Yo,” I said, “Mo. What are you doing flouncing down my sidewalk on this beautiful Minnesota afternoon?” I knew he was headed up to campus for his night class.
He replied in his Apu voice; I knew that I and my Skurberry were in for a battle of wits and would be miserably outnumbered. “It is you who is the big flouncer, Miss Teresa Dave-Ass, here on her porch daveno with her creature of indeterminate specie.”
“I abide no blaspheming of My Dear Skurberry,” I replied. I rubbed Norton under his ear. He chomped away. A drool spot the diameter of a soup bowl had appeared on the crotch of my overalls. Biscuit chunks adorned it like mini-croutons. “I have come to reveal to you the origin of this … ” Mo looked down at Norton as though my happily chomping Skurbear were something floating by in the yearly Ganges f lood. “ … this dog,” he said in Jack Nicholson’s voice as Nicholson refers to Greg Kinnear’s little pooch in As Good As It Gets. He then gave me a viciously knowing look and told me I couldn’t handle the truth. Then he switched back to Apu: “After which I am offering to blend you up one aubergine squishie.”
I allowed him to glory in what he assumed was my ignorance of the word. Aubergine is—of course—the French word for eggplant. And I don’t even have one PhD. Ha! “Reveal away, Doctor, Doctor,” I replied. I gave Nort another bisky and settled back.
“When God made Adam,” Mo said, “the devil was furious because God looked upon Adam as His finest creation. God had made the devil of fire, and Adam of earth. The devil claimed that fire was a superior material, and that he was, therefore, superior to Adam. The harder the devil pressed his claim, the more his hatred for Adam grew. One day, the devil and Adam were arguing, and he spit on Adam, right in the center of his belly. God was outraged to see the best of his handiwork defaced in this way. He reached down, pinched away the piece of flesh and threw it on the ground. An indentation remained in Adam’s belly and in the bellies of all of Adam’s offspring where God removed the flesh the devil had defiled. It looks like a little button.”
I nodded. I appreciate a good belly-button myth as much as the next guy. “I thought you said this was a dog story.” Mo stood. He glanced down at Norty and didn’t crack a smile. Then he turned his eyes back to me. “God looked at the little piece of flesh on the ground and did not want even one such small piece to go to waste,” Mo said. “And so out of this profaned scrap of flesh, God made the dog, whose duty it would be to clean up scraps forever.”
He turned and walked down the steps. He didn’t turn back when he spoke in his Apu voice: “Come visit the Kwik-EMart later, and I am blending you up one mongoose squishie and one road-kill squishie in a to-go cup for your friend.”
“We’ll be there!” I yelled after him.
Wonderful, I thought. Brilliant. All my poor Skurberry needs is a vicious dose of anti-dog myth to squash his selfesteem forever. I looked down: Nort’s narrow black eyes perched over his dry and cracking parody of a dog nose like an out-of-office response that said no one home … ever. How could I tell if my dear Skurbear had been undone by this attack of species bigotry? The only time Norty had ever taken on a different expression was when he had a baby raccoon in his mouth, and then he looked prim. He was awake, which was all you could ever discern of his relationship to his environment. My dear friend Norton was a vessel of indeterminate content in whom I invested more love than I knew I possessed. I rubbed under his ear and told him the true story of how his ancestors came to be.
“Skurbear,” I said, “everybody thinks Adam was full of confidence because he was God’s favorite creation. But he wasn’t as confident as everybody thinks. The truth is that Adam was lonely in the enormous new world all around him. Plus, the devil picked on him all the time. And plus again, the devil glowed ferocious with flames and brilliant shiny shimmers of heat because he was made of fire, and Adam was made of the brown earth. The truth was that even though the devil was bad, he was beautiful, and Adam didn’t feel beautiful.
“Once the devil saw that Adam felt inferior, his hatred for him grew. One day he was bullying Adam and his contempt boiled over. He spit on Adam—as all the stories tell—right in the center of his belly.
“But here’s where all the stories get it wrong.
“The devil’s spit was volcanic, and it burned that hole in Adam’s belly. Why didn’t God blow on it to cool it off? Because God wasn’t around right then, that’s why. And the devil knew it. That’s something else the other stories get wrong: God isn’t always around.
“When God came back, he found Adam sitting on a smooth, round rock staring into the fiery sunset. Adam was feeling that everything in the world was brighter and stronger than he was. This wasn’t true, but that’s how Adam felt. God looked into Adam’s heart and saw all of this.
“God walked with Adam far from the devil’s radiance and roar. God reached into Adam’s heart and excised a little piece. He pointed to a patch of earth where flecks of gold lay on the surface like tiny leaves. ‘My son,’ God said, ‘I am going to make a new creature who will always love you.’ God scraped up a palmful of earth and mixed it with the piece of Adam’s heart. He wrung his hands together and molded the heart-earth into a ball the color of caramel. He rolled the ball out on the ground. It sprouted four legs; a tail; pointed ears; a bright, curious face radiant with love; and a noble snoot. The dog ran up to Adam and licked his foot where Adam had stepped in something nasty. It tickled, and in a few licks, Adam’s foot was clean. Adam smiled. The dog smiled. God smiled. And Adam had a friend forever.”
I thumbed the switch on the thrift-store floor lamp that stood beside the couch, grabbed the stack of student stories from off the milk crate we used for an end table, and set to the work I loved and that allowed me to feel of use in the world. Becky and Snickers got home from their run then. Snickers took a long drink from the dishpan of water there on the porch, then climbed up and curled beside Norty. Beck went in for her shower, but she popped out later with the giant comforter we all snuggled under when we watched TV; we called it our comfort mountain. It was, of course, layered with dog hair. She covered the three of us, then went back in to read her papers. I was comfy as could be under the comfort mountain with Norton and his mom in that beautiful evening in that golden time.
I was still reading when Mo came walking up the sidewalk. I set the stories on the milk crate, clipped ropes on Snicker and Norty’s collars, covered them with my part of the comforter and tucked the edges under them.
“Doctor, Doctor!” I called to Mo. “Doctor, Doctor, I need one eggplant squishie.” I hustled out to the sidewalk and caught up to him. “And one road-kill squishie to go.”
Where Mo got the old Spike Jones line, I’ll never know. YouTube, maybe. The good Doctor, Doctor was a YouTube monster. I swear this is what he said: “Yes, we have no eggplant, we have no eggplant tonight. All we are having is the aubergine squishie.” I admit it: the squishies that Mo and I pounded ’til after midnight were concocted of gin, vermouth and jumbo green olives, as always. I remember our handshake that night, as I remember that golden time with the dense weight of years welded with regret.
I tottered down the sidewalk to that wonderful big old house with the covered porch at the dead end of James Avenue. Snickers and Nort and the comfort mountain were inside when I got back, and Becky, Nikki and Josh were in bed. Anissa was starting high school in Spokane with her mom, and Pascal was in his last year of prep school with his mom in Paris. It was like waking up from anesthesia when I looked around one day 12 years later and everybody but Norty was gone.
I never cried as much in my life as I did when Beck and I stood beside the table and held Norty as the vet slipped the needle in the big vein in his leg with a gentleness that still touches me all these years later. As great as the vet’s generosity of heart was Becky’s act of friendship in taking Norty in with me. We weren’t about to let our dear Norty spend one more minute in pain from his cancer.
I can’t spend any amount of time behind the wheel of my rusty old Ford F250 without feeling Norty’s head on my thigh. How I laugh remembering the time he fell through the passenger side floor. It was the look on his face, of course, that was so funny. Good thing we weren’t going down the road.
Culture: Readers Write
Toby was bossy, brilliant, single minded, the quintessence of Terrier tenacity. But she was once a puppy, dithering and distracted, thoughts running in every direction. A seasoned dog trainer advised me, the ingénue, that puppy’s brains are scrambled eggs: time and guidance would firm them up. Evie, just past babyhood, rescued us a month after Toby’s untimely departure. She was always a bit airheaded, eggs never solidifying like Toby’s but gelling nicely. Then the unsettling: the senility announcing itself a year ago at 15. The eternal puppy face, with its distinctive pink nose a bit faded and crusty now, doesn’t match the mechanics of her body and mind. Her devoted humans have now become her caretakers as she resides blissfully in the doggie version of la-la land. She stands looking blankly at the wall, engrossed until we bring her attention back, usually with food. Her appetite remains hearty, her meals enriched with antioxidants and life enhancers, an arthritis pill and a powder to prevent flare-ups of the gallbladder issue which nearly cancelled last year’s vacation.
Sleep drugged, I don the massive old down coat and snow boots with lightning speed to get us outside after the 2 am pacing wakeup. I try to know in this interminable, coldest winter of Evie’s long life that the hushed, moonlit, snowy outing with my fuzzy sweetheart is a fleeting blessing, that I’m grateful it’s a Saturday night and there’s no need for a working brain until Monday morning, that I must be patient as we stand in the bone chill while she tries to remember why we came out. Back in the house’s warmth, the pacing may continue, or if luck holds, she’ll doze again soon.
The dozing comes easier now. The strong short legs that carried her on hill climbs, on all weather hikes, propelling her onto the couch to her favorite lookout are slow and cranky, moving tentatively. The cloudy eyes, the small bewilderments, the hearing loss compressing her surroundings are all her present existence, yet she still loves this life way too much to leave it. Grief is for us, not for her: she is blissfully devoid of self-pity, free to live out her quirky dotage as it comes. We accommodate, assist, hug, and excuse each mishap.
There’s no handbook for this, the Old Dog time, the way to prepare for the suddenly odd activities, the unscrambled eggs, the closing of the circle. Puppy antics, housebreaking, obedience: educational material abounds. We learn that meds exist for this cognitive disorder thing, supplements, pheromone diffusers, acupressure, herbal remedies. They all work for Evie for a time, until they don’t. What we need is an instruction manual for watching our darling, the always-game socialite, our surrogate child, fade before us, progeria-like. Polite sympathy from dog free acquaintances, friends: not the heartfelt commiseration they shared over my Mom’s denouement. I don’t expect them to get it, and I move quickly on to other subjects.
We’ve become the crazy old couple we’d have scorned in our youth, lavishing countless hours and dollars on a dog, willingly. I scale back my strength training so shoulders and hips can handle the pickup and carry without pain. We reserve movies and dinners out for only those deserving of hiring the dogsitter: we’d rather hang out with Evie, checking frequently while she naps that the soft blonde fur still gently rises and falls.
The company of this beautiful little old girl has filled the house, our hearts, seemingly forever: loving background music in our lives. Unbearable to imagine stillness.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A surprise acceptance for a new arrival.
“He’s worse than a baby,” my husband liked to say about our dog Nigel when the Hairy Son was acting particularly needy and pining for our attention. Of course, this was before we had our actual (human) baby this past summer and learned that Nigel—our 11-year-old Lhasa Apso— is indeed not worse than a baby.
In fact, there’s no comparing Nigel to our daughter Mirabelle. Nigel doesn’t cry inconsolably. He doesn’t wake us up throughout the night. He doesn’t suffer from gas pains. He doesn’t require a car seat or diaper changes or burping or the application of diaper cream.
In other words, Nigel’s a dog—and a fairly self-sufficient one—but it took having a baby for me to realize it. I was so focused on how he would react to a baby interloper invading his house that I didn’t once consider how the birth of my daughter would change our relationship.
Before Mirabelle burst onto the scene in June, Nigel was my one-and-only baby. He came into my life when I was in my 20s and childless. So I did the natural thing: I infantilized and coddled my 16-pound pup beyond measure. He was my entertainment. For a good laugh, I’d put my glasses on him or make up silly songs and dance him around the house. I wasn’t particularly good at setting boundaries.
Nigel’s been with me throughout eight apartments, four jobs and grad school. I’ve known him significantly longer than my husband. Nigel and I pose together on my Facebook profile photo. And before we replaced them with pictures of our daughter, there were photos of him throughout our house. A custom-built set of stairs leads up to our bed so Nigel has easy access to a comfortable night’s rest.
Before Baby, I never thought of Nigel as a dog. That label sounded too ordinary for my adorable, grumpy, Ewok-like creature. It was no coincidence that my preferred nickname for him was “the Son.” But in the chaotic weeks immediately following the birth of our daughter, Nigel became a burden. As I tried to care for the many needs of my vulnerable five-pound baby, even something as simple as putting kibble in his bowl seemed like a chore.
Nigel’s heft (in comparison to Mirabelle’s delicate, light-as-a-feather form) and the longevity of our relationship let me take advantage of him. I felt I didn’t have the time, wherewithal and emotional capacity to shower him with the love he was accustomed to. Yet it may have been the sturdiness of our Before-Baby relationship that gave Nigel canine insight into my suddenly strange, distant behavior. He knew I’d return to him. I just needed time, which he was kind enough to grant me.
To understand why I’m so grateful to Nigel for his patience during this turbulent newborn period, you have to understand his personality. While I love him to pieces, I could not objectively describe him as a compassionate, outgoing creature. Rather, he’s stubborn, bossy, insistent, inward-focused and a bit obtuse … or, “worse than a baby” (but not really). Part of Nigel’s personality originates with his breed, and part is due to the way I’d babied him for so long. I did not have faith that he could generously share my attention with another creature.
Nigel’s vet, JoAnn Levy of Canfield Vet, Dog and Cat Hospital, had more hope than I did. Nine months pregnant at Nigel’s well-dog checkup, I mentioned that I was concerned about how Nigel would receive an infant into the fold. When she asked how he acted with other newborns, I told her that he was actually quite curious about them, an eager sniffer when friends’ babies come to visit. Dr. Levy concluded that Nigel would be fine with a baby in the house.
I doubted it could be that simple. After all, our baby would be a permanent fixture, not just an entertaining visitor available for an exploratory sniff or two.
When I adopted Nigel almost a decade ago, his original owner made me promise two things: First, that I would never let Nigel roam off-leash. Second, that if I were to have children one day, I would not exclude Nigel from our growing clan. The previous owner knew that a newborn demands an extraordinary amount of attention at the cost of nearly everything else, even a beloved pet. While the previous owner was looking out for Nigel’s best interests, even she couldn’t imagine that this finicky dog would in fact have more patience than all of us—would in fact turn out to be a full-fledged comrade in Operation Baby.
We were not short on advice on how to introduce Nigel and the baby. My sister-in-law suggested we leave her in her car seat (on the floor) and let Nigel “find” her so that she’d be his little charge. A friend suggested that I shower Nigel with affection when my husband brought the baby into the house for the first time. To familiarize him with “eau de Mirabelle,” we even brought Mirabelle’s first hat with her scent all over it home from the hospital. We implemented none of these plans.
Instead, we were already home with Mirabelle when our friend, who was looking after Nigel during my hospital stay, returned him to our abode. I was carrying Mirabelle in my arms. Nigel was happy to come home and I made an overly enthusiastic scene to welcome him.
That was probably the most attention I paid him for about two weeks.
Something surprising happened during those two weeks. Nigel did not sulk at the lack of attention or act jealous of the baby. It’s unlikely he was thrilled with his new circumstances, but he quickly took his place on the couch, head between his paws, observing it all. At night, Nigel remained on our bed as time and again, I leaned into the baby’s crib to pick her up, feed her, soothe her, rock her.
He appeared to have resigned himself to the situation and did not act out. He did not attempt to leave our bedroom, where he’s always slept. This was his family and he was staying put.
A few times in the middle of the night when the baby’s cries grew in volume, I took her into the living room, where we retired to the rocking chair. The Hairy Son, who was accustomed to lounging on our king-sized bed, plush sofas, lush blankets and down pillows, took his place on the hardwood floor by my feet as I rocked the baby. He did it to keep me company.
One night a couple of weeks after Mirabelle’s introduction to our household, Nigel returned to my radar. It was 9 pm. I was exhausted, but Mirabelle, in the throes of the “witching hour,” was alternating between two states: fervent eating and fervent crying. Bedtime was nowhere in sight.
Except for Nigel. As he does every night, he went into our bedroom to retire for the evening. This simple act gave me hope that one day (with luck, sooner rather than later) my daughter would learn a nighttime routine as well. I thought to myself that if my Hairy Son is smart enough to know when it’s bedtime, then surely our Hairless Daughter will grasp this one day, too.
That night, for the first time, I viewed Nigel as an independent being and developed a sense of respect for him. He was not a creature to be coddled and infantilized. He knew the ropes. He gave me hope that from chaos can come order. It just takes time.
Yet even though I appreciated Nigel’s patience with me and our new situation, I didn’t understand it. How could a dog who would ordinarily growl at anyone trying to move him from his spot on the couch be so docile with a vociferous baby invading his space?
I called Dr. Levy, his vet, for some answers.
“Once a new baby comes into the family, they see that baby as part of the pack because that baby is so attached to you, his beloved human,” said Dr. Levy.
“They often become better behaved because they have a younger member of the pack to protect and include.”
But I still didn’t understand why Nigel wasn’t acting jealous.
“They have a job now,” said Dr. Levy. “They kind of get that you’re taking care of the newest member of the pack.”
I’m happy if Mirabelle gives Nigel a renewed sense of purpose. But I’m truly grateful for the sacrifice he’s made.
Mirabelle’s in daycare now. Mornings are quiet; I work at my computer on the couch with Nigel by my side. When I take a break and glance up from the screen, I often find myself looking at Nigel and thinking, Thank you.
Calm’s returned to our house. Though the pecking order is different, Nigel remains his strong self. But it took having a baby for me to realize that.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie
For the past few years, my dog Chloe and I have been going south for the winter, staying in rentals ranging from cottages at artists’ colonies in Florida to cabins at spiritual retreat centers in South Carolina. I don’t pack lightly for these annual trips. Thus, I always hire someone to help me load my van.
“Just how many dogs do you have?” asked my most recent moving man as he maneuvered yet another large dog bed into the already overstuffed van.
“Just one,” I said.
“And how many dog beds do you have?” the man asked.
He took off his hat and scratched his head as though my answer made his mind itch.
“Creature comforts,” I said.
Yes, it’s true that my dog-to-dog-bed ratio is quite high.
But my girl is getting old. Although I don’t know her age for certain, nine years have passed since I adopted her, so she’s at least 10. Only recently has she started showing signs of old age. The clearest sign is that her new favorite thing in the world is sleep. And I believe that an old, arthritic dog who spent her early days lying on a concrete floor in a shelter deserves a comfortable place to sleep. The more the merrier.
Most of Chloe’s beds were freebies, by the way. One was a gift from a friend in the city who can’t resist buying things in bulk at Costco. (“A $12 dog bed! Can you believe it?” she exclaimed.) Two were hand-me-downs from another friend whose beloved Vizsla passed. The enormous thermopedic mattress came via Freecyle.com from a woman who couldn’t bear to throw it away. The final two were thrift-store scores. It’s easy to find a good dog bed if you know where to look.
At our New York house, I keep one bed in the master bedroom, one in the main living area, one on the deck (for optimal deer-viewing), one in the van (I took out all the seats, so it’s like a studio apartment in there), one in the office (where I spend the majority of my time) and one at our favorite English Setter Rainbow’s house (where Chloe frequently stays).
When we drive south for the winter, I take four of these beds, stacking them on top of one another next to the back passenger door, creating a rather precarious travel throne. Perched up there, Chloe looks like the princess in the “princess and the pea” story. I actually don’t mind dogs on the furniture, in case you were wondering. In fact, I welcome it. There’s something about a sleepy dog curled up on a chair or sofa that makes the house feel more cozy. More down-toearth. (“That’s because you have actual earth on your furniture,” my stepmother used to say.)
In my defense, I do like to keep some pieces of furniture dirt-free, so when I first adopted Chloe, I taught her which pieces were available for her use and which were forbidden. She has her own special corner of a very soft couch, and she is welcome to sleep on my bed at any time. I was dismayed, however, to realize that she only wanted to sleep on my bed when I wasn’t in it. Chloe, it turns out, is not a snuggler. This saddens me to a certain extent—I don’t know what happened to Chloe in her previous life that led her to keep her distance from humans; I don’t know what private sorrows she holds, or how her trust was violated. But I accept her needs. So if she prefers to sleep on the sofa in the living room, that’s fine.
The point is moot now, because Chloe is too arthritic to jump onto furniture. I see her approach “her” sofa, looking longingly at those comfy cushions. I watch the way she seems to ponder the situation, analyzing the amount of strength it would take to leap up and whether her current level of stiffness allows this. More often than not, she turns away and opts for one of her beds.
Yes, my girl is slowing down.
In the past, Chloe was always the first to wake in the morning. She’d trot into my bedroom and stare at me, tense with anticipation, waiting for me to wake up, too. The moment I opened my eyes she’d start her “happy dance,” running around in circles, leaping joyfully, trying to herd me toward the front door so we could take our morning walk. There, she’d press her nose to the crack, wag her tail and wriggle her whole body in barely contained excitement, as if saying Seize the day, seize the day! It was like this for nine years. In her feisty-dog opinion, I slept too much.
Things are different these days. Chloe now sleeps in the bedroom on that glorious thermopedic mattress she loves so much. We call it the Master Bed. I like having another being in the room—another beating heart asserting the continuity of life. Also, I’m now the first to rise in the morning. What surprises me is that Chloe no longer leaps to her feet when I get out of bed; instead, she remains on her Master Bed, stretching a little and wagging her tail, waiting for me to come to her to say good morning and give her a quick belly rub. It surprises me further that she remains on her bed even as I head into the bathroom or walk downstairs to the kitchen.
Chloe used to follow me everywhere in the mornings— from the bathroom to the kitchen to the refrigerator (for the French Roast), to the coffeemaker, back to the refrigerator (for the cream), back to the kitchen drawer (for the spoon). She didn’t relent until I finally finished my morning routine and followed her out the door. Now, instead of trying to herd me, she lies in bed and observes me from the loft—watching, listening, sniffing—alert, but still. She seems to have concluded that she’s not going to walk all the way down those stairs until it’s worth her while.
After nine years of cohabitation, Chloe has figured out my morning routine. She knows I can be slow to get out the door. She has come to expect that first there will be the sound of the refrigerator being opened, then the sound of a kettle being placed on the stove, then a bubbling of water, followed by the slight hiss of the French press and the smell of coffee. Then this liquid is poured into a travel mug. And so forth. With her keen ears and sensitive nose, she can predict things down to the minute. Once she hears the lid being sealed on the travel mug, she knows what will come next: the sound once again of an opening refrigerator door, that Pandora’s box of cold food smells, the scraping of a stew-pot being removed from the top shelf, and then me calling her name and saying that most special of words: “Breakfast!”
Only then will she spring from her bed, showing signs of the formerly spry Chloe as she scrambles—panting with excitement, down the stairs. While she gobbles her food, I finish my pre-walk tasks: pulling on boots or sneakers, grabbing a hat, searching for keys, opening the front door. Once she hears that sound, Chloe—with another burst of youthful enthusiasm—launches herself through the door.
But our morning walks are different these days. Chloe used to charge down to the river or to the beach (depending where we were), and I would follow briskly, trying to keep up. Now, in deference to Chloe’s arthritic pace, we walk more slowly. We amble, meander, mosey. There is a whole new set of verbs for what we do. Although I miss the aerobic factor of our previous morning walks, these slow ambles allow me to focus on the journey rather than on the destination. On the intricate beauty of a new day. Or the way the birds sound their individual sunrise calls. Or the way the mists rise off the river— as if all the elements of water, sun and air are conspiring to whisper ancient secrets, which one might come to understand if one listens. Or even the distant hum of traffic, which, in the morning, sounds peaceful and hopeful, as the human race tries once again to redeem itself through daily tasks.
Chloe, a water dog, used to spend hours in the water, chasing fish, harassing frogs, observing the ducks and herons in the distance. Now she wades around for 20 minutes or so— sometimes less—then comes and sits next to me on the shore. I like to meditate while she plays in the water. Now, we meditate together: two silent companions harmonizing ourselves with the motherly rhythms of nature and breathing in the water-scented air. It’s nice. It’s peaceful.
Recently, however, Chloe decided that this shoreline was not comfortable enough for her stiff old body, and actually started to head home by herself. Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled about having to cut short my morning meditation, but still. No matter how safe it is (the trails lead straight to the house), I couldn’t let her walk home unaccompanied.
As soon as we return from our morning walk, Chloe goes straight to her bed. This is another new pattern. I’m accustomed to a dog who runs in circles around the house, sustaining the outdoor sensation of a body in motion. I’m accustomed to a dog who grabs the nearest toy and tosses it into the air, clinging to the joy of having been outside. I’m used to a dog who then dashes into the kitchen to see if any food has materialized since her last investigation. So this new going-straight-to-bed thing is almost alarming. Especially when I haven’t even had the opportunity to give her a “thanks-for-coming-home” treat. Chloe’s former favoritething- in-the-world used to be food. Then swimming. Then her boyfriend Rainbow. Then me. Then sleep.
The bed Chloe chooses post-morning walk is the Office Bed, because she knows this is where I’ll be spending the remainder of the day. It’s one of those Snuggle Nests, plush with big bumpers so that I don’t accidentally roll into her with my office chair.
In Chloe’s younger days, my writing seemed to bore her; it was something she had to endure until our next walk. Sure, she would nap while I wrote, but it was a vigilant sort of sleep. If I so much as moved—stretched or yawned or shifted in my chair—she would spring to her feet in one swift, athletic motion and rush to the door, smiling at me with joy, ready for our next great adventure. In her mind, I was always on the verge of doing something fascinating. (This is a dog’s approach to life. We would do well to emulate it.) Most of my daily office gestures, however, are mundane. I might rise to make another cup of tea. I might pause to check my email. I might moan out loud, saying something to the effect of, “I should just give up on this novel and become a street busker.”
Eventually, Chloe figured out the signals. Rising from the office chair with a glazed look on face meant more coffee, not walk. Moaning about the uselessness of writing meant I was going to check Facebook, not walk. The real moment— the true and absolute sign of an impending walk—was (and still is) the moment I shut down the computer, snap the lid shut and click off the wireless mouse. That one tiny click was like a starting gun for her: she’d push herself up and hurry toward the door.
Now, Chloe sleeps so soundly that sometimes, she doesn’t even hear the click. It’s hard not to smile. A dog in repose conjures up everything sleep should be: restful, peaceful, soothing, safe, warm, comfy. She sleeps so deeply that she snores—a soft, regular snore that sounds like contentment. She often seems to dream as well. I like to watch the way her eyelids twitch and her paws flex. I like to hear her sweet, muffled woofs, which are always sounded in patterns of three. Like a metered poem.
I often wonder what she dreams. Most people assume that dogs dream of chasing rabbits, of leaping over streams, of flushing grouse. But perhaps dog dreams go beyond these mundane visions we humans ascribe to them. Perhaps in her dreams, Chloe visits other realms, alternate universes where all beings exist in harmony, where there is no violence, no suffering, no animal abuse. Perhaps this is the paradise she’s chasing—not some mundane rabbit. Perhaps this is why she used to do that happy-dance in the morning. She’s trying to tell me that such worlds do exist. I hate to wake her. But soon, it is time for our afternoon walk. I lean over and whisper her name. She opens her eyes slowly, unfocused. Then she looks at me, surprised to find herself once again back inside a dog’s body. Surprised, but not disappointed. This has been a good life for her.
Our afternoon walks used to be long, but now—by Chloe’s choice—they are short, especially if the weather is not to her liking. Sometimes she walks a few yards onto the grass, makes a quick pee, then immediately returns to the house and heads straight back to her bed. She’ll circle a few times, then settle down into the foam with a satisfied “oof.” Mission accomplished.
I, however, require more of a head-clearing walk at this time of day, so—iPod in hand—I go back out without her for a brisk power walk along the beach or through the dunes. It’s glorious. Spectacular. Rejuvenating. Refreshing. And yet it feels so strange to walk without my dog. It feels wrong. But I simply adapt to this new phase in my life.
Another new phase: it used to be that when I came home, Chloe was there to greet me at the door. We all know the drill—the happy dance, the joyful barks, the whines of relief. Chloe’s specialty was to grab a toy or a shoe and carry it around in her mouth, enticing me to chase her. These days, Chloe isn’t always there to greet me. She sleeps so soundly that she doesn’t hear me come home.
I must confess I have moments of panic when this happens. I rush through the house, searching for her (because I never know which bed she’ll choose). Seconds might go by, minutes, in which my heart beats more rapidly and I imagine the worst. But then I hear her footsteps and the clicking toenails and there she will be, at the top of the steps, wagging her tail slowly, her lips askew and her face all puffy from sleep, too lazy to come downstairs to say hello.
I rush up the steps to hug her. Her body is warm with safety and trust and comfort; mine is flush with relief. She licks my face and wags her tail, and I get the sense that she is trying to reassure me somehow. Don’t worry so much, she says to me telepathically. But I do worry. My dog is aging. That’s a fact. Her health might very well decline. Maybe someday, she won’t be able to walk at all. And I won’t be able to lift her. But you are here with me, now, Chloe says. We are together now. That’s all that matters. And when the time comes, you will still be with me. And I will be with you.
Then she goes back to sleep. And I go back to my work. Each is its own cure.
One of my favorite parts of my day is the end of it. (I don’t mean that sarcastically, despite my fluency in sarcasm.) What I mean is, I love to read in bed and I love my own thermopedic mattress. Late in the evening, after our final short peewalk, I’ll say to Chloe: “Time to go up to the Master Bed!” At that, she leaps up from her living-room bed and runs up the stairs as enthusiastically as she used to splash through rivers and tide pools. She’ll go straight to her bed, circling a few times and settling herself down with a contented sigh.
Before I get into bed myself, I lie on the floor next to her to say goodnight. I place my face right in front of hers, nose to nose, and whisper some endearment about how pretty she is. She sighs, not really liking such close proximity but tolerating it for my sake. I breathe in her breath. Sometimes she’ll thump her tail a few times, the sound muffled by the bed. Sometimes she’ll hook one paw over my arm and just hold it there. It feels like reassurance. And solidarity. We’ll stay like that for a long while, until I feel her pulse and she feels mine. Until the two of us are aligned.
Thank you, I say. Even though my life is chaotic and rushed and very often unsatisfying—even though it sometimes feels like a puzzle I can’t quite solve—I look at Chloe resting so contentedly and know that here is something I am doing right. Something about me gives this dog comfort. “If you want to feel safe,” the Dalai Lama once said, “help another being feel safe.” She falls asleep within minutes.
I personally don’t know any humans who sleep so well. There she is, snoring lightly, her chest rising and falling and her brown snout smooshed against a pillow. There she is, smelling faintly of sunshine and earth, with a mind uncomplicated by thoughts. Dogs don’t agonize over what they have or have not accomplished on any given day; they don’t worry about the additional tasks, hopes or goals they will not accomplish during the day that follows. No, they simply sleep, breathing in the oneness, breathing it out.
Chloe starts to dream, woofing and flexing her paws. I watch her with such love and tenderness I feel I might burst. Sometimes I wonder if she remembers her life at the shelter and all the nights she slept on a concrete floor. I wonder if those memories help her appreciate the marvelous fact that she now has six beds. But maybe it’s not about remembering or forgetting. We can forget and move on, or we can remember and move on. The trick is to not let those things plague us. We need only keep leaping through the meadows, running forever forward toward the next great thing.
Yes, my old girl is slowing down. So I will just try to slow down with her.
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