Culture: Stories & Lit
A Definitive Essay
~ 1 ~
When I was a kid, I loved a song by Pete Seeger, the title of which I can’t recall, but it had this refrain: “All around the kitchen, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do.” I played that record until the needle on my phonograph wore down to a nub. The song was a call-and-response for the human body — Seeger would sing, “You put your right foot out, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do”; “You put your left foot out,” etc. Oh, that song was irresistible! Nowadays, although I’m in my mid-50s and my step-kids are grown, I still sing it. And all I can say is that my dog loves me for it. She gets me, my Labrador girl. She dances right along.
~ 2 ~
Her name is “Nira,” my Labrador. She’s a guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. She’s a light yellow Lab with honey-colored ears, and she tilts her head from side to side when I sing. She loves the Pete Seeger song, but she’s OK with almost anything. I could sing “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” and she’d think it was a good development. This isn’t because she’s naïve or smitten. Her good cheer is a function of the canine genome. Dogs are happy in the morning. They are happy in ways that your spouse and your children are not.
~ 3 ~
“Why,” you ask, “are dogs happy in the morning?” You, good reader, are smart, and you’d like some empirical evidence. You’d like it if I wrote something like this: “Studies at the Uppsala Institute for Canine Human Acculturation have shown that dogs have a diurnal endorphin release co-determined by a gene, a doggy gene that pre-dates human agriculture.” (I like this. It makes good sense.) But the truth is that dogs are predators, and all predators wake up happy After all, it’s a whole new day of hunting and eating! Oh yes! Oh yes!
~ 4 ~
Back in the age of Aristotle, dogs saw that those humans who got up early and were disposed to singing were the people who had “leftovers.” Aristotle would throw on his stained toga and do a skippy dance because he had cold moussaka in the Agora. There was also calamari under the caryatids. O, look for the singing men in the whirling bed sheets, doggies!
~ 5 ~
I am telling the truth. Nowadays if you write nonfiction and tell the truth, readers are liable to think you’re pulling their legs. Nonetheless, dogs love us when we sing at sunrise. They know that cold pizza is in the offing. And since we’re on the subject of nonfiction, let me add that this is the point in the essay where a writer is most likely to lose his or her readers. Many think this dicey moment occurs at the beginning, but really it comes right now. This is because the reader thinks she’s got the point and that’s it. But in the name of all dogs, I challenge you to read on!
~ 6 ~
Dogs are not shallow. Dogs are way too sensitive to be short- sighted and small-minded. So yes, they love our cold spanakopita, but they also love our vocalizations. How do I know this? Because I’ve submitted the matter to the scientific method. Now admittedly, my test is too small to warrant a press conference. In fact, I’ve only tested the matter with my own dog and a neighbor’s Poodle. (I’m still seeking funds for a larger study from the National Science Foundation.)
~ 7 ~
Now, the Poodle next door (a big Poodle, an American Standard, I think) has never received any leftovers from my hands. Nor has she received any evening leftovers, just to be exact. Picture me in the wet grass, pre-dawn, the houses still dark, picture me dancing and singing to the fluffy, white Poodle I’ll call “Willow”— picture me singing, “All around the kitchen, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do.”
~ 8 ~
Yes! Willow loves the song! She bounces! She whirls like a cyclone. She barks in joyous harmonization! Cock-adoodle- doodle baby! It’s almost sunrise! It’s time to savor the yips and yaps of the mystical appearance of all living things! Yes, it’s dark out here. If my neighbors saw me (or if my wife saw me for that matter), well, they’d probably call the cops. I dance like an unseemly, arthritic clown. You put your left foot out, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do. But look! I’ve proven that dogs love us for our songs, not for a promise of pizza. And because we’re simpatico —happy to be awake on this rare, blue planet — we are wondrous, holy fools together.
~ 9 ~
So it’s the ecstasy of living, and of singing about it, that dogs love. You see, dogs love us for the right reason.
~ 10 ~
You can’t get a cat to dance without a string, no matter what you say.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Or, how I became a certified dog person
Four years ago, I was in the dairy section of a supermarket when my cell phone rang. My then-23-year-old daughter was on the other end. “Which would make you angrier,” she asked. “If I told you I was in jail or if I told you I bought a puppy?”
“How long would you be in jail for?” I said. “Dad, she’s the cutest puppy in the world,” Kate said.
I stood and stared at the different brands of cottage cheese on display and knew the plans my wife and I had made in anticipation of having a life of our own again, needing to care for no one other than each other, had just vanished. We were not those parents who dreaded the empty nest. Quite the opposite. We embraced it.
Don’t get me wrong, we loved our two kids, doted on them, gave them the best home and education we could. But now, we were ready to move on. Their lives as adults were about to begin and ours were ready to re-emerge after more than two decades of parent/teacher conferences; flighty babysitters; play dates; teenage tantrums; countless drives to an endless array of birthday, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations; weeks devoted to college tours and applications; flights to and from cities we would never have visited had our kids not been in school there; meals with parents we would have never met and probably will never see again.
All of that now sat in our rearview mirror. We were free to travel, sell the house and move back to the city, eat in restaurants we had read about, go to the theater and to concerts, get hockey season tickets or just sit on our favorite chairs, reading or viewing a rented movie. It was there waiting for us.
A week later, Willow came to visit. She was then a four-month-old miniature Australian Shepherd with an awkward body but the cutest eyes and warmest disposition. Kate was working as a production assistant in the film business and had landed a job on a Bruce Willis movie that required her to work 18- hour days for the next three months. There was no way for her to take care of a puppy.
Soon, I was walking Willow several times a day, learning to house-train a dog, something I’d never had a desire to learn. I played ball with her in the back yard and was amazed at how she easily adapted to the game of running and fetching, never tiring, just loving the idea of playing, always very eager to please. As much as Willow and I bonded, she had grown completely attached to my wife, Susan. Willow followed her everywhere she went in the house and ran to the nearest window whenever she ventured out to head for work or run a few errands. And Susan, an even more reluctant dog owner than I was, never seemed happier than when Willow was by her side, sitting next to her while she worked at her computer, or curling up on her lap. Within weeks, the two were inseparable.
Two days after the movie wrapped, Kate came by to tell us the great news. No, she wasn’t taking Willow back. She had been accepted in the Teach for America program and would be gone for two years.
Willow was now our family dog.
By this time, our house had sold and the Manhattan apartment was ready for us to move into, and we found ourselves with a very active dog in need of more exercise than an Olympic athlete living in the city. What to do? The solution was found in Biscuits & Bath, a seven-day-aweek full-service dog gym. We signed Willow up and reserved weekends for trips to our home in Bridgehampton, where I quickly discovered she was a natural swimmer and would spend hours in the pool doing laps or chasing a tennis ball. “Well,” I said to Susan one night, Willow curled up between us, “this will work. She’s good company. The cat doesn’t seem to know she’s here, and we have a lot of Kate’s friends willing to housesit if we want to go anywhere.”
Besides, I had really grown to like being with Willow. There was a serenity about her that brought with it a relaxing comfort. I appreciated the rare feeling of unconditional love, of how Willow cared for us, wanted to be with us as much as we wanted to be with her. I felt better knowing she was around. She was a good friend to have, even if I did need to ice my arm on some nights after a long day of ball tossing in the yard. The call from my son, then in his senior year at Vanderbilt, came a few days before the end of fall semester about two years later. “I got a puppy,” he said.
“What’s his name?” was all I could manage to ask.
“Not sure,” Nick said.
“How about Gus?”
When my son was a boy and went through the gamut of lizards, gerbils and other caged rodents kids seem to acquire, Nick named each of them Gus in one form or another—Gus, Gus/Gus, Gus, Jr., Gus the Third. Why break the pattern now? It also seemed the perfect name for an Olde English Bulldog.
Nick finished college, landed a job within a month of graduation, and we were once again confronted with one of our kids having to work long hours and a puppy in need of care. So, Gus packed his bags and moved into our apartment, along with me, my wife, Willow and Casper, the oldest living cat in America.
Gus is the exact opposite of Willow, John Belushi to her Audrey Hepburn. Where she is gentle, he is rough. Where she is refined and shy, he is hyper and eager for action. He is big, strong and stubborn and pouts if he doesn’t get his way. In less than three days, he knew he had me and I knew my life would never be the same.
We signed Gus up for Biscuits & Bath and he took to the playtime like a pro, never tiring, eager to run and rumble with the other dogs. The crew at B&B grew to love him almost as much as we did and forgave him any indiscretion. Gus was a charmer, born to please, never giving the slightest indication he had done anything wrong.
In Bridgehampton, I put up a fence along part of the yard, allowing both dogs freedom to run at will: Willow chasing tennis balls, Gus barking and chugging the length of the fence trying to scare away the deer and the rabbits surrounding the property.
I can’t say it’s been easy. Gus suffers from skin allergies and gets a medicine bath once a week and injections to keep the problem under control. Willow has a sensitive stomach. Even with pet insurance, it’s a hefty freight.
My wife and I have not traveled much since we got the dogs, certainly not as often as we had planned. We leave dinner parties early because we need to get home to the dynamic duo. Our living room furniture will never be the same and we make sure not to invite non-dog lovers over for a meal.
When we drive to and from Bridge - hampton, Gus takes the front seat, next to me. Willow rides in the back, snuggled next to my wife. The sight of that always brings a smile to my face. Gus loves to look out the window, eyes taking in the action, on the watch, reminding me of an active street cop on the job. Where Willow is indifferent to the outside world, content to keep her inner circle close to her side, Gus wants to know what he can about anyone who ventures near, earning the visitor either a low growl or an invitation to pet his head. He looks fierce but is gentle as an infant. Willow is the one with the temper, losing patience with anyone who comes between her and the pack she feels her duty to protect. Gus is always up for a party. Willow prefers quiet nights at home.
And they are crazy about one another. I feel as close to Gus as I do to any person in my life. I trust him as much as he trusts me, which is to say completely. He is a good friend and great company. He has changed my life and I am convinced it’s for the better.
I have become what I never thought I would, what an old friend (his wife bred Neapolitan Bull Mastiffs) used to call with affection “those people.” I am a dog person, certified. I would rather spend a night in front of the TV, Gus asleep on one corner of the couch, Willow no more than six inches from my wife on the other end, the two inseparable, both at ease, relaxed and happy. The outside world nothing more than an annoying distraction.
This is my family now—Susan, Gus, Willow and Casper. They are my world, my friends, the ones I turn to for comfort, reassurance and love. Four years ago, I could never have imagined my life with a dog, any dog.
Now, I can’t think of a day without Gus and Willow in my company. They have my loyalty and respect and I have theirs and, living in uncertain times in an uncertain world, we give each other much needed comfort and reassurance.
They have won my heart.
And my life without them would be a sad and empty one.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Lessons from an elderly Afghan
I kneel in front of the kennel that holds my first dog of the day. Sweetie, an Afghan Hound, peers out from a rear corner,where she’s arranged her reddishbrown body into a deceptively small heap.Her large eyes glow with the iridescence of glaucoma. I’m nearly three months and 100 dogs into grooming school and you’d think I’d no longer be nervous, but my trembling hands give me away as I fumble with the kennel’s latch. I wonder if Sweetie notices? An index card clipped to the kennel lists her age as 14 on her first visit nearly a year ago. It also says she’s deaf. I’ll just have to let my hands do the talking, I think as I reach in and slip a blue nylon leash around her neck and gently coax her out of the kennel.
Like many of the dogs I’ve groomed during my time as a student, Sweetie seems nervous as we cross the brightly lit classroom, passing an overweight Lab and a pair of sablecolored Sheltie sisters and side-stepping to avoid a huge Akita.When I gather her willowy body into my arms to lift her onto my table, I’m surprised by how light she is. I set her down and her toenails click as she scrabbles for purchase on the pebbly surface. Tethered to a table high in the air, she’s unsure. Conspicuous. In full view. Just like I feel most days amidst my mostly younger classmates.
Sweetie crouches into a “down” position, shaking like a leaf. “It’s okay, girl.” Forgetting she can’t hear, I reassure her over the din of barking dogs and fussing groomers as I review the instructions: Sweetie/Afghan Hound/4- strip/Smooth Crown/Clean Face.
I run my fingers through the soft, ruffled fur between her ears that gives her a distinct resemblance to Woodstock, Snoopy’s little bird friend. I continue petting her while waiting for her initial wave of fear to pass, taking a few deep breaths to calm myself as well. Spread out along the countertop behind me is my array of equipment: various styles of combs and brushes, an undercoat rake, a shedding blade, a stripping knife, two types of nail cutters, several pairs of gleaming stainless-steel scissors, and two types of motorized clippers with a wide assortment of clipper blades and guard combs—all razor-sharp blades and pointed teeth, all menacing-looking to various degrees. Please don’t let me hurt this dog, I think for the thousandth time since beginning grooming school. My mantra for the duration.
When she stops shaking, we begin. I clean the insides of her ears and clip her nails. Then, bracing one of her legs at a time firmly between my elbow and rib cage, I carefully remove the hair from the bottom of each foot with my clipper, gently working it into the V of the large pad at the back of each paw to remove the excess hair that traps dirt and debris.Although thin, for an old dog, Sweetie stands well.
I find myself trying to imagine each dog’s story. Some are puppies, in for the first time. Others come from rescue groups. A few have standing monthly appointments.Running my hands over Sweetie to check for troublesome irritations or growths, I wonder about the circumstances of this dog—a now 15-year-old Afghan whose first grooming at the school came just a year ago. The search turns up a single wart on her throat and some matted fur behind each ear. But those jutting hipbones! The delicate tendons running down the backs of her legs! You’ll just have to be extra careful, I tell myself as I attach the #4-blade to my clipper.
Eyes glued to Sweetie’s thin body, I run the buzzing clipper through her inch-long fur in long strokes.Keeping her skin pulled taut with my free hand, I clip down her back and over her rib cage, all the while envisioning an Afghan in full coat—arguably the glamour girl of the canine world. I picture luxuriant locks cascading from a long-limbed frame as small mounds of red-brown hair fall soundlessly to the table.We’re taught not to second-guess the owners —our clients—but sometimes that’s hard.
Perhaps for reasons outside of Sweetie’s control, she’s been passed on to a new owner? Or perhaps she’s owned by an older person who can no longer handle the intensive brushing needed to keep up her longer coat? Possible scenarios chase one another through my mind as I move on to untangle the mats knotting the silky fur behind her ears. Preliminaries complete, we cross the narrow hallway into the bathing room, where a dozen high-velocity blow dryers drone in the background. The earthy scent of damp dog envelops us as I whisk my charge into an open tub, securing the plastic safety cable around her neck before turning on the water.We look on as a chorus line of wet dogs high step and twirl atop a row of oval drying tables, dodging the streams of air rushing from cone-shaped nozzles wielded by their groomers. The smaller of the Sheltie sisters—assigned to one ofmy classmates—barks furiously, while the larger one—assigned to another—makes little snapping bites at the nozzle. Both double-coated dogs are nearly dry already! As usual, I’m off to a slower start than my classmates. Sweetie’s iridescent eyes fix on mine while we wait for the icy water pouring from the water wand to warm.
All dogs look soulful when their faces are wet, and Sweetie is no exception.With the pads of my fingers, I work oatmeal shampoo into her wet fur and down her twig-like legs, gingerly lifting one foot at a time to massage the creamy soap between her toes. “This shampoo is good for your skin, girl,” I tell her, again forgetting she can’t hear. One tub over, the Akita shudders vigorously and flying water soaks the back of my thin smock. Sweetie, however, stands perfectly still, as though the bubbly lather she’s wearing is as familiar as an old terrycloth robe. It’s partly physics—old dogs can’t shake like younger dogs. Or perhaps, like my childhood dog Queen, Sweetie has simply grown into her calmness. I rinse the smooth planes of her head and her bony body, imagining a younger,wilder Sweetie racing alongside a gangly, bicycle-riding girl and her baseball-playing brother.
I carry her swaddled in a towel to the waist-high tabletop of a large drying cage, blotting dripping water from both of us before turning on the wall-mounted dryer at half-velocity to get her used to its raspy hum.Wisps of downy undercoat float through the humid air like cottonwood. This part is almost relaxing, but any minute I expect my teacher to make her rounds and shout in a voice loud enough to carry over the sound of the dryers,“How much longer,Denise?”Embarrassed, I’ll have no idea how to answer.
At 45, after a successful career in another field, I find it frustrating to know so little. I keep waiting to see new skills grow. Instead, I feel inept. Clumsy. Interminably slow. Sweetie stands patiently as I increase the dryer’s velocity, a sharp contrast to the Akita, now two stations away. He pulls violently against his tether, growling, biting aggressively at the dryer nozzle while his frustrated groomer—one of the newer students— scolds him. The metal pole he’s tethered to begins to bend. “You might want to try cage-drying him,” I suggest, pointing out the empty cage available underneath Sweetie’s table.
As Sweetie’s fur dries, it’s looking fluffier. Shinier.When she’s completely dry, I repeat the clipping process, backcombing between passes. I try to keep an even pressure on the clipper, overlapping each stroke slightly as though I’m mowing a lawn. Just as I’m ready to move to her legs—a difficult part— Sweetie suddenly lists dramatically. Like an uprooted tree, her entire weight presses into me and I feel her heart beating wildly against my shoulder. Setting the clipper aside, I’m aware of the Akita now in the crate beneath her banging his powerful body repeatedly against the metal bars. With all of my worrying, I hadn’t even heard him! Poor Sweetie …she must feel the violence directly beneath her.
I wrap my arms around the terrified dog, making a conscious attempt to slow my breathing, letting her feel my heartbeat, which is so slow and steady it surprises me. Eventually, she relaxes and rights herself, and I finish the clipping, moving onto the scissor work. I trim around her feet. I brush out her ears and tail, scissoring stray ends.When it’s time for the clean face—new for me (and truly scary)—I call the teacher. She does one side, using a #7 blade against the grain, cutting the hair to a sixteenth of an inch, and miraculously, I do the other! Sweetie trusts me to run the buzzing clipper under her eye and down the bridge of her long nose, under her chin and over her muzzle, leaving her face as smooth as a peach. With my teacher nodding her approval, I step back to assess my work.
Under the bright lights, Sweetie’s short auburn fur shimmers like velvet. Her clean face dominated by those large glowing eyes is beautifully expressive. I smile broadly, gazing at her, and I swear I see Sweetie—like some lovely flower unfolding new petals toward the sun— stretching her old but still-elegant frame to new heights.
Culture: Stories & Lit
At our local humane society, most dogs seem to fall into one of two equally pitiable categories: those who sit cowering in the back corners of their cages, and those who lunge at the chain link with a fierceness infused with fear. But Addie was different; she was sitting dead center in her cage, just watching. Before I came there as a client, I’d been an employee of this particular humane society, and so I was granted the privileges of the initiated, like the right to unclasp cages and visit up close and personal with any dog I liked.
I’d considered a handful of dogs by that point—taken them out on leashes to the lawn in front of the shelter, thrown tennis balls in the gravel-filled run. Each time, I tried to convince myself that I was feeling something akin to what I’d felt toward the dog I’d grown up with, because all of these dogs so obviously needed to make their way to permanent loving homes. But something inside told me to wait, told me to trust that I would know when I met The One.
The tag on the cage informed me that Addie was a Lab and Rottweiler mix, about six months old. To look at her quickly, there is nothing to suggest she’s anything more than a purebred Lab, but if you know what to look for, the Rottweiler is unmistakable. It’s in her short muzzle, her muscular build and the deep, loud bark she uses so infrequently that each time I hear it, I’m taken by surprise, amazed at the volume contained within such a normally quiet creature.
But it’s also in other things, things I wouldn’t realize were traits of the breed until I got to know more Rottweilers over the years and discovered that they are known for their docile manner. That they like to sit or stand on your feet, or curl up on your lap as though a fraction of their true size. That they are as loyal and true as any dog could be.
When I entered Addie’s cage, she barely moved, just calmly followed me with her big brown eyes. I sat down next to her, looking out in the same direction as she was, toward the whitewashed cinder- block wall of the shelter. And here is the moment that seems almost unbelievably sweet, even to those who aren’t “dog people,” even to me when I think about it after all these years. As we sat, serenely staring out at nothing, Addie leaned her head toward me until it came to rest in the curve between my shoulder and my neck. And there it stayed. In that moment, it was clear to both of us that we’d found our home.
When the Dog Yawns, Sleep Follows
Getting catty over cats — jealous even — is not our intention. But it seems like every really juicy superstition, every prickles-on-the-back-ofthe- neck story, every bit of old-fashioned, been-around-forever folklore is in the cat’s corner, leaving dogs out in the cold, pawing at the back door, dolorously.
Exhibit A: A black cat crossing your path at midnight stirs up all kinds of heck. Forget animal superstitions; this is probably one of the best known of all superstitions, ever. And we’ve been a mite jealous about the whole thing. Not just the mystery and allure and glamour of inspiring such an oft-told tale, but that it is hard to even think up a dog-based superstition when put to it.
Being fond of folklore, and being fond of pups, we went nosing about for some told-and-not-so-true fables inspired by canines. Many millenniaold stories are based on wolves, wolf packs and all manner of moan-at-themoon lycanthropes, of course; few are as potent and as widely repeated as the ol’ black cat chestnut. But we were more curious about myths surrounding dogs living as pets or companions, not those animals found running over moors, howling romantically (and creepily).
We came across an eyebrow-cocker in the 1949 Encyclopedia of Superstitions, which reads, “It is unlucky to meet a barking dog early in the morning.” Really, though, does that make just about every dog owner on the planet unlucky? Hardly a day goes by when, before noon, the furry ones at our feet aren’t yipping to go out, giving the mailman what for, or simply telling one another to step away from the chew toy, pronto.
That said, the same encyclopedia predicts that “a strange dog following you is a sign of good luck.” True. We would add that it is a sign that you’ll be on the phone for most of the afternoon, looking for the dog’s family, and you’ll be photocopying fliers, and you may well be adopting that strange dog if no one ultimately claims him. That’s the modern retelling of the superstition.
Superstitions from Europe, translated by D.L. Ashliman, features a number of delightful folkloric nuggets, especially this: “Girls should pay attention to where the dogs bark on Saint Andrew’s Eve. Her groom will come from this area.” Mutts as mystical matchmakers? We like this.
The Dog Hause, a website with a bevy of beastie-based yarns, touts a superstition we adore, mostly because we’re mad for Matt Groening. According to the creator of The Simpsons, “A dog with seven toes can see ghosts.” You believe this, right? We do. In fact, we’ll call this one nearly verifiable truth. Call in the paranormal researchers. Art Bell, even.
Gaze between a dog’s ears while the pup is staring at seemingly nothing, says the same site, and you’ll see a ghost. We might add that if the dog has seven toes, you’ll be in for a major supernatural startle.
And while we’re always fond of a spirited spirit tale, we like the timeliness of this superstition, which we eyed at HistoryofDogs.com: “If you scratch a dog before you go job hunting, you’ll get a good job.” Positive words. Of course, we’re curious how thorough a scratch is required — are we talking a quick ear-stroker, or a full-on, get-thegrowler- on-his-back scratch-a-thon of the belly? Two different things, as every dog lover knows, though the justpressed interview suit might need to take care before heading out to the big meeting.
(The asterisk on that one, of course, is that if your interviewer is a big dog person, then a little Pug hair on your lapel may inspire instant rapport.)
Over at Writing.com, we came across a bit of folklore for fans of the Dalmatian, that celebrity of spotty snouties: “It’s good luck to meet a dog, particularly a Dalmatian.”
And dog + eating grass = rain, a superstition we’ve come across somewhat frequently, also receives play in the same list. Maybe the grass is dewier, fresher and tastier before a rain? Again, a question for the experts.
The more we perused, the more we got to pondering: Superstitions are always developing, changing, evolving; the tales we know now will be different 500 years hence. And the negative bent of some old superstitions — the barking-at-the-beginning-of-the-day bit — wrong-way-rubs us. So why not develop some of our own sayings, even if we mean to enjoy and retell them just within the confines of our own home?
Here’s a few we’re toying with: “When the Golden Retriever lingers at the door, a walk you shall take within the hour.” Tell us this isn’t nearly 100 percent accurate!
Or, “Stand not over the kitchen sink, but over the Brussels Griffon, as you consume your buttered toast; the morning sun shall later reflect a clean, un-becrumbed floor, and a dog that is licky-of-lip, and well-satisfied.” Also true. Might we add, we’ve seen the sun’s first rays reflect off the buttery lip of a Griffon, and there are few sights more heart-gladdening in the world. This is lucky indeed.
And, while we’re on a roll, let us consider the two words before us: dog superstitions. Doesn’t this also mean superstitions held by dogs? Our own pups hold (we think) a couple of credos: “If lady stands near treat bin, within minute, treat.” Or: “When water in tile room runs, soon fur shall be wet.”
All dog-loving humans should possess at least a half-dozen household superstitions of their own, to lend color, joy and fun to their houndfilled households. And likewise, every dog should be the taddest bit superstitious. After all, one needs something to ponder in the long hours stretched out in the sun or snoozing on the couch. One’s thoughts can’t be about “next walk, next treat, next walk, next treat” all the time. A hint of mystery, a little superstition, does the heart good.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A Tale of Dogs, Flatulence and Giardia
People’s names in the story I am about to tell you are not real. To protect the health and safety of the husband who told me this story, I’ll call him Harry and the woman’s name will be Sally — because if she finds out, he gets hurt. In fact, I am changing the name of the couple’s dog to protect the dog’s identity. You can see this is a serious situation, so don’t start laughing, OK? The name of Harry and Sally’s dog is Rocky.
One day, as Harry and Sally sat in the living room watching television with Rocky at their feet, an odor like passing gas filled the room. Naturally, Sally thought it was Harry and Harry thought it was Sally. Not wanting to embarrass the spouse, neither of them mentioned it for several weeks. But when Harry smelled gas and Sally wasn’t home, it became apparent that Rocky was the one passing gas. The couple called their veterinarian.
The vet said to retrieve Rocky’s stool (I am not talking about what he sits on but something he leaves outside) and bring it in for testing. This was done, and it turned out Rocky had giardia. The couple lived in San Francisco, and Harry had been walking Rocky around the neighborhood. Rocky was a chick magnet, and women would stop to admire him, which made Harry a happy man. Rocky would lick the women’s faces and hands. (Remember, it was Rocky doing this, not Harry.) Based on how many times this happened over the last year, it’s safe to say that fifty percent of women in San Francisco now have giardia.
Now, back to the vet’s report. When the report from the vet came, Harry and Sally started treating Rocky right away. At this time, they both admitted to having a gas problem themselves. Sally looked up information about giardia on the Internet and found out that humans can get giardia; one symptom was gas. Since Harry and Sally’s problem was lasting several weeks, they concluded they should see a doctor and be tested for giardia. The couple went to a local clinic and saw a woman doctor — which made Sally comfortable but almost caused Harry to pass more gas, especially when he was examined and poked in the stomach by the woman (but he didn’t lick her face or hands).
Thinking in advance, Sally and Harry had brought stool samples with them in a small cooler. (They probably never again will put anything in that cooler.) The doctor said the samples might have been contaminated by urine, as they were fished out of the toilet (how I don’t want to know), and so more samples were needed. To accomplish this, Harry and Sally were given something referred to as a “hat.” Harry described the hat as something no one with a sound mind would ever wear. It’s made of plastic, and you place it on the rear of the toilet seat and sit down. Then you “take care of business,” according to Harry. They each had to prepare samples from four different occasions, if you get my drift. On top of that, the samples had to be refrigerated until dropped off at the doctor’s office.
As chance would have it, the couple was entertaining friends for dinner. Sally warned Harry to make sure his samples were covered in plastic bags in the refrigerator, just as hers were, so they could not be detected — in case a guest got up to get something out of the refrigerator before he could be tackled. Luck was with them, because bad weather caused dinner to be rescheduled. This allowed time for the couple to complete the samples and drop them at the doctor’s office. Now they had to wait for the lab report, which would tell them if they had giardia.
It was three days later when four couples joined them for the rescheduled dinner. Everyone was having a wonderful time, chatting away, when the phone rang. Harry and Sally each assumed it was a solicitor, so they ignored the call and let the answering machine pick it up. This was a bad choice. In the middle of the dinner conversation, this message erupted over the chatter: “This is Doctor Bartlett. Your test results came in this evening, and I wanted to alert you. You both have giardia, which as you know is highly contagious. Please come into the office tomorrow and pick up the prescriptions you need. We will have to check your stools again after you’ve been on the medication for ten days. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call me.”
The room fell silent — like it was a wake rather than a dinner. All the guests suddenly remembered pressing events requiring their presence at home. In less than five minutes the four couples had left; some even forgot their coats in the closet. As for Harry and Sally, the last time we talked, Harry said they were starting to provide another round of samples, Rocky’s stools were now clear, and they were thinking of moving to another state.
Culture: Stories & Lit
In the 10 years that my dog Rex and I have been together (and that constitutes nearly the entirety of his life and a quarter of mine), we have moved 10 times. The reasons for this had more to do with indecision than instability, but I admit it wasn’t ideal. We went from a farm in rural Nebraska (Rex’s first place of residence, hence my ongoing guilt that his life has been all downhill from there) to a friend’s house in suburban Nebraska and then to Los Angeles, where we lived in a studio apartment in the Santa Monica Mountains for four months and in a sublet near Venice Beach for three months. Then we went back to Nebraska and lived briefly on another farm before moving to a house in town. After several months, we moved back to California, where we lived in another sublet in the Hollywood Hills and then a rented house in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake. Finally, I got serious and bought a house. It was tiny and lacking in many amenities, but it was near the dog park.
Throughout all these moves, Rex never wandered off, had an accident, chewed on anything he shouldn’t have or refused a meal. Docile to the extreme and a nonbarker (at 12 weeks old, he barked nonstop for an entire day and then gave it up completely), he’s more than just a good traveler — he’s a canine Zen master. He can lower your blood pressure simply by leaning against your leg. He can saunter past a yard of frothing, gasping, yapping Chihuahuas and not so much as glance in their direction. Despite some well-meaning advice early on in my moving adventures, I never for one second entertained the thought of not taking him along.
I have, however, occasionally allowed myself to think about how many more housing options would have been available to me sans pet, especially an 85-pound yak-like sheepdog like Rex. As any dog owner who’s ever been in need of a rental knows, it’s not the house that matters, but the area that surrounds it. You need some form of yard — a strip of grass, a cluster of bushes, a patch of dirt. Ideally, this area is fenced. The neighborhood needs to be relatively pedestrian-friendly, since it’s nice to be able to walk the dog without butting up against a freeway or a crack house. Moreover, you need a landlord who isn’t going to look at a shedding, slobbering yak/dog and tell you they’d rent to a high school punk band before letting that beast walk on their newly refinished floors. In other words, you have to rent from other dog people. And dog people tend to have dog properties.
How can you tell a dog property? If you’re more concerned about where your dog goes to the bathroom than where you go to the bathroom, chances are you’ll wind up in such a place. If it’s a stand-alone house, the floors will be scuffed and the grass will be brown. If it’s a multi-unit situation, most of the neighbors will have dogs themselves, and while this may at first seem like an asset — “We all pet-sit for each other when we go out of town!” — the place will inevitably come to feel like a combination of kennel and psychiatric institution. The woman with three small dogs will be crazy in a nervous way. The woman with three large dogs will be crazy in a politically strident way. There will probably be a guy with a parrot.
If you’re in a sublet, as I was too many times, the primary tenant’s dogs will sometimes come with the deal. Such was the case in the Hollywood Hills house, where a Border Collie and an Australian Shepherd ascended and descended the stairs all night as though they were training for a boxing match. During the day, they hurled themselves in and out of the dog door until I had no choice but to close it, which caused them to whine like toddlers. Rex, naturally, just stood there and stared at them blankly, the canine equivalent to shaking your head in pity.
Which I swear is what he did to me when I uprooted him for the 11th time recently. After I got married (to a man who dreams of moving overseas and imagines Rex is up to it), I sold my house and rejoined (temporarily, we hope) the ranks of the renters. And, yes, this is a dog property. There’s no dishwasher but the landlady likes dogs, and that matters more. The yard looks like hell, but all I care is that it’s there. I may still be indecisive about my housing, but I know this much about my home: It’s where the dog is.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Harvard puts canine cognition to the test
My dog was a little late for her test at Harvard University. Penny Jane was clearly nervous. Then she saw the testing room’s slick linoleum floors and the glare of the fluorescent lights, which screamed veterinarian’s office to her. She trembled and panted lightly as she scanned the shadowless room, probably for a syringe. When she turned her black nose up at a salmon-flavored treat, I worried that my Border Collie mix was going to flub her Ivy League school exam.
Both of our anxieties were misplaced. No one was going to get an F or a vaccination. Penny Jane’s “test” was part of an ongoing study at Harvard University’s Canine Cognition Lab. The lab was started in early 2009 by Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor who has long studied cognition, to research how domestic dogs think. To do so, Hauser has enlisted the help of Boston-area dog owners such as me to provide the tailwagging subjects for his research. A couple of thousand pooches have been tested so far. Penny Jane was somewhere around number 350.
Many a dog owner through the centuries has wondered what goes on in his pooch’s mind. But the question has held little interest for scientists, who have devoted endless hours to studying how other species think— especially rodents, pigeons and primates. Meanwhile, the animal brain right at our feet or in our laps went unexamined.
That is changing. There are currently canine cognition labs at the University of Florida, Duke University and Barnard College, as well as several in Europe. In July, some 500 scientists from around the globe gathered at the second Canine Science Forum in Vienna, Austria, to deliver papers on dogs’ understanding of human communication and how domestication has shaped their social skills.
“The field is a little crowded just now,” says Hauser.
The scientist, who has worked with cotton-topped tamarins since 1992, is a relative latecomer to the trend. This is his first cognition study with dogs. Why Hauser switched from diminutive monkeys to the family dog speaks to the practical reasons behind the growing interest in canine cognition. For starters, funding for primate research has become scarcer and scarcer, according to Hauser. Working with pet dogs means a lab does not have to bear the expense of keeping animals. Pet dogs also provide Hauser with volume. Rather than study 20 tamarins, Hauser will have results from several thousand dogs by the end of his current study. If one dog’s trial, say Penny Jane’s, goes awry, it won’t statistically throw off the whole study as it would with only 20 animals.
Moreover, scientists can explore issues with pet dogs that they can’t with other species, such as how domestication has affected a species’ thinking, or if there are ways Canis lupus familiaris has become more like Homo sapiens. “Unlike all the other animals, there is some possibility that they have acquired some of our moral behavior,” Hauser says.
And as always, by studying another species we can learn about our own, and chip away at the age-old question of how we became unique. In my specific case, I feared the study would demonstrate, despite all my efforts to the contrary, what an anthropomorphizing egomaniac I was. Though I prided myself on what a cool head I had about animals, I’d gotten off to a bad start before the two of us even arrived at the lab by bragging to all my friends that Penny Jane was going to Harvard. Did I, like so many dog lovers, ultimately see my pup as a reflection of myself?
That question was not on Hauser’s list. Rather, he’s investigating how dogs respond to physical as well as emotional cues, how much patience they have, and whether they understand the concept of sameness, as in two identical objects. To answer these and other questions, dogs are ushered into a large, mostly bare room with a broad window facing south on one side and a mirrored wall on the other. Here, pups are repeatedly asked to choose between two identical buckets, but in varying circumstances.
As scientific experiments go, there’s a lot out of Hauser’s control. For one, the dogs hail from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are trained, as Penny Jane, whom I taught to open cereal boxes (this has come back to haunt me). Others are hardly trained at all. The pups range widely in breeds, sizes and ages. The owners are also a big variable. Some might overly prompt their dog or grow frustrated. “Some think they should be more involved and won’t listen to us,” Hauser said. “One owner felt compelled to say we are doing it all wrong.” I didn’t do that, but I did repeatedly drop Penny Jane’s leash at the wrong time.
In the early months of the study, Hauser and his lab assistants worked out the trial’s kinks. They found that some dogs were distracted by the window, others liked to stare at themselves in the mirror and some wanted to play with the experimenter. They tweaked the trials to keep the dogs’ attention as best they could, though some would still lie down and fall asleep, as Hauser’s own Newfie did.
There was no way Penny Jane was going to nap. She stepped gingerly into the experiment room with her whitetipped, curled-in-a-letter-C tail tucked between her legs even though the research assistant proffered treat after treat. To find out what Penny Jane was thinking, the long-limbed, lean young woman directed us to a far corner of the room, where there was a chair and a square outlined in black tape on the floor. I took a seat, as did Penny Jane, but not in the marked box, so I had to push her like a lump of clay into the square, then scoot her around again to face the assistant. She looked at me over her shoulder with wide brown eyes that begged, “What are you thinking?”
The assistant tried to warm up Penny Jane by dropping treats in a bucket with a flap and setting it on the floor for her to investigate. But once seated in the square, Penny Jane was glued to it. The dog who once excavated an entire beach to unearth a single Cheeto now remained frozen, no matter how we egged her on in our chirpy voices. I didn’t need a scientific study to tell me what she was thinking, which was, “You two humans are freaking me out.” I was thinking, “What will I tell my friends if Penny Jane gets kicked out of Harvard?”
Finally, I gave her a familiar cue. “Find it,” I said, and my girl ever so carefully approached the bucket. Then she caught the whiff of a treat, curled a paw around the flap to lift it, and dug her nose deep into the bucket and grunted happily. She trotted back to the black square chewing, her tail at full curlicue.
With Penny Jane now a willing subject, the official trial began. Over the next 20 minutes, she sat in the black square and repeatedly pondered which bucket to approach. A few times the lab assistant pointed to the bucket with the treat, and Penny Jane gave her the equivalent of a canine “duh” and followed her index finger to the correct one. When the lab assistant pointed to one bucket with her foot, Penny Jane paused and then walked to the other one, the empty one. But when the lab assistant hoisted a small television in both arms and then pointed to a bucket with her foot, Penny Jane readily went to the correct one. The lab assistant explained that this showed that Penny Jane understood contextual signals, meaning she saw the lab assistant’s hands were occupied so that she had to use a foot.
I began to swell with pride, though I fought it by repeating “bad girl, bad girl” in my head. My Penny Jane, the unsocialized pup who was described to me as the “scaredest” dog in the shelter, was turning in a solid B performance, and at Harvard University, no less. Then, in a section designed to test dogs’ sensitivity to human emotions, the lab assistant picked up a bucket in her hands and scolded it: “No, no, no.” As I feared, Penny Jane essentially put her pencil down. She stood up, walked to my side, lay down and looked out the window. The dog who’d never been corrected, never been spoken to sternly, wasn’t going anywhere near the now scary lab assistant or buckets, not even if filet mignon were stashed inside. We were going to be one of those test results.
After a break, Penny pulled herself together and finished the entire trial, including a last section that tested how she used her sense of smell to differentiate between the identical buckets. In the end, her results were pretty typical, except that she chose the correct bucket each time in the very section that gave her trouble.
As we left, the lab assistant handed me a Harvard diploma of a sort with Penny Jane’s name inked on it in big letters. I laughed it off to the lab assistant, but called my husband on the drive home to crow that our pound pup had a Harvard degree. The results of Hauser’s study and what they say about how dogs think are still in the offing, but as for what it said about me, the results were already painfully clear.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Another finalist in The Bark’s First Annual Short Story/Fiction contest
“Wake up, Georgie boy.”
The cop gave the bottom of my shoe another sharp kick with the toe of his boot. I opened my eyes just enough to peer through the lashes, but I didn’t move yet. Start moving right away and you give up your dignity.
“Let’s go, George. You know you can’t block the sidewalk.”
I quietly started pulling my bags together and got to my feet. Dignity is one thing, but if you move too slow you just end up with a pissed-off cop. The young ones were especially easy to irritate, and this guy had only been around for less than a year.
He liked to call me “Georgie boy.” I guess he figured it riled me up and showed some sort of dominance. I didn’t care either way. My name wasn’t even George. That was just something I told the police a few years back and no one cared enough to verify.
He was still talking while I gathered up my bags and loaded my blankets into my cart. I hadn’t bothered to learn this one’s name yet. I need to see they’re gonna stick around a while before I make the effort.
I grunted something to indicate I was listening and started pushing my cart down 25th Avenue while he was still talking. I’d been on the streets long enough to register when a response was expected and when they just wanted me to be somewhere else for a while. This was the latter. I probably scared a tourist. It happened a lot in this city.
The shopping cart rattled loudly on the uneven sidewalks. You think it’s rough when you’ve got one wobbly wheel in Kmart, try pushing a hundred pounds of your belongings while trying not to run into a jogger. For the most part, the path cleared in front of me like I was Moses leading my people. Few bothered to look directly at me. The only ones who ever looked me directly in the eye were the kids of tourists, and that only lasted until mom or dad told them that wasn’t polite. Then the whole family ignored me.
After a few minutes of walking, I could feel a shadow trailing behind me. I didn’t even need to turn and look. I just knew he was there. He was scruffy and light brown with a ragged, unkempt beard almost like we shared fashion tips. Small enough to avoid scaring folks, but big enough to take on a D.C. rat, the dog had been my companion since the beginning of summer.
I’m not sure where he came from or how we came to be a team. I woke up one morning under a tree that stands guard near the K Street Bridge, and there he was curled up a few feet away. I thought I woke up first, but now that I think back on it, I’m pretty sure he was looking through his lashes at me.
We’d been together since then, almost three months. Not every day. Some days he just isn’t around. I don’t know where he goes, and when I see him next he doesn’t say. I don’t figure it is any of my business. He doesn’t badger me when I come back from the soup kitchen to know the details of my life. I reckon I owe him the same courtesy. Living on the streets is hard and I can’t pretend that it ain’t. Wintertime can be especially rough, but you learn the tricks to survive. You know which churches will give you a warm place to stay and a nice meal with the minimum amount of preaching. You figure out which of your neighbors are just chatty crazy and which are more likely to stab you in the night if you don’t watch yourself.
I guess I had life more or less figured out when he came along. I think that’s why we get along so well. He doesn’t try to change me and I don’t try to change him. I tell him what I’m thinking, and he listens carefully with those big brown eyes. Sometimes he just isn’t interested and he’ll wander off right in the middle of one my stories, but that doesn’t happen often and I know I tend to blather on at times. By the time he comes back, all is forgiven and I usually share some of my food with him.
It’d probably be more interesting if I said he occasionally hunts down a rabbit and returns it to me so I can clean it and cook it up for the two of us. That’d be a lie, though. I doubt he knows how to hunt rabbits, and I sure as hell don’t know how to clean one. Lighting a fire is a good way to get the cops to come down hard on you.
I was just happy for a little companionship, and that he did just fine.
I parked the cart under a big white oak in Rose Park. Traffic was steady in the road down in the ravine, and joggers were constant. As soon as I spread my blanket and took a seat, he went off into the underbrush for a nice look around. I guess he’s just more curious than I am. I don’t have his nose either. To me, it’s all just weeds and bushes, but he seems to get a lot out of it.
By the time he came back, I was eating a snack of beef jerky and I tossed him a piece. He ate it, but it looked more like a chore than a treat. After a few circles, he lay down a few feet away from me with his eyes focused farther back into the park.
We both watched the rich dogs playing with each other while their owners chatted. Every so often, one of the dogs would look over at us and decide we weren’t worth the effort. My partner seemed to feel the same. The owners didn’t look at us at all.
“You could go play with them if you wanted.”
Brown eyes told me that I was wrong. The dogs might not mind him joining in, but the owners wouldn’t want him there. He was fine right here. I was glad he stuck around, even if I didn’t understand all the dynamics involved. As I fell asleep, he still watched the play area, but I couldn’t tell if it was longingly or just because it was more interesting than facing the street.
I woke up with the sun early the next morning. He wasn’t next to me, but that wasn’t unusual. He usually woke up earlier and went off to do whatever it was he needed to do. He usually joined me later in the morning.
Lunch time passed and I had collected a few dollars in change and was hoping to get something to eat. He hadn’t come back yet. Not unheard of, but definitely unusual. Maybe he was tired of the rut we’d gotten into. I kind of liked it, myself.
As dusk settled across the city, I started to worry, although I didn’t like to admit it. In the early days it was normal for us to spend a day apart, but over the last couple of weeks we had never gone more than a few hours on our own. Did something happen to him? Maybe a car got him or some kids hit him with rocks. I knew that people can be mean. Is there such a thing as a dog catcher? I’d never seen one, but on TV growing up it seemed that dog catchers were always scooping up mutts.
I stayed in the park again that night. I could have moved. He knew our regular spots and would have checked them all, but I thought I’d keep it easy on him, especially if he was hurt or sick. No sense making him walk halfway across the neighborhood.
The morning came and went, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I was sad to think that our time together was done. If he had decided to move on to someone else then I couldn’t say no to that, but if he was hurt I wanted to help out. I just didn’t know how.
I pushed the cart back toward 25th Avenue. I liked it better over there even if I did get kicked out every so often. The grates blew warm air and the foot traffic was strong, so I could usually do all right on money.
On the way there, I saw Officer Baez parked at the corner. He was one of the good ones. He still woke me with a kick to the shoe and made me move along from time to time, but he was friendly and asked if I was getting enough to eat.
I stopped a few feet away from the window. I didn’t think it was a good idea to walk right up to him. We weren’t that good of friends. He noticed me pretty quickly though.
“Hey there, George.”
I shuffled my feet a bit and looked around for the words.
“You need something? You been getting enough to eat?” It was nice of him to ask, but I wasn’t worried about food today.
“The dog is missing,” I mumbled.
Baez looked at me and then over to his partner. I didn’t know her name since she was new. They regularly put the new officers with Baez.
“What dog is this? You have a dog?” “Not my dog,” I explained. “Just spends time with me. Can you ask the dog catcher?” I felt sort of stupid asking since I wasn’t sure the dog catcher was real.
“Well, the pound doesn’t regularly just drive around and scoop up dogs anymore. What’s he look like?”
“I think I know where he is. Never mind,” I said quickly and shuffled away.
I didn’t have any idea where he was, but it felt wrong to be talking to the police about him. Even if it was Baez. Our relationship was a quiet one and it was something I didn’t feel like sharing with outsiders. He’d either turn up or he wouldn’t. I couldn’t force something to happen.
My unease shifted to sadness and then eventually to acceptance as the days passed. I hoped that my little brown friend was still out there, but I figured he probably got hit by a car. I’d been almost hit lots of times crossing the street with my cart, and I’m pretty hard to miss. He wasn’t so easy to see, and even when we were right out in the open people tended to not really see us.
I missed our talks and those gentle rebukes he gave me with those eyes when I said something stupid. I had a few other friends on the street, but none who got me the way he did.
The leaves were starting to fall, and I was sitting on my favorite grate on 25th Avenue. As the weather got colder, I stuck more and more to my grate unless forced to move. The police seemed to go a bit easier during this time of year, even the young ones who liked to give me a hard time.
I watched a family approach, but tried to not seem too interested. They were locals. That is usually easy to spot. Dad was pushing a stroller, and mom was wearing a pink Redskins hat. It was the little girl holding the leash that had my attention.
As they passed by, the dog pulled over toward me and got close enough to give my hand a lick. The little girl seemed to find that funny, and she gave the dog enough slack in the leash to get close. She was probably only six or seven, but the dog was small enough to be handled by her without concern.
Mom and dad had pulled a few feet away before noticing they’d left part of the pack behind. The girl was staring at me, and the dog stood in between us looking at me with big brown eyes. He looked serious, just like I remembered, but he looked happy as well.
“Jilly! No! Don’t let him do that.” Mom came back and grabbed her daughter’s hand and actually looked at me. I’m not sure if they’d even registered me the first time they walked by.
“Sorry about that,” mom said, while daughter and dog watched.
“‘S’okay. He’s a good dog.” His eyes seemed to thank me.
“His name is Piper,” the little girl said. Mom looked impatient to continue on, but I don’t think she wanted to drag the girl away from me and look insensitive to the plight of the homeless.
“How do you know that?” I asked. The dog turned his big brown eyes on the girl as if awaiting her answer as well. She seemed a bit confused by my question.
“Cuz that’s what we named him. He’s Piper.” As though the logic was irrefutable.
The dog wagged his tail slightly every time the girl said “Piper.” He turned his gaze back to me. I looked at those eyes that knew so much and nodded. “That’s a good name. Good boy, Piper.” His tail wagged ever so slightly, and then mom was pulling Jilly along by the hand, and the dog had no choice but to follow.
As the family walked on, the dog was looking back at me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
“Why does the Director want me? Am I in trouble?”
My boss shrugged, clueless as usual, and waved me into his office. “That will do, Carl,” said a thin but strong voice. My boss bowed out and left me alone with the woman behind his desk. She was stern, gray and no bigger than a minute.
“Meghan, sit.” I did, half expecting a cookie reward. “Your file is interesting.”
“I have a file?” I asked, regretting my reply at once. Even the dogs had files.
“You’ve worked in animal shelters all over New England.”
A blur of happy-sad memories. “Well, I just…uh…love dogs.” Brilliant! “I didn’t know Happy Meadows had a Director.”
She frowned. “Where do you see yourself five years from now?”
Unemployed seemed likely at the moment.
“I’ve been following your career. Watching you.”
What career? My hackles rose. Who was this? FBI? CIA! PETA?!
“Good recommendations from your supervisors. You’ve written some articles that were well received. And the dogs seem to like you.”
The dog part was true and I enjoyed writing, but “well received” was a stretch.
The Director closed my file. “I have a special job for you.” Visions of nuclear-powered pooper-scoopers danced through my head. “I need a new caretaker for an unusual facility.”
Clyde’s stocky legs rocked easy with the heavy ocean swells. He steered the small boat with one hand; the other gripped an enormous mug of coffee.
“Are you sure you don’t want some sunscreen?” I asked, squinting into the tropical bright while slathering myself with white cream, my ponytail whipping so hard I thought it might snap off.
Clyde guffawed, his lobster-colored face crinkling into deep, weathered furrows. “Never use the stuff! But you go ahead — shame to bake that pretty face.”
I was ten years past pretty but still young enough to be his daughter. Was he hitting on me? A wave broke over the bow, showering us with spray. I cawed and grabbed for the rail — graceful I had never been. “There she is,” Clyde declared, steadying me with one hand and pointing with his coffee mug. “Dog Island.”
“That’s not the official name, but Dog Island’s what I’ve always called it. Have yourself a look.” He handed me a pair of binoculars. I tried to focus on the rise of land but could see only jobbling water. “Try the beach,” he suggested, tilting my shoulder until sand came into view through the glasses. I saw a cluster of black Labrador Retrievers playing. Their heads lifted in unison and turned toward us, their mouths working. We were too far away to hear the barks, but they sounded in my head. Hi! Hi! Hi! The dogs broke and raced down the beach, kicking up sand plumes behind. They were dancing at the end of the dock by the time we bumped alongside. Clyde leapt nimbly ashore despite his girth and was swarmed at once. “Get offa me, ya mangy mutts!” he cried, then thumped his chest, inviting them back up to slobber his face while he roared with laughter. When he was thoroughly soaked, they nosed his pockets for treats.
A stick of a man shuffled onto the foot of the dock.
Clyde turned. “Mawhnin’, Jed!”
“And a fine one it is,” Jed replied, his voice quavery and old. The Labs dashed to form a furry entourage around him. “That doesn’t look like a dog you’ve brought me today.”
It took a moment to realize he meant me and another to wonder if I’d just been insulted — I was here to replace him, after all. But I sensed he’d meant no harm and have been called worse anyway.
“Nope,” Clyde agreed. He busied himself unloading boxes while Jed and the dogs approached. I’d seen enough arthritic animals to recognize the ginger gait in a human — I guessed his old joints screamed fair Jesus when the weather turned damp, probably most days in this climate. When he finally reached us, Jed offered a thin hand that I shook with care, and the introductions were done.
“See you in a week,” he told Clyde, who nodded, stepped off the dock and untied the boat. As it motored away, Jed said, “Let’s go. I have a lot to show you and I’m not getting any younger."
There was only one house on Dog Island, a sprawling wood affair on a gentle grass slope overlooking the sea. It was wrapped by a wide porch held down by a dozen grizzled dogs baking in the sun. A Golden Retriever, frosted nearly silver, tail-tapped a reserved greeting as we passed through, but the rest slumbered on, oblivious. “Hey, Pete,” said Jed. “How’s the old fella?” Jed turned to me. “Pete really runs this place — I don’t do anything without his say-so.” A pillowpadded rocker with a tattered book beside it told me the dogs weren’t the only old ones who passed long, slow afternoons up here. We entered a tidy, bright kitchen. I accepted his offer of coffee to be polite, but in my experience no one made worse java than old men. The watery, bitter crap I was expecting, however, turned out smooth and rich. Jed gently lowered himself into a chair at the sturdy wooden table. He took a sip, started to speak, then reconsidered and had another.
“Not sure where to start,” he finally said.
“How about the beginning?” Jed laughed. “This island has too long a history to tell right now and you can read all about it in the library anyway.” He looked around the kitchen and out the window, considering the place. “Guess if you have enough money, anything’s possible.”
He laughed again. “No, I’m just the caretaker. The Director handles the business, but the money isn’t hers, either. There are plenty of rich folks who like the idea of this island and would rather spend their money on dogs than on people.”
“Do they come here?” I asked envisioning hordes of weekend pet owners with chips on their shoulders and attitudes up their —
“Nope. Never met ’em. Haven’t even met the Director — not this one, anyway. The one who hired me…well, she’s moved on.” He glanced out the back window up a forested hill rising behind the house. “I doubt the contributors actually know where this place is. The only person I ever see is Clyde when he brings supplies or a new dog.”
“How many live here?” “One hundred. No more, no less.”
I’d worked in larger facilities, but not solo. “That’s enough.” I remembered the Lab clones from the beach. “Learning the names must take a bit.” A thought occurred to me. “Do they even have names?”
“Giving a new dog its Island name is important,” Jed said. “They’re starting new, happier lives here and finding the right name is part of that. Some names will come to you right away, others take longer. If Fi-Fi or Toodles pops into your head, keep thinking.” He waved a hand. “You’ll learn. One of ’em farts, you’ll know who did it and what they ate that made ’em do it.” He gestured at a thick notebook on the table. “I’ve written down most of what I do, how things work and what doesn’t.”
“On the mainland. You got big trouble, call Clyde and he’ll fetch ’im out, but you’ll learn to handle the little stuff yourself. I’ve done more stitching than I can remember and splinted my share of broken bones.” A chorus of yips outside interrupted us. Jed’s eyes rolled. “Heelers! OCD, every frigging one of ’em. Only the gun shuts them up.”
I followed him to the barn and helped wheel out a tennis-ball launcher. Jed cranked it up. “Near ruined my arm before I thought of this,” he laughed. Thwupp! A green rocket streaked down the hill. A dozen dogs raced after it. One came up with the prize and the others circled back, eyes gleaming. Thwupp! They ran again, sleek bodies flying over the grass. Thwupp! Thwupp! Thwupp! Dogs and balls everywhere. Two heelers jumped for the same one and collided in mid-air. The dogs fell to the ground and the ball sailed untouched in between. Jed and I fell, too, clutching our sides, laughing. The dogs were up again immediately and we fired another volley. After an hour they’d finally had enough.
“I love the gun!” I said and fell back into the grass. “I could get used to this.”
Jed held up a hand. “Talkin’ to the paw!” He gazed across the sea of happy, panting dogs to the sea of water that separated us from the world of humans.
“I can’t imagine not being here anymore,” he said. “Not taking care of them. But I’m too old now. They deserve better.”
“I’m not sure why the Director picked me,” I replied, “but these dogs will want for nothing while I’m here.”
Jed nodded. “That’ll do.”
I memorized Jed’s notebook over the next two months. It made caretaking straightforward, though not easy. I slept deeply each night surrounded by the porch dogs who’d made it clear that the king-size bed was communal property. I didn’t mind the company, although some nights “gastrointestinal challenges” among them forced me to evacuate.
According to the calendar stuck to the refrigerator with bone-shaped magnets, it was late August when one evening I’d finished all the chores with some daylight still left. I’d been meaning to investigate the library for the history of Dog Island, so I ventured through the doorway marked Canis Libris.
Inside was every book ever written about dog breeds, caring for dogs, or caring about them. Many were familiar and good but not of interest tonight. Past them was a hodgepodge of homemade binders. I selected the first one, dated 1820. Inside, penned in black ink on pages of stiff parchment, were sketches that stole my breath. An Irish setter: “Lucy 1812-1820.” A bull mastiff: “Theodore 1808-1820.” A mixed-breed with a big smile and gentle eyes: “Henrietta 1817-1820.” I sat on the floor and paged through a baker’s dozen. Some had lived long lives, others short ones or maybe they had just been old when they arrived here and got their Island names. I closed the book and pondered that Dog Island had existed for nearly 200 years, an impossibly well-kept secret. I had considered myself plugged into the dog community but never heard a whisper. Yet here I was, and here, two centuries ago, had lived another caretaker who commemorated her charges with these amazing sketches. I sagged against the bookcase, overwhelmed by inadequacy. I could fill a bowl and scoop poop, but drawing even stick figures was beyond me.
The volume for 1821 held eight more sketches and 1822 had nine. The following year had 34. Bad luck? Disease? The dogs looked healthy but maybe the caretaker had sketched them in their prime. The volume for 1837 was full of poems, and I surmised that a new caretaker had arrived. This rhyming love was less intimidating; I could work with words. I skipped decades, looking for different caretakers. Each had recorded in his or her own way the island’s history, which I realized was not about the people who made it possible but the dogs who made it necessary. One caretaker did needlepoint. Another shot Polaroids. I put the volume back and left the library to join the snoring old dogs on the bed. Words that would paint their pictures and tell their stories were swirling through my mind already, and I fell asleep smiling.
I smiled much of the next day watching the dog’s antics. Seeing no reason not to start right away, I stuck pen and paper in my pocket to capture random thoughts I found particularly endearing. There was so much to tell and my heart soared as I mentally teased the words into place.
I stopped smiling at dinner when one bowl of food remained uneaten. I knew whose it was without looking, and my heart sank as I went out onto the porch. Pete lay in his spot beside the padded rocker. His tail did not greet me as I came out or when I spoke his name. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I cursed my naïve scribblings as if my eagerness to write them had made Pete’s heart stop beating. I knew it wasn’t true, but felt I had let him down anyway. I resolved to write his story the best ever as I wrapped his cold body in a blanket and went to radio Jed. “It’s Pete,” I said when he answered.
Rain was threatening at dawn and I was afraid that Jed and Clyde wouldn’t come, but an hour later the boat nosed alongside the dock and I tied the bowline to a cleat. Clyde shut down the engine and helped Jed ashore. “Are you coming?” I asked Clyde.
The craggy man shook his head. The bigger they are, the harder they cry.
“Where’s Pete?” Jed asked.
“On the porch.” I didn’t add that I’d spent the night in the padded rocker beside him knowing Jed would have done the same.
“Why don’t you get the ATV,” he suggested.
Cradling the swaddled bundle, Jed climbed onto the seat behind me and directed me behind the house and up the forested hillside onto a road I hadn’t had time to explore yet. We bumped along in silence, climbing steadily, finally emerging from the forest into a grassy clearing. I released the throttle in surprise. Hundreds of small stone markers spiraled in to a larger monument that rose from the middle. The clearing overlooked a steep drop-off to the sea. I killed the engine and in the sudden silence heard waves pounding below. Jed climbed off and I followed him to the monument. The markers closest to it were dated 1820. On the side facing the ocean was carved, “Here lie the dogs who made this world a better place by being in it.”
Jed walked out from the monument until he found an open spot among the smaller stones. He set Pete down and took the shovel from me. I tried to help but he gently pushed me aside. When the hole was ready he laid Pete at the bottom. Beside the body Jed placed a threadbare squirrel toy, a rawhide chewie and a tattered copy of A River Runs Through It. I added a sweater of mine I’d taken to wrapping around Pete each night. When the hole was filled, Jed stepped back. “I call this the Stepping- Off Place,” he said. He paused, perhaps trying to voice thoughts he’d never spoken aloud before, at least not to another human. “I want to — need to — believe that from here they go to a better place. One that’s perfect for dogs, not just an island hidden from the rest of our world.”
I held up a hand. “Talkin’ to the paw.”
Over the next two years, I made several trips to the Stepping-Off Place. I didn’t call Jed again — it was my responsibility now. Afterward I’d return to the house and write each dog’s story for Canis Libris. Between those sad days were many more filled with hard work and great contentment. I was taught that to merely sit on the stream bank with dry feet was to miss the point of water; it needed to be thoroughly splashed through to fulfill its purpose on earth. Beach sand had many purposes — like scratching one’s back, hiding special treasures to dig up, or just being run across. I learned that there is a sound to the joy in life and it is Thwupp! Thwupp! Thwupp! And I strove to perfect the art of baking my bones on the big porch while contemplating the meaning of the universe — or just taking a long, well-deserved nap. Days passed, seasons turned and a few years went by. Then Clyde called. “It’s Jed.”
Clyde rode with me up to the clearing this time. He helped me dig a grave just inside the line of trees at the back edge where I saw that the markers were larger and fewer. When the work was done, neither of us could think what to say. Clyde produced two bottles of beer and we drank in silence while the ocean crashed against the rocks below and the grass rippled. From somewhere on the island first one dog voice rose, then another, then a chorus. “That’ll do,” I said.
I never ran out of Island names for the new arrivals. Never resorted to Fi-Fi or Toodles or ran out of the right words to tell their stories in Canis Libris. Clyde’s son took over the boat and was so much like his father I sometimes forgot that he wasn’t. My hands slowly became gnarled, unhelpful things and I sometimes napped entire afternoons away on the porch, but it wasn’t until my eyesight went that I knew it was time to call the Director.
She was a he now, a man I’d never met. “I have just the person in mind,” he said. I taught Keira as Jed had taught me and Pete had taught him. I was eighty when I went back to the world of humans and I lived there for a dozen more years, but my heart never left Dog Island. Eventually I returned to join my fellow caretakers at the Stepping-Off Place, where together we wait at the door between our world and theirs, holding it open, hoping one day they’ll return to make ours a better place by being in it.
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