Imagine a scaled-down, delicately boned German shepherd dog, black and gray and tan instead of black and sable like a purebred, her face the color of ink with a faint gray mask. This is Lucille, a most ordinary-looking dog. She does have some exceptional features—her two forelegs are white, one halfway up from the paw, the other about a quarter of the way, which create the impression that she is wearing ladies’ gloves; there is also the tiniest bit of white mixed into the fur at her chin, which makes her look vaguely like Ho Chi Minh if you catch her at the right angle. But for the most part, she is the kind of dog you might see pictured in the dictionary under “mongrel” or, if you happen to own a more politically correct edition, “mixed breed.” Unremarkable, in other words, but no matter.
When you study a dog you love, you find beauty in every small detail, and so it is with Lucille: I have become enchanted by the small asymmetrical whorls of white fur on either side of her chest, and by her tail, which she carries in a high confident curve, and by her eyes, which are watchful and intelligent, the color of chestnuts. I am in love with the dog’s belly, where the fur is fine and soft and tan, and I am charmed by her jet black toenails, which stand out against the white of her front paws as though they’ve been lacquered, and I am deeply admiring of her demeanor, which is elegant and focused and restrained. I seem to spend a great deal of time just staring at the dog, struck by how mysterious and beautiful she is to me and by how much my world has changed since she came along.
Before you get a dog, you can’t quite imagine what living with one might be like; afterward, you can’t imagine living any other way. Life without Lucille? Unfathomable, to contemplate how quiet and still my home would be, and how much less laughter there’d be, and how much less tenderness, and how unanchored I’d feel without her presence, the simple constancy of it. I once heard a woman who’d lost her dog say that she felt as though a color were suddenly missing from her world: the dog had introduced to her field of vision some previously unavailable hue, and without the dog, that color was gone. That seemed to capture the experience of loving a dog with eminent simplicity. I’d amend it only slightly and say that if we are open to what they have to give us, dogs can introduce us to several colors, with names like wildness and nurturance and trust and joy.
I am not sentimental about dogs, my passion for Lucille notwithstanding. I don’t share the view, popular among some animal aficionados, that dogs are necessarily higher beings, that they represent a canine version of shamans, capable by virtue of their wild ancestry or nobility of offering humans a particular kind of wisdom or healing. I don’t think that the world would be a better place if everyone owned a dog, and I don’t think that all relationships between dogs and their owners are good, healthy, or enriching. “Dogs lead us into a kinder, gentler world.” Honey Loring, a woman who runs a camp for dogs and their owners in Vermont, said this to me about a year after I got Lucille, a statement that struck me as rather flip. No: dogs lead us into a world that is sometimes kind and gentle but that can be frightening, frustrating, and confusing, too. Dogs can be aggressive and stubborn and willful. They can be difficult to read and understand. They can (and do) evoke oceans of complicated feelings on the part of their owners, confusion and ambivalence about what it means to be responsible, forceful (or not), depended upon. They can push huge buttons, sometimes even more directly than humans can, because they’re such unambiguous creatures, so in-your-face when it comes to expressing their own needs and drives: if you’ve got problems asserting authority, or insecurities about leadership, or fears about being either in or out of control, you’re likely to get hit in the face with them from day one. In my view, dogs can be shamanistic, can be heroic and gentle and wise and enormously healing, but for the most part dogs are dogs, creatures governed by their own biological imperatives and codes of conduct, and we do both them and our relationships with them a disservice when we romanticize them. Writes Jean Schinto, author of The Literary Dog, “To deny dogs their nature is to do them great harm.”