Little Big Dog
Dink is half-Chihuahua, half-Mini Pin. She is a little over a year-old now. She came into my life as one of the rescue angels at a pet clinic where I worked when she was about six- to eight-weeks-old. Someone had left her to die, abandoned in a cardboard box after crushing both her front legs.
Behind each of our dog match-ups is a tale. Share yours with us (500 words or less) and include a photo if possible. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your entry is selected for publication in the magazine or on the website, we will be in touch, so be sure to include contact information in the body of the email.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The fulfillment of a single woman’s dream.
It happened like this: After a walk in the park with a friend, I saw a young woman sitting in a car talking to a dog. Even from a distance, beneath the hard glass of the windshield, we could tell this was an exceptional animal. Never shy, I tapped on the young woman’s door to ask her what kind of dog it was. We live in Nashville, where people do things like this and no one is frightened or surprised. The young woman told us the sad story: The dog, who on closer viewing was nothing but a mere slip of a puppy, had been dumped in a parking lot, rescued, and then passed among several well-intentioned young women, none of whom were allowed to have dogs in their apartments. Finally the dog had landed with the young woman in the car, who had been explaining to said dog that the day had come to look cute and find a permanent home.
She was small and sleek and white. The sun came through her disproportionately large ears and showed them to be pink and translucent as a good Limoges cup held up to the light. We petted. She licked. We left the park with a dog.
I didn’t think it would be this way. I thought when the time was right I would make a decision, consider breeds, look around. The truth is, I too was a woman who lived in an apartment that didn’t accept dogs. But when fate knocks on the door, you’d better answer. “Let’s call her Rose,” my boyfriend said.
I was breathless, besotted. My puppy tucked her nose under my arm and the hundred clever dog names I had dreamed up over a lifetime vanished. “Sure,” I said. “Rose.”
I was 32 years old that spring, and all I had ever wanted was a dog. While other girls grew up dreaming of homes and children, true love and financial security, I envisioned Shepherds and Terriers, fields of happy, bounding mutts. Part of my childhood was spent on a farm where I lived in a sea of pets: horses and chickens, a half a dozen sturdy, mouse-killing cats, rabbits, one pig, and many, many dogs, Rumble and Tumble and Sam and Lucy and especially Cuddles, who did justice to his name. Ever since that time I have believed that happiness and true adulthood would be mine at the moment of dog ownership. I would stop traveling so much. I would live someplace with a nice lawn. There would be plenty of money for vet bills.
At home, the puppy, Rose, played with balls, struggled with the stairs, and slept behind my knees while I watched in adoration. It’s not that I was unhappy in what I now think of as “the dogless years,” but I suspected things could be better. What I never could have imagined was how much better they would be. I had entered into my first relationship of mutual, unconditional love. I immediately found a much nicer apartment, one that allowed dogs for a ridiculously large, nonrefundable pet deposit. Since I work at home, Rose was able to spend her days in my lap, where she was most comfortable. We bonded in a way that some people looked upon as suspicious. I took Rose into stores like the rich ladies at Bergdorf’s do. I took her to dinner parties. I took her to the Cape for vacation. As I have almost no ability to leave her alone, when I had to go someplace that foolishly did not allow dogs, I’d drive her across town and leave her with my grandmother. “Look at that,” people said, looking at me and not Rose. “Look how badly she wants a baby.”
A baby? I held up my dog for them to see, my bright, beautiful dog. “A dog,” I said. “I’ve always wanted a dog.” In truth, I have no memory of ever wanting a baby. I have never peered longingly into someone else’s stroller. I have, on occasions too numerous to list, bent down on the sidewalk to rub the ears of strange dogs, to whisper to them about their limpid eyes.
“Maybe you don’t even realize it,” strangers said, friends said, my family said. “Clearly, you want a baby.”
“Look at the way you’re holding that dog,” my grandmother said. “Just like it’s a baby.”
People began to raise the issue with my boyfriend, insisting that he open his eyes to the pathetic state of maternal want I was so clearly in. Being a very accommodating fellow, he took my hand. With his other hand he rubbed Rose’s ears. He loves her as blindly as I do. Her favorite game is to be draped over the back of his neck like a fox-fur stole, two legs dangling on either shoulder. “Ann,” he said. “If you want to have a baby. …”
When did the mammals get confused? Who can’t look at a baby and a puppy and see there are some very marked differences? You can’t leave babies at home alone with a chew toy when you go to the movies. Babies will not shimmy under the covers to sleep on your feet when you’re cold. Babies, for all their many unarguable charms, will not run with you in the park, wait by the door for you to return, and, as far as I can tell, know absolutely nothing of unconditional love.
Being a childless woman of child-bearing age, I am a walking target for people’s concerned analysis. No one looks at a single man with a Labrador Retriever and says, “Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog. Now, there’s a guy who wants to have a son.” A dog, after all, is man’s best friend, a comrade, a buddy. But give a dog to a woman without children and people will say she is sublimating. If she says that she, in fact, doesn’t want children, they will nod understandingly and say, “You just wait.” For the record, I do not speak to my dog in baby talk, nor do I, when calling her, say, “Come to Mama.”
“You were always my most normal friend,” my friend Elizabeth told me, “until you got this dog.”
While I think I would have enjoyed the company of many different dogs, I believe that the depth of my feeling for Rose in particular comes from the fact that she is, in matters of intelligence, loyalty and affection, an extraordinary animal. In the evenings, I drive Rose across town to a large open field where people come together to let their dogs off their leashes and play. As she bounds through the grass with the Great Danes and the Bernese Mountain Dogs, I believe that there was never a dog so popular and well adjusted as mine (and yet realize at the same time that this is the height of my own particular brand of insanity). The other dog owners want to talk about identifying her lineage, perhaps in hopes that one of her cousins might be located. It is not enough for Rose to be a good dog. She must be a particular breed of dog. She has been, depending on how one holds her in the light, a small Jack Russell, a large Chihuahua, a Rat Terrier, a Fox Terrier and a Corgi with legs. At present, she is a Portuguese Podengo, a dog that to the best of my knowledge was previously unknown in Tennessee. It is the picture she most closely resembles in our International Encyclopedia of Dogs. We now say things like “Where is the Podengo?” and “Has the Podengo been outside yet?” to give her a sense of heritage. In truth, she is a Parking Lot Dog, dropped off in a snowstorm to meet her fate.
I watch the other dog owners in the park, married people and single people and people with children. The relationship each one has with his or her dog is very personal and distinct. But what I see again and again is that people are proud of their pets, proud of the way that they run, proud of how they nose around with the other dogs, proud that they are brave enough to go into the water or smart enough to stay out of it. People seem able to love their dogs with an unabashed acceptance that they rarely demonstrate with family or friends. The dogs do not disappoint them, or if they do, the owners manage to forget about it quickly. I want to learn to love like this, the way we love our dogs, with pride and enthusiasm and a complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way our dogs love us.
When a dog devotes so much of herself to your happiness, it only stands to reason you would want to make that dog happy in return. Things that would seem unreasonably extravagant for yourself are nothing less than a necessity for your dog. So my boyfriend and I hired a personal trainer for Rose. We had dreams of obedience, of sit and stay and come, maybe a few simple tricks. She didn’t really seem big enough to drag the paper inside. I was nervous about finding the right trainer and called my friend Erica for moral support, but she was too busy going on interviews to get her four-year-old son into a top Manhattan preschool to be too sympathetic. The trainer we went with was the very embodiment of dog authority figures. After a few minutes of pleasant conversation in which Rose jumped on his shoulder and licked the top of his head, he laid out the beginnings of his plan.
Number one: The dog doesn’t get on the furniture.
We blinked. We smiled nervously. “But she likes the furniture,” we said. “We like her on the furniture.”
He explained to us the basic principles of dog training. She has to learn to listen. She must learn parameters and the concept of no. He tied a piece of cotton rope to her collar and demonstrated how we were to yank her off the sofa cushion with a sharp tug. Our dog went flying through the air. She looked up at us from the floor, more bewildered than offended. “She doesn’t sleep with you, does she?” the trainer asked.
“Sure,” I said, reaching down to rub her neck reassuringly. She slept under the covers, her head on my pillow, her muzzle on my shoulder. “What’s the point of having a twelve-pound dog if she doesn’t sleep with you?”
He made a note in a folder. “You’ll have to stop that.”
I considered this for all of five seconds. “No,” I said. “I’ll do anything else, but the dog sleeps with me.”
After some back-and-forth on this subject, he relented, making it clear that it was against his better judgment. For the duration of the ten-week program, either I sat on the floor with Rose or we stayed in bed. We celebrated graduation by letting her back up on the couch.
I went to see my friend Warren, who, handily, is also a psychologist, to ask him if he thought things had gotten out of hand. Maybe I have a obsessive-compulsive disorder concerning my dog.
“You have to be doing something to be obsessive-compulsive,” he said. “Are you washing her all the time? Or do you think about washing her all the time?”
I shook my head.
“It could be codependency, then. Animals are by nature very codependent.”
I wasn’t sure I liked this. Codependency felt too trendy. Warren’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Kate, came in, and I asked her if she wanted to see the studio portraits I had taken of Rose for my Christmas cards. She studied the pictures from my wallet for a minute and then handed them back to me. “Gee,” she said. “You really want to have a baby, don’t you?”
I went home to my dog. I rubbed her pink stomach until we were both sleepy. We’ve had Rose a year now, and there has never been a cold and rainy night when I’ve resented having to take her outside. I have never wished I didn’t have a dog, while she sniffed at each individual blade of grass, even as my hands were freezing up around the leash. I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren’t other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog.
This story first appeared in Vogue, March 1997, and is also included in Dog Is My Co-Pilot, an anthology compiled by the Editors of Bark and published by Crown. © Ann Patchett; used by permission of the author.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Beauty in every detail, love in every look.
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.”
That said, I also believe that dogs can—and often do—lead us into a world that is qualitatively different from the world of people, a place that can transform us. Fall in love with a dog, and in many ways you enter a new orbit, a universe that features not just new colors but new rituals, new rules, a new way of experiencing attachment.
Everything shifts in this new orbit, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Walks are slower: you find yourself ambling up a city street instead of racing to a destination, the dog stopping to sniff every third leaf, every other twig, every bit of debris or detritus in your path. The clothes are different: pre-dog, I used to be very finicky and self-conscious about how I looked; now I schlepp around in the worst clothing—big heavy boots, baggy old sweaters, a hooded down parka from L.L. Bean that makes me look like an astronaut. The language is different, based on tone and nuance instead of vocabulary. Even the equipment is new and strange: you find yourself ordering unthinkable products from the Foster & Smith catalog (smoked pigs’ ears, chicken-flavored toothpaste), and you find your living-room floor littered with sterilized beef bones and rawhide chips and plastic chew toys and ropes and balls, and you find your cupboards stocked with the oddest things—freeze-dried liver cubes, tick shampoo, poop bags.
The internal shifts are bigger, sometimes life-altering. When you speak to people about what it’s like to live with a dog, you hear them talk about discovering a degree of solace that’s extremely difficult to achieve in relationships with people, a way of experiencing solitude without the loneliness. You hear them talk about the dog’s capacity to wrest their focus off the past and future and plant it firmly in the present, with the here-and-now immediacy of a romp on the living-room rug or a walk in the woods. You hear them talk about joys that are exquisitely simple and pure: what it’s like to laugh at a dog who’s doing something ridiculous, and how soothing it is to sit and brush a dog’s coat, and how gratifying it is to make a breakthrough in training a dog, to understand that you’re communicating effectively with a different species. Above all, you hear them talk about feeling accepted in a new way, accompanied through daily life and over the course of years by a creature who bears witness to every change, every shift in mood, everything we do and say and experience, never judging us when we falter or fail.
Of course, not everybody gets this. Fall in love with a dog, and among non-dog people, you will see eyebrows rise, expressions grow wary. You’ll reach into your wallet to brandish a photograph of a new puppy, and a friend will say, “Oh, no—not pictures.” You’ll find yourself struggling to decline an invitation for a getaway weekend—to a hotel or a spa or a family home, somewhere dogs are not permitted—and you’ll hear the words, “Just kennel the dog and come on down.” You’ll say something that implies profound affection or commitment, and you’ll be hit with a phrase, dreaded words to a dog lover, “Oh, please, it’s just a dog.”
More commonly, you’ll get vacant looks. A married friend who lives in Los Angeles, someone I don’t often see, was in town recently and came to my house for dinner. At one point, sitting in my living room, he looked around and asked me, “So what’s it like living alone? What’s it like getting up alone every morning and coming home every night to an empty house?” I was on the sofa, Lucille curled against my thigh. I pointed to the dog and said, “But, I’m not alone. I have her.” He said, “Yeah, but …” He didn’t finish the sentence, but he didn’t have to. He meant: Yeah, but a dog isn’t the same as a human. A dog doesn’t really count.
Attitudes like this can make dog lovers feel like members of a secret society, as though we’re inhabiting a strange and somehow improper universe. Not long ago, over dinner with a non-dog friend named Lisa, I started talking about Lucille, and how important her presence had been to me during the breakup of a long-term relationship. The breakup was recent, and it was long and painful and scary, as such things are, and at one point I said quite candidly, “I’m not sure I would have been able to face the loss if I hadn’t had the dog.”
This seemed like a perfectly reasonable statement to me—I tend to take my attachment to her for granted these days, as a simple and central fact of life—but Lisa’s eyes widened a little when I said it. She said, “Wait a minute. You’re scaring me.”
Scaring her? I looked at Lisa, aware of a sudden sense of dissonance, as though I’d just exposed too much. It was an uh-oh feeling. Uh-oh, she doesn’t live in that world, she probably thinks I’m wacko.
So I took a deep breath and tried to explain. This is a complicated task, trying to describe how a relationship with a dog can be healthy and sustaining and rich. It’s hard even trying to explain that the attachment does, in fact, qualify as a relationship, a genuine union between two beings who communicate with, respect, and give to one another. Unless you fall back on the one or two pat explanations we routinely trot out in order to explain the canine place in the human heart—dogs give us unconditional love, dogs are “good companions”—it’s hard to talk about loving a dog deeply without inviting skepticism. A lot of people, quite frankly, think intense attachments to animals are weird and suspect, the domain of people who can’t quite handle attachments to humans.
So there was a good deal I didn’t tell Lisa. I didn’t talk about what a central force in my life Lucille has become in the years since I acquired her. I didn’t talk about how I basically structure my life around the dog, organizing the day around the morning walk, the noon walk, the evening outing. I didn’t tell her how much I think about Lucille, how much I hate leaving her alone when I have to go out, how I’ve either written off or vastly reduced my involvement in activities that don’t include her—shopping, movies, trips that involve air travel. I didn’t use words like joy or love or affection, although it’s safe to say that Lucille has given me direct and vivid access to all those feelings.
Nor did I tell Lisa how much I need the dog, which might have been the most honest thing to say. Lucille came into my life in the aftermath of a period of enormous upheaval. In the three years before I got her, both my parents had died, my father of a brain tumor and my mother of metastatic breast cancer. Eighteen months to the day before I got her, I’d quit drinking, ending a twenty-year relationship with alcohol, and opening up a third abyss in my life. So I was wandering around at the time in a haze of uncertainty, blinking up at the biggest questions: Who am I without parents and without alcohol? How to make my way in the world without access to either? How to form attachments, and where to find comfort, in the face of such daunting vulnerability? Lucille has been a fundamental part of my answer to those questions: in her, I have found solace, joy, a bridge to the world.
But I didn’t go into all that with Lisa. Instead, I used safe descriptions, clinical terms. I talked about loneliness, and how Lucille’s presence had helped ease the fear and emptiness that accompany a major breakup. I gave the dogs-as-pack-animals speech, explaining how dogs’ need for social structure really does turn them into family members of sorts, highly relational creatures who look to their owners for leadership and guidance and companionship. I talked about what a comforting presence she is, how much pleasure I get out of walking in the woods with her, watching her play, even just sitting beside her while she’s curled up on the sofa at home.
Lisa seemed to respond positively enough to this line of thought—“right,” she said at one point, “they are good companions”—but I was aware as I talked of a gnawing frustration, a sense of my own compulsion to hold back when I talk about my dog and to offer up what’s in effect a watered-down and fairly stereotypical view of the attachment: dog as man’s best friend, dog as a loyal and faithful servant. There are elements of truth to that view—dogs can be wonderful friends, they can be enormously loyal and faithful creatures—but those factors represent only one part of the picture, a limited and really rather arrogant fragment that concerns only the way dogs serve us, not the ways we serve them or the ways we serve each other. Finally, I shook my head and said to Lisa, “You know, it’s been really important to me to learn not to pathologize my relationship with Lucille. People have very powerful relationships with their dogs, and that doesn’t mean they’re crazy, or that they’re substituting dogs for humans, or that they’re somehow incapable of forming intimate attachments with people. It’s a different kind of relationship, but it’s no less authentic.”
Alas, Lisa looked across the table and said, “You’re still scaring me.”
Dog love, popular wisdom suggests, should be limited love. Let on the depth of your true feelings about a dog—how attached you are, how vital the relationship feels—and you risk being accused of any number of neuroses: you’re displacing human love onto the animal, which is perverse; you’re anthropomorphizing, which is naive and unsophisticated; you’re sublimating your unconscious wish for a baby or a spouse or a family into the dog, which is sad and pathetic. Children are allowed to harbor deep affection for dogs: that’s seen not only as cute and normal but as morally acceptable, as caring for a pet can teach a child about compassion and responsibility, even about loss, given a dog’s relatively short life span. The elderly and the infirm are permitted some degree of attachment, too, thanks in recent years to widescale acceptance of the use of therapy dogs in settings like nursing homes and hospitals. But the rest of us are expected to keep our feelings about dogs somehow contained and compartmentalized, in the box labeled “Just a Dog.” And if we don’t—well, as my friend Lisa said, we’re a little scary.
In fact, more than one third of all Americans live with dogs today—by most reliable estimates, that’s about 55 million dogs—and it’s safe to say that a good number of us don’t contain or compartmentalize our feelings nearly so effectively. Suspect though dog love may be in the public eye, Americans are in the midst of a veritable love affair with dogs: we’re spending more money on our dogs than ever before (the average owner can expect to shell out a minimum of $11,500 in the course of a dog’s life); we’re indulging them with an ever more elaborate range of goods and services (doggie day care, doggie summer camp, gold-plated Neiman Marcus doghouses); and in many respects we’re treating them far more like members of the human pack than like common household pets. Depending on which study you look at, anywhere from 87 to 99 percent of dog owners report that they see their dogs as family members, figures that are certainly borne out by behavior. The American Animal Hospital Association conducts an annual survey of pet owner attitudes. In 1995, 79 percent of respondents reported that they give their pets holiday or birthday presents. Thirty-three percent said they talk to their dogs on the phone or through an answering machine when they’re away. If they were stranded on a desert island and could pick only one companion, 57 percent of owners said they’d choose to be marooned with the dog rather than a human. A more telling number: the following year, 48 percent of female respondents reported that they relied more heavily on their pets than on their partners or family members for affection.
I understand the temptation to pathologize such behavior, or at least to poke fun at it (dogs in birthday hats?), but I don’t believe that dog owners are unilaterally engaged in displacement, sublimation, or rampant anthropomorphism. Nor do I see this apparent depth of attachment as a sad commentary on contemporary human affairs. This is another common view, that people turn to pets for love and affection by default, because “real” (read: human) love and affection are so hard to come by in today’s fractured, isolated, alienating world. I think there is a kernel of truth to that—we live in lonely times, and dogs can go a long way toward alleviating loneliness—but I think the more important truth has to do not with modern culture but with dogs themselves, and with the remarkable, mysterious, often highly complicated dances that go on between individual dogs and their owners.
That dance is about love. It’s about attachment that’s mutual and unambiguous and exceptionally private, and it’s about a kind of connection that’s virtually unknowable in human relationships because it’s essentially wordless. It’s not always a smooth and seamless dance, and it’s not always easy or graceful—love can be a conflicted, uncertain experience no matter what species it involves—but it is no less valid because one of the partners happens to move on four legs.
“Love is love. I don’t care if it comes from humans or from animals: it’s the same feeling.” Paula, a forty-seven-year-old children’s book author who lives in Los Angeles with three Maltese dogs, said this to me with such simple candor the words stuck with me for days. She continued: “When I’m feeling bad or thinking about something I can’t handle, I pick up my dogs and it helps for that moment. It may not be the perfect relationship we all hope to have with a human, but it’s a relationship. And love is love.”
Indeed. Just this morning, I came into the house after being out for an hour or so and found Lucille nestled in a corner of the sofa, her favorite spot when I’m away. She didn’t race across the room to greet me—she’s sufficiently accustomed to my comings and goings by now that she no longer feels compelled to fly to the door and hurl herself onto me as though I’ve just returned from the battlefield—but when I came into the room and approached her, her whole body seemed to tighten into a smile: the pointed ears drew flat back, the tail thumped against the sofa cushion, the eyes gleamed, the expression took on a depth and clarity that suggested, Happy; I am completely happy. A friend says her dog seems to wake up every morning with a thought balloon over her head that says, Yahoo! That was precisely the look: All is right with the world, it said, you are home. I crouched down by the sofa to scratch her chest and coo at her, and she hooked her front paw over my forearm. She gazed at me; I gazed back.
I have had Lucille for close to three years, but moments like that, my heart fills in a way that still strikes me with its novelty and power. The colors come into sharp focus: attached, connected, joyful, us. I adore this dog, without apology. She has changed my life.
From Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs © 1998 by Caroline Knapp; published by Dial Press. This essay also appears in Dog Is My Co-Pilot, an anthology compiled by the Editors of Bark and published by Crown.
A gift of love.
Callie the Magnifica, our 14-year-old Shepherd/Husky Mix, has been living with us for the past seven years, but lived with another family for her first seven. When we met her, she was called Kali, and led a nomadic-urban life with a poor couple and their two children; the family lived in a small trailer parked at the end of our street. Kali was never tied up and was allowed to roam as she wished. Displaying a keen but gentle watchfulness that spoke volumes about her relationship with her people, she became a neighborhood favorite and even accompanied the mailman on his rounds. She would stop by our house—for a pat or a drink of water or just a quick neighborly social call—and then she would leave. Often she was spotted winding her solitary way through Berkeley with a wolflike head-down, resolute stride—coming from People’s Park (one of her humans’ favorite haunts) back to our neighborhood, a distance of almost three miles. Her people said that they would tell her “home,” and off she would go. Her directional skills were, and still are, remarkable.
A couple of years passed, and we adopted a dog of our own. When we came home with the new pup, Kali was waiting at our front gate to greet us. It was love at first sight for both dogs. Nellie, six months old, found both a new home and a surrogate mother dog. As for Kali, she was as gentle with our pup as she was with her human babies, correcting the younger dog only when she got too rambunctious. Her training skills were impeccable and invaluable.
Then Kali’s family went through a series of downturns and they were forced to leave our neighborhood. But yet she would appear at our door—mostly, we thought, because of her attachment to Nellie. We made an agreement with her people—if they were unable to have Kali with them, such as when they stayed at a homeless shelter, she would always be welcome to stay with us. These spontaneous “stay-overs” lasted anywhere from a few days to months at a time. She became an integral part of our family, coming with us to the dog park or to our offices, and even on vacations with us. But then her people would come to get her, and our Nellie would go into a horrible funk, refusing to eat or play. What was even more heartbreaking was encountering Kali, as we sometimes did, standing beside her family as they panhandled outside of banks or local stores. Breaking her stoic stance and jumping with delight, she would try to follow us, but would be held back. I dropped off food and other provisions for the children and Kali, but I knew this did little good. Drugs and life on the streets were taking their toll on all of them. Finally, the woman made a courageous decision. She found a job, moved away from her husband and took their children, leaving Kali behind with him.
Kali then became one of the many dogs who lived in a large homeless encampment on the other side of the freeway. This seemingly impenetrable barrier didn’t hinder her from finding her way back to us. It still amazes me that she was able to do this! We went through four or five more “retrievals” with her owner during this period. Each time, her resistance to going with him became stronger. Still, I didn’t feel that I had the right to intervene; she was his sole companion and his only link to his family. But the final meeting I had with him altered my attitude. He became verbally abusive, shouting at me and accusing me of stealing his dog. He pushed his way into our house (a first for him) and dragged Kali, cowering and whimpering, out by her collar, Nellie barking loudly in the background. I tried to reason with him, explaining that by running off so many times, his dog was trying to tell him that she had made her choice, if only he could respect it! But he took her away. We feared that was the last time we would see her.
Early the next morning, around 2, we were awakened by Kali’s low-pitched “woof woof” outside our bedroom window—she had come back! Later that morning, I found a letter tucked under the windshield wiper of our car. At first I was afraid to read it, anticipating that he would once again be staking his claim to Kali. But the five-page-long note, written on fine linen stationery in a sure and clear script, didn’t appear to be threatening. In it, the letter-writer told me about Kali’s life—his wife had adopted her from a shelter in Davis—and how times were hard for them; how difficult it was to be an unemployed Vietnam veteran; how they often didn’t have money for food for themselves and their dog, but they had never once abused or harmed Kali; how they trusted her to watch over their babies; how gentle and wise a dog she was; and how much he loved her. But because he loved her, he was giving her to us. He ended his letter with, “Take care of my dog and kiss my big brown girl for me.”
I have never been given a more generous gift. What it must have taken for him to part with her is something that I can only imagine. Dogs give so much to us. This charitable act, coming from a man who had so little and had lost so much, shows that they can also inspire a humane and noble spirit.
Fast-forward to the present: Callie is doing great, pushing 15 but slowing down only a little. We changed her name to Callie and have kept the letter, or “Callie’s papers” as we call it, as a reminder that we were entrusted with the care of a very beloved dog. Every night we do as we were charged and kiss his big brown girl for him.
Culture: Stories & Lit
In which Rex meets the love of his life.
Now that Ted and I were engaged, we had two big decisions to make: when to have the wedding and whether to include the dog in the ceremony. Both answers, you’ll be surprised to note, were made with rapid—or shall we say rabid?—certainty. The wedding, we decided, would be held in May rather than September (with the idea that, if we did it sooner rather than later, we would freak out for only 5 months rather than 12). As for Rex, well, since freaking out was a key factor, and since Rex could still not be counted on not to freak out among strangers—not even well-dressed and happily drunk ones—and since none of the members of my family even liked my dog—not even remotely—well, Ted was going to have to find himself another best man.
Because Rex would not be receiving a cream-colored hand calligraphered invitation to our wedding, we were then faced with the task of finding a dog-sitter for him. The dog-sitter we’d hired to take care of him during our trip to France was, understandably, unwilling to take him again, given the number of times he had tried to escape on her (three), and the number of times he had succeeded (two). So she was out. Next, I put an advertisement up on ManhattanDogChat, but apparently Rex’s reputation had preceded him not only to the Upper East Side (where we had just moved), but even into cyberspace, for nobody, to date had written back.
“What will we do?” I said to Ted as the Big Day drew near (“near” to a pre-wedding bride can mean anything from two days to four months). “We can’t take him to Massachusetts. He’s been banished from that state—I think my sister put an all-points bulletin out on him in New Hampshire, too.”
“I'll stay home with him then,” Ted said. “You’d like that wouldn’t you?’ he said to the dog in his happy voice. “If I stayed at home with you during my own wedding?”
“That isn’t funny,” I said. Nothing, I mean nothing, is funny to a pre-wedding bride.
“Well, maybe my father will come stay with him. He doesn’t want to come to the wedding anyway. He doesn’t want to see my mom.”
“That’s not funny either. Have you asked him yet to be your best man?”
“No, not yet.”
“Well, when do you plan to ask him?” I screeched, and then Ted told me, in a raised voice, not to raise my voice at him, and Rex, sensing another Wedding Argument, made himself small and crept off to the back room.
How lucky for all of us, then, to find the very thing we were looking for staggering toward us a few days later on East 82nd Street. Desiree was not staggering because she was drunk; rather, she was being lurched in seven different directions by three separate dogs. “Well, hot damn!” she shouted when she saw Rex. She came toward us with outstretched arms. Three mop-headed bearded collies wrapped around her as she walked, as if she were a Maypole. “Now that there’s a beautiful dog!” Desiree shouted. “What kind of a dog is he? I’ve never seen such a face.” She knelt down in front of Rex and began to coo. “I’m a dog walker,” she said to us. “In case you couldn’t tell. Actually I’m a writer. But I walk dogs on the side. This here’s George, Ringo and Paul.” Rex and the other dogs sniffed one another in that bored, city way, but then they became more animated once they started gossiping about us. Don’t ever let your humans get married, man, Rex was probably saying. She’s not a writer, the Beatles were probably saying. “And don’t even ask about John.”
But anyway. Desiree hailed from Texas, and she still carried within her the grand styles and large gestures of that ostentatious state. She was an attractive, even sexy woman in perhaps her sixties who wore flamboyant sunglasses, elaborate velvet skirts and cowboy boots. Her figure—tall and robust—was the kind lesser beings had to pay money for, and she wore a terrific red lipstick she told me was called “Slut.”
Eagerly, Ted and I went over to inspect her apartment the next day. It was just like ours—a railroad one-bedroom in a tenement. Only hers was filled with baby gates and dogs. I liked the environment immediately. It had the air of a giant playpen—there were chew toys scattered across the linoleum and paw prints on the walls. Rex sniffed around rather proprietarily, like a prospective buyer who was mentally considering all the things he would do once he owned this place. And then he came up to us and gave us one of those all-is-well dog smiles and sat on Desiree’s feet. “He likes it here!” I said. “Are you free at the end of May?”
Desiree was, in fact, available. “And so,” she said, “is a certain gorgeous German Shepherd named Hildegaard von Bingen. I’m going to have her that whole month,” she added with a wink. “And I think the two of them will get along just fine.”
Desiree then gave an expert whistle, and out from the swirling mists of the back bedroom, as the angels sang and the ceiling fixtures emitted golden rays of light, emerged the most beautiful dog Rex had ever seen. Hildy had caramel-colored eyes and honey-colored fur. Rex stiffened. She raised her gaze to him coyly. Their eyes met from across the room.
“She’s a New Skete Shepherd,” Desiree told us. “She could do your taxes, that one. I’ve never met a smarter dog.
Rex’s nose twitched in a nervous sort of way.
He had never initiated play with another dog, not once, not ever—and I watched with delight as he bowed to Hildy, and wagged his tail and uttered a swarthy a-woo-woo-woo. Hildy accepted his bow with grace, and then they sprang at one another’s throats. Masterfully they leapt and spun and swirled, pausing every so often with their forearms around one another to pant, to rest, and kiss. Standing like that, in a frozen embrace, they looked so much like the lovers in Chagall’s Wedding, I actually started to cry. “It’s his first girlfriend!” I said.
Desiree laughed a great Texas laugh. “Maybe you’ll have to start planning two weddings instead of one.” But one was enough, thank you. I do not need to describe here in a dog magazine the tedium, the abject torture and/or and the stress of having to try on dresses, interview photographers, find hair stylists, find hair styles, secure a church and a reception hall, and try to maintain the conviction that you do actually want have a wedding at all. It’s a delicate balancing act, that, at the end of each day, would leave both me and Ted mostly imbalanced, and ready, willing but barely able to spring at one another’s throats. We quarreled about the wedding bands, the photographer and what kind of wine to serve. We quarreled about—well, there’s a reason those brides’ magazines weigh in at 80 pounds an issue. It takes that many pages of sugar-coated advertising to lull the pre-wedding bride into a state of fairy tale complacence, into a state of pearly-white hope. And weren’t we talking about the dog?
Rex loved Hildy from the get-go. That much was clear. And watching them together filled me with an ABJECT joy. Rex had come to us a fearful dog, you may recall; afraid of all other people and terrified of all other dogs. We had worked on those fears, of course, and had gotten him to the point where he would now tolerate other humans and other canines. Or at least not attack them, as he used to do. But I couldn’t say that Rex, to date, had actually liked another dog. So to see Rex locked, day after day, into that Chagallian embrace with Hildy, to watch the way he ran up to her, rolled over and licked her face, filled me with a new hope. Rex was going to live happily ever after, I told myself. What more could a mother want?
A few weeks passed, weeks during which we brought Rex over to Desiree’s Doggie Daycare almost every day, partly because both Ted and I had started working full-time, but mostly because Rex was having so much fun. He’d strain on the leash to get there, then leap right into Hildy’s arms. I’d leave to the sounds of gates crashing, Rex a-woo-woo-wooing, and Desiree laughing one of her booming laughs. It was a nice way to start the day, and at the end, Rex would come home tired and satiated, his fur smelling of incense and perfume, and big telltale Slut kiss-marks all across his head. “Who’s been kissing you?” I would say happily, and Rex would thump his tail, and Desiree would call us in the evenings to leave detailed messages on our answering machine: “He and Hildy played for four hours straight and then they both took a nap with their heads on my lap, all of us curled up together on the couch.” And picturing this, picturing all the love he got from both Desiree and Hildy, made me think maybe Rex should get married.
Friends, in those days, who called me in the hopes that I might describe my Scaasi wedding dress for them got this instead: “Rex is in love! And he comes home so spent and satiated, you’d think he was having sex! If he was a human child, you’d better believe I’d be rifling through his drawer for condoms. But he’s fixed so—thank God—we won’t have to worry about having puppies any time soon.”
“Are you and Ted going to have children?” my friends would say.
“I love that he has this secret life,” I would answer. “It’s like he’s going off daily to an opium den!”
“Where are you going for your honeymoon?”
“Are you out of your mind?” Ted said.
“But Rex is so happy when he’s in love.”
“Look,” Ted said. “We are in no position financially to get a second dog, our apartment is too small, we’re getting married in three weeks and every other day you threaten to call off the wedding.”
“But look at him.”
Rex was standing, as he did every night now, with his paws on windowsill, gazing out to the street, facing the direction of Desiree’s apartment. His nose twitched in that nervous way.
“I think he just needs to take a dump,” Ted said.
“He’s in love!” I insisted. “Desiree says he won’t eat his food anymore unless Hildy is fed first.”
But love, as we know, has its downswings. First, Rex started to act out at daycare. One day in April, Desiree told me that he had climbed onto her kitchen counter, pulled a bag of kibble out of the cabinet and dragged it to the kitchen floor. “I came home to find all the dogs feasting from it,” Desiree said, “tearing at the bag like a feeding frenzy, like it was a gazelle they had felled.” The next week, she claimed that Rex had pulled her venetian blinds clear out of the window. “He didn’t just pull them down,” she said. “He pulled them out, screws and all.”
“How can you be certain it was him?” I said.
“Oh, there were paw prints,” she said. “On my ceiling, in fact.”
“We’ll pay for the blinds, of course,” I said.
“Oh, I’m not worried about that, darling. I just want to be able to leave my apartment as is and be able to come back and have it as is.”
When I told Ted the story, it was hard not to laugh. “He’s showing off for Hildy,” I said. “Don’t you think? Maybe it was too sunny and he didn’t want Hildy to strain her eyes. Maybe he wanted some privacy while he and Hildy made out.”
“This isn’t funny,” Ted said. Nothing, I mean nothing, is funny to a pre-wedding groom.
Ted, Mr. Responsible, gave Desiree an extra $50 that week when he wrote the check out. I, Ms. Romantic, decided to have a word with Rex.
“Don’t try so hard,” I whispered that night as I scratched his belly. “Girls don’t like it when you’re too intense.”
Rex had his legs splayed, his eyes rolled back into his head and his tongue lolling out, like a satiated man at a harem. I sniffed his fur. “Have you been smoking opium?” I said.
He was too tired to even thump his tail.
Despite the clear signs that trouble was brewing, I still spent my days wondering what kind of wedding cake Rex would prefer, liver or beef. Then a rival entered the picture. His name was Anthony Blanche—a gorgeous white Samoyed with movie-star eyes. Anthony did not have an unkind bone in his body, and there was an all-accepting vacancy behind his blue eyes that made me suspect he was kind of dumb. Rex liked him well enough at the beginning. I’m told they even played together, though not with the same riotous abandon that Hildy inspired.
But then Desiree made the mistake of bringing Anthony to our apartment one evening while she was dropping off Rex. “There they were,” Desiree said, “walking along together side by side, perfect gentleman, but the minute Rex crossed the threshold he turned into Dr. Jekyll. He lunged at Anthony as if he had never met him before. When not two minutes ago they were outside playing.”
“I think it’s a territorial thing,” I said. “Or maybe it’s just this apartment.”
“I can’t walk the two of them together anymore is what it is,” Desiree said. “Which is too bad. Because I could bring the other boys with me while I walk across the park, and what dog doesn’t want to walk across Central Park? But no siree. Not male dogs. They’re too proud. Too unyielding. Do you know, it’s the entire male race that’s responsible for all the horror and war and famine that has ever befallen this planet?” She had a bag of poop in her hand, and she waved it around as she talked. (Desiree had undergone a bitter divorce.) “We’ll do what we can about these two,” she said.
And the funny thing about male dogs—or at least Rex and male dogs—is that once they have one fight, they are enemies forever. Now Desiree’s messages were reports of raised hackles, of having to keep Rex and Anthony separated, of the brawl that ensued when Anthony tried to sniff Hildy’s butt. “I even tried to keep Rex and Hildy separated,” Desiree said. “But that didn’t help.”
Of course it didn’t. I imagined poor Rex having to stare at Hildy through the bars of a baby gate while Anthony cavorted with Hildy. No wonder he was angry! He started coming home, not satiated and covered in kisses, but agitated and covered in blood. Well, not covered, but one time I came home to find a trash can tipped over, Desiree’s glasses on the floor and a few speckles of blood on the wall.
“I tried to drop Rex off with Anthony again,” Desiree said. “Rex turned into Dr. Jekyll again. It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have walked them together, but today they played together all day long like the best of pals.”
Ted and I started to worry that we’d have to try to find another daycare center—one without male dogs. Or females, for that matter. (Rex wanted us to send him to a Doggie Day Care full of geese, rabbits and cats).
But in the end, it was Hildy that was transferred. Her humans bought a house in Westchester and moved out there.
We left Rex with Desiree for the four days during which we would get married, and I worried the entire time, of course. I pictured Rex standing at the windowsill with his nose twitching, sniffing the city air for any news of his long-lost love. I pictured him torturing himself with the conviction Hildy had dumped him because of his violent temper. Why, she hadn’t even said goodbye! A human, at this point, would be writing her sappy love letters, or calling her answering machine at two in the morning, telling her all about his tragic childhood, how he could not be blamed for his behavior because he had been abused.
When Ted and I returned—married, of all things—and picked up Rex at Desiree’s apartment, he greeted us with an extra burst of rapture. “He had a great time,” Desiree reported. “He and Anthony played nonstop the entire time, and at night, the two of them would sleep curled up next to each other with their heads on my lap.”
And that’s when I realized: Dogs live happily after no matter what. Because that’s what they’re best at.
“You’re a legitimate child now!” Ted said to Rex. And Rex beamed and thumped his tail.
Culture: Stories & Lit
She may have washed out of cow-dog school, but her new life suits her just fine.
My cow dog Daisy and I are going to work. We’re eating goldfish crackers—two for me, one for you—in my pickup truck and howling Buck Owens and Merle Haggard ballads off the tape deck, when we come across a broken pickup 39 miles down 40 miles of bad road. Old blue-and-rust Chevy. Open hood, pair of boots sticking out from underneath. Four tires bald as apples, three with air. I roll the window down and I can smell that they haven’t had a shower for weeks.
South Dakota plates, they may be horse thieves, but friendly enough. The guy under the truck doesn’t say much while the upright waddie speaks through the two front teeth he has left. “We’ve got 120 head a beef up Crystal Creek. Forty horses. Some not worth a bullet, but some’s ok. Most ain’t broke.” He leans over to inspect for progress. “Been out for a month. Going into town for a shower and a couple beers.”
“Got what you need?” I say.
“We ain’t got nothing but a screw jack and no handle.”
This waddie regards me as a yuppie and not to be relied on. I’m wearing a sun visor, the kind an amateur tennis player might wear. Hiking shorts, and some après-ski slip-ons popular with the lodge set, which isn’t very smart considering the air force of mosquitoes and rocky tire-changing terrain. Sporting a coffee-stained T-shirt that reads something about a ski company. These punchers take me for the tourist I am, but this tourist has a jack. “I’ve got a bottle jack,” I tell him. I pull over and rustle for the jack under the jump seat. Then I piece the handle together and reach it to the one under the truck. The jack is, embarrassingly, almost brand-new, though I have replaced a few tires on this very road. My tires happen to be brand-new as well, compliments of the Firestone recall. My truck is a little Japanese outfit that is never asked to haul anything more than a mountain bike or a canoe. These hands know my income doesn’t come from cows and they may suspect a trust fund, which isn’t accurate.
Daisy stays in the safety of the truck cab. A guy on horseback gaits by, checking cattle, two rangy Border Collies tailing behind, running in and out of the sagebrush. Daisy barks at them through the window. What a sissy, the ranch dogs must think. She can’t even ride in the back of a truck, has to stay up front with the organic dog cookies and air conditioning. Cow dogs, I think, have the most expressive eyes of any breed, and I see it in her brown pair—she hankers for the working cow-dog life.
Make it me, Daisy’s whines say. Her bat ears perk up, those eyes go wide. I want to be a cowgirl, I want to cut calves and keep coyotes at bay. I was wired to be in the front row at brandings and sheep dockings. I can surf a two-story rick of hay. For her it is an atavistic need. I had unrequited dreams, too: I always wanted to be a pro ball player but wasn’t nearly good enough. So I try to explain to Daisy that she is with me, and a play dog, because she wasn’t very good at working cows. They docked her tail, turned her out, and didn’t perform up to snuff, flunked the tryout, was cut from the squad. I’m pretty sure she’d been abused; she still doesn’t like tall men in cowboy hats. Most of the ranchers I know don’t keep pets.
Dogs and wolves, researchers believe, diverged from a common ancestor around 135,000 years ago, domesticated 100,000 years ago. For the past thousand years, breeding has focused canines to perform specific work. In Wyoming, where we live, work means working cattle. Ain’t much use for a dog who don’t work cattle. (As I write this, a pickup truck with hay stacked two stories high rolls by, a pair of Blue Heelers surfing on top, guarding the stuff that’s worth more than gold in this, the third year of severe drought.) Daisy, and a passel of doggies just like her, doesn’t work cattle. She’s a dog of the New West, accustomed to mountain bike trail drives instead of cattle drives, wool ski hats instead of herds of sheep. She’s at home with her canine friends on the deck at the brew pub, or with me, angling for trout.
But that makes me wonder—what happens to a Cattle Dog that doesn’t work cattle? How does such a dog evolve?
Will this branch of Kelpie evolve into the Rocky Mountain Trout Dog? She’d need a Labrador’s fat for that, perhaps. Might Border Collies turn into North American Mountain Bike Dogs? Too long-haired I think. Best to go with the cur that does it all, I think. Spring that pup from the pound and grab your skis.
Ranch dogs can smell a city mouse a country mile away; real ranch dogs would love to kick Daisy’s ass. You see it when we drive by and they notice her, Little Miss Gourmet Kibble in her sissy Japanese truck. You there, with your Day-Glo yuppie bird-dog collar. Is that a Frisbee your owner has? What a sissy. Where you from—Pennsylvania? You going home to get your teeth brushed?
In fact, she is.
Bet you live in town, too.
I knew what it would mean when we picked her up at the pound. On trail runs above Kemmerer, she would run herd on pronghorn antelope, which is something like trying to herd those proverbial cats, though she would at least get them headed in any direction they wanted to go. I know she was thinking that this is why we were up there—why would anyone run all the way up Oyster Ridge just to unwind and think good thoughts?
Two years ago in Sublette County I had a working cowboy compliment my dog. “That’s a good looking Kelpie,” he said. Thanks. “She work cattle?” Naw. “Break out the Frisbee, eh.”
How did he know?
Real cow dogs are one-person animals and will go to most lengths to guard the truck and the string, including taking a hunk out of your calf if need be. They have a vital job to do and they’re going to do it, Mister, so don’t give them headaches. Real cow dogs don’t get to play; they go to work 24/7 so others can play.
With people Daisy will act demure, blink her eyes, roll on her back, jump on you inappropriately, lick your face. With other dogs, females, Daisy is a punk. Our ski friends won’t let her play with Addie, their babied Border Collie, nor Sadie, another Border Collie who downright hates Daisy and would like to kill her and has tried. More than once her owner, Marcia, and I have had to dive into the middle of a dogfight, skis still on our feet, then head back home and patch up our respective dogs over beers.
Daisy heels our neighbor’s big yellow snow blower, snapping at the chain-wrapped tires. She runs herd on mountain bikers, but males only, which, I think, most closely resemble slow-moving beeves.
She tried herding Shriners in the Jackson Hole July Fourth parade, but my wife, Hilary, put the kibosh on this in short order.
Daisy doesn’t truck with most men under cowboy hats, a handicap for canines in the cattle industry, but it works for her new career as “ski dog.” Last spring Daisy and I were skiing Beaver Mountain and came upon two snowmobiles, yellow and black, beastly colors, nature’s danger flag. Daisy heeled them—yip, yip, getalong you beasts! The riders, overweight folk, as snowmobilers often are, lifted their face shields and laughed, though sheepishly, like, that’s real cute, but what’s wrong with your dog, mister? Her vet Dr. Bob called her a ski dog on her first checkup when his assistant asked what kind of dog she was. Dr. Bob is a cowboy and was tickled that this fine specimen landed on her feet, but a bit disappointed, I think, that she’d be frittering away her days running through nose-deep powder, eating dust behind the mountain bike, and swimming through holes in the river that moments before housed fine trout. In another four hundred years, will cur genes program dogs to instinctively make dollar signs in the snow, dissecting my S turns with a straight line down the fall line? New breeds may even emerge—the Tetonic Telemarking dog—with genomes far more diverse than the inbred purebred pedigreed glamour dogs we have today.
Back to work. Today Daisy and I are headed to a couple of line cabins up the Gros Ventre River and the end of the line. My friend Tim Sandlin rents these cabins from a former governor of Wyoming. Tim is a fine novelist and I remember when I was just a kid, admiring the hell out of Tim’s books and the fact that his author photo showed him in front of such a rustic, romantic cabin. His outhouse here has cult status in the world of contemporary letters.
Tim paid his dues in order to live here; he lived in a teepee and washed dishes at the Lame Duck for years until he could finally afford to buy a place. Tim’s is the biggest heart in all of Teton County and he allows us—me, Daisy, Hilary—to use these cabins whenever we please (just be sure to close the gate). This week, however, many people with the dubious occupation title of “writer” will show up.
Daisy and I will commute the hour each way into town in the morning for the dreaded writer’s conference, and back each afternoon to watch the stars, contemplate our place in the world, and listen to the coyotes. Tim, the founder of this conference, is in charge, and he allows his B-team writers to stay out here while everyone else, the A-team, is off wining and dining. There are writers who have been on Oprah. I have never seen the Oprah show, so I was banished to the line shacks. Fine by me and Daisy. These conferences are exhausting and don’t pay squat unless you’re a “star,” but we do them because Tim asked and we get to stay in this amazing place and there are good bars and restaurants in town and we can catch up with our drinking and eating. Daisy’s main job here at the conference is to not, under any circumstances, heel any Pulitzer Prize winners.
Daisy loves this place. Last time we were here—last fall—there was a wonderful dead cow, bloated to twice normal size, in the front “yard” of the cabins, mostly bunchgrass and rabbitbrush, so close I could spit and bounce a sunflower seed hull off its belly. Daisy went straight for the hocks. The smell was insufferable for us, divine to Daisy. She barked, Git up cow, you’re hitting the trail—git up! Remember, a thousand years of genetic programming informs her it’s her job.
One morning some hands rumbled up in an old four-wheel-drive pickup. They chained the dead cow’s legs to the bumper of the truck and drove off. Opposing wheels dug into the dirt and then—pop—off came the beef’s front legs. Dead cow juice flew into the air. Daisy was beside herself, inside the cabin, trying to shoot through the fly screen using her head as a battering ram. All her circuits were telling her to go, full throttle, that there was bovine business being done, carnivorous possibilities, and she was part of the larger plan, if only to cover herself in dead cow and take some of it back to town to share the tale with buddies.
The temperature rose and the cow bloated even more. Or seemed to anyway if you count the smell’s effects on my imagination. The hands came back in the afternoon, full-on sun, with a come-along and winched the carcass into the back of a truck. Took it down toward the river and dumped it for the coyotes and buzzards.
I let Daisy out of the truck and she makes a beeline to the grave, which is a stone’s throw from the Gros Ventres River. Daisy rolls on her back, trying to absorb any dead-cow scent that might still be there. Then we fish.
Later Daisy and I eat chicken. It’s our meal together. Hilary is not here—we have grease up to our elbows. We giggle and chew, belch and fart. I even give the love of my life a thimbleful of beer to wash down the bird. Hilary calls these trips “stealing away with my girlfriend.” And in a way, it’s true, given the way Daisy first flirted with me at the pound. We named her Daisy after Daisy Fuentes. But I tell everyone at these writers’ conferences that she’s named after Daisy Buchanan, the great love of Jay Gatsby. We leave the bones for the magpies. Daisy has chicken farts. Tomorrow there will be a party of writers here. And dogs.
Todd, a geriatric Corgi, got his collar hung in the willows of the creek we named Daisy Creek because no one else had taken the initiative to name it something else. Steve, local seller of fine books, jumped in like a Marine—“Semper Fi!”—and untangled the old dog very shortly before he would have drowned. A toast to Steve! Roxy is here, Tim and Carol’s Australian who doesn’t give eight eggs for Daisy’s juvenile antics. Bluebell the cowpie-eating Poodle. Oakley, the rich-kid papered Golden Retriever puppy named after the expensive sunglasses; Daisy would periodically roll Oakley for measure, letting him know who was in charge of this camp. And Daisy’s favorite, Abbey, a cow dog/Labrador puppy that could be Daisy’s sister, only with her long black tail intact. She is a ski/trail running dog from the Driggs, Idaho, pound. The two of them, a brace of bat-eared hellcat, ripped through the crowd and barbecued beans, upending bottles of beer and knocking over children in a less-graceful canine impression of a Shriner’s circus. As I watched this posse of New West dogs I realized that these nonworking “working dogs” (as they are called at Westminster) did not lose their sand after we stole them away from the ranches that are becoming fewer by the year; they very easily turned into “play dogs,” a class not yet recognized by the kennel clubs. Perhaps I’m biased, but I’ll argue that play dogs with cow dog blood in them—Heelers, Shepherds, Kelpies, Collies—play harder than the ubiquitous Huskies, Labs and lap dogs.
This lasted three beers long, when the dogs both collapsed, Abbey having to be carried to the car by her owner, Carrie, a Jackson Hole outdoor athlete and purveyor of bagels. None of the dogs harassed the Pulitzer Prize winner. Count it a good night and a job well done.
Daisy and I don’t use the outhouse to whiz. I pee in the weeds. Beside me, Daisy pees in the weeds. Peeing, we look at each other in the light of the quarter moon. There is an understanding: We are lucky to be here, under the stars, at elevation, with the birds and bats and mosquitoes. I am not a baseball player. You are not sorting cattle on a working ranch. We are lucky just to be here, peeing in the weeds. Tomorrow we’ll go fishing.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Books multiply like bunnies around the Bark editorial office, distracting us from our duties with their beautiful covers, interesting themes and flat-out wonderful writing. Here are some that made it onto our reading list in 2008, as well as a few we’re keeping an eye out for later this year.
FICTION & MEMOIR
Dog Years, by Mark Doty (Harper Perennial, $13.95). A prize-winning poet and memoirist, Doty explores the complicated landscape of love and loss.
Howl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit, assembled by the editors of The Bark (Three Rivers, $14.95). A lively compilation of humor and tail-wagging wit from some of the funniest, most sophisticated writers around.
Labrador Pact, by Matt Haig (Viking, $23.95). Mortality is left to the dogs in this bittersweet story of a canine who gives his all for his family.
The Lost Dog, by Michelle de Kretser (Little, Brown, $24.99). A man’s search for his dog in the Australian bush is the framework on which the author hangs a complex tale of relationships, aging and trust.
The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine (Picador, $14). Set in the microcosmic world of a New York neighborhood and its eccentric citizens; the dogs are the stars of this show.
Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong (Penguin Press, $26.95). Winner of 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize, a fictional take on China’s marginalization and diminishment of Mongolian tribes and the sweeping landscape and animals they honor.
Dog Walker’s Startup Guide: Create Your Own Lucrative Dog Walking Business in 12 Easy Steps, by J.D. Antell (Novus Markets, $24.99). Combine business with pleasure—everything you need to know to replace your day job with one that’s much more fun.
Dogs at Work: A Practical Guide to Creating Dog-Friendly Workplaces, by Liz Palika and Jennifer Fearing (HSUS, $21.95). A how-to—and why-to—add dogs to the workplace; case studies lend support to their premises and step-by-step advice shows you how to make it happen in your office.
Positive Perspectives 2: Know Your Dog, Train Your Dog, by Pat Miller (Dogwise, $21.95). Miller gives us tools (and hope) in this comprehensive and well-organized primer on positive training, informed by her pragmatic and educated point of view.
Tales of Two Species: Essays on Loving and Living with Dogs, by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD (Dogwise, $12.95). An expert on the interior lives of dogs, McConnell covers all the bases in this new collection of her Bark columns.
Dogology: What Your Relationship with Your Dog Reveals about You, by Vicki Croke and Sarah Wilson (Rodale, $17.95). What’s your type? The authors dig into why people gravitate toward certain breeds, and explain what their choices reveal.
Old Dogs: Are the Best Dogs, by Gene Weingarten, photographs by Michael S. Williamson (Simon & Schuster, $19.95). A heartfelt and beautifully illustrated collection of venerable canines. In this collection of profiles and photographs, Weingarten and Williamson document the unique appeal of man’s best friend in his or her last, and best, years.
The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter, by Marc Bekoff, PhD (New World Library, $14.95). In this deeply researched book, Bekoff demonstrates both that animals do have emotions and that we dismiss them at our peril … and, as importantly, theirs.
For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement, by Kathryn Shevelow (Henry Holt, $27.50). In 18th-century England, it really was “hell for horses,” and other animals as well. This accessible book lays out the history of the groups that formed to improve animals’ lot and highlights the people responsible for ushering us into the modern era of animal welfare.
Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, by Nathan J. Winograd (Almaden Books. $16.95). A no-kill manifesto and a clarion call to the pet-loving community written by a man with broad and deep experience in the world of shelters and animal advocacy.
SOS Dog: The Purebred Dog Hobby Re-Examined, by Johan and Edith Gallant (Alpine, $19.95). Delves into the world of the purebred dog and where it’s going in terms of the health and best interests of dogs themselves. With a large percentage of all dog breeds plagued by genetic disabilities, the question is, can the damage already done be repaired?
We Give Our Hearts to Dogs to Tear, by Alston Chase (Transaction, $34.95). A rare and perceptive book about dogs, people and the land they inhabit; Chase takes on some of the big questions, including a complicated one: What kind of life do we owe our dogs?
What Philosophy Can Tell You about Your Dog, edited by Steven D. Hales (Open Court, $14.95). Essays by reflective humans who’ve pondered some of the puzzles of life with dogs. “Provocative, unusual, dog-friendly ideas disguised as philosophy,” according to Jeffrey Masson—we couldn’t agree more!
Just the Facts
Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, by Marion Nestle (University of California Press, $18.95). Nestle, author of the best-selling What to Eat, tells us what’s in that bag and can, and what to watch out for; guaranteed to make you think, and perhaps even take action.
Speaking for Spot, by Nancy Kay, DVM (Trafalgar Square, $19.95). The ultimate insider’s view of the vet/client relationship, as well as direct, empathetic and absolutely invaluable advice on how to successfully advocate for your dog when illness strikes.
Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing, and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon, by Nick Trout, DVM (Broadway, $22.95). From the front lines of modern veterinary medicine, a thoughtful and informed view from a vet who combines old-fashioned instinct with cutting-edge technology.
The Healthy Dog Cookbook: 50 Nutritious and Delicious Recipes Your Dog Will Love, by Jonna Anne with Mary Straus, Canine Nutritionist, and Shawn Messonnier, DVM (TFH, $19.95). Fifty nutritious and delicious vet-reviewed recipes—from Pointer to Pom, menus for every size and type.
The Organic Dog Biscuit Cookbook, by Jessica Disbrow Talley and Erik Talley (Cider Mill Press, $14.95). Whip up something simple or something decadent—pup-worthy
BARK’S WATCH LIST—Coming in 2009
A Happy Ending for Rescued Dogs, by Michael Aufhauser (teNeues , $19.95) The chronicle of a successful, 20-year German rescue operation. JANUARY
Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, by Meg Daley Olmert (Da Capo, $26) Drawing on the fascinating work of scientists in a wide range of fields, this book explores the lays out both sides of our deep mutual connection. FEBRUARY
The Dog Rules, by Kyra Sundance (Fireside, $24.99) A practical guide to using simple behavior modifications techniques to set boundaries without compromising the relationship. Your dog will thank you! MARCH
One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Food, by Michael Schaffer (Henry Holt, $24). A multidimensional look at the connections between how we treat our dogs and the evolution of our ideas about domesticity, consumerism, politics and family. MARCH
Adventures with Ari: A Puppy, a Leash, and Our Year in the Great Outdoors, by Kathryn Miles (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95) Miles adopted a puppy and got, not only a companion, but an entirely new way of seeing nature when she joins the pup in her unleashed explorations. APRIL
Spott’s Canine Miscellaney, by Mike Darton (Abrams Images, $14.95) A witty grab-bag that includes canine epigraphs, origins of breed names, an international guide to the word “dog,” the world’s oldest dog, dogs who went down with the Titanic and way more. APRIL
DogJoy by The Bark Editors (Rodale, $14.95) Smiling dogs, smiling dogs, a whole book full of smiling dogs, selected by the editors of Bark, who’ve never met a smiler they didn’t like! OCTOBER
Culture: Stories & Lit
Around the time that scoopable litter was invented back in the ’80s, cats as pets in America began to outnumber dogs. And our attitude toward dogs began to change. We started to get a bit more finicky.
We don’t want dogs with long hair because we have allergies. We don’t want dogs who shed because we hate to clean house. We don’t want dogs who bark because it’s annoying. We don’t want dogs who growl at strangers because we might get sued. We certainly don’t want dogs who bite.
We’re looking for something playful, but not something that knocks over furniture. No scratching, please. Come when I call you, but don’t be needy.
A hundred years ago, all we looked for in a dog was the ability to herd hooved animals and ward off cougars. Now we want a dog, you know, like the one Sandra Bullock had in that movie? The one with Keanu Reeves?
We’re starting to buy hybrid dogs. Labradoodles (Labrador and Poodle), Puggles (Beagle and Pug), Cockapoo (Cocker Spaniel and Poodle). Boggles, and Bichonpoos, and Schnoodles.
And once we have designed our dream dog and taken her home, we put her in little pink hoodies and canine crinolines.
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Inc., Americans spent close to $40 billion last year on pets. Custom-made birthday cakes. Faux chinchilla cuddle cups. Beer for dogs, nonalcoholic: It can be yours. Burberry outfits for pooches? Not a problem. Pet psychics! Pet psychologists!
I found myself depressed recently by a press release that read, in part: “Now the 74 million dogs … in the United States can begin enjoying the sweet life with the launch of a new therapeutic comfort bed specifically designed to meet the health and wellness needs of our four-legged friends. ColdHeat™ … introduces Dolce Vita™ Therabed™ pet beds, a complete line of heated pet beds in a variety of shapes and sizes…”
I mean, really, for dogs? Why can’t I get a heated bed designed for my wellness needs? I’d even be willing to fetch a Frisbee or two.
Then there was the story, issued on a very slow news day by Universal Press Syndicate, which included the following: “Many designers believe pet accessories and furniture should complement home decor. ‘It makes sense,’ says Eileen Chanin, founder of Calling All Dogs … ‘I'm surprised when you go into beautiful, million-dollar homes and walk into the mudroom where the dog stuff sits, and there are plastic bowls … Pet stuff needs to be beautiful, too.”
This depressed me. I don’t even have a mudroom, for one thing. In a truly just society, I’d have a mudroom stacked to the ceiling with Labradoodles wearing outfits that match the wallpaper.
And all of this consumer activity is for dogs, some of whom could no longer survive without human intervention. The Pekingese, for instance, has been bred to the point that it is difficult for a mother to give birth naturally to her pups because their heads are too big to fit through the birth canal.
In article about canine hybridization in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Jeff Riedel wrote: “Mark Neff, a canine geneticist at the University of California at Davis, says … ‘You’ve removed natural selection and replaced it with artificial selection … Dogs are now subject to the whims of humans. And as soon as humans get involved, all hell breaks loose.’”
Which reminds me of Gladiator. At the top of the movie, you’ll recall, a battle is about to commence between the Romans and the German barbarians. Roman general Russell Crowe shouts, “At my signal, unleash Hell!” When he gives the signal, Hell is indeed unleashed, along with his dog, to run rampant among the barbarians.
We never see the dog again. Whether the barbarians got him or the dog decided he had better things to do than bite ancient Germans, or whether the screenwriters just plain forgot about him, I don’t know.
Watching the scene, however, I found myself wondering: Was there Hell and a dog, or was the dog in fact, named “Hell?” The way the scene was cut, it seems possible. But that’s not a very good name for a dog, not even a dog of war. Test it yourself: “Here, Hell.” “Heel, Hell!” “Walkies, Hell?” I think not.
Then again, anachronisms aside, dogs of the past are very different from dogs of the present. For example, I read a comment by one of the screenwriters that the dog in Gladiator was actually supposed to be a wolf, a symbol of Roman swiftness and power and also a reference to the wolf that suckled Remus and Romulus (the latter of whom killed his brother and then went on to found Rome).
Well, it looked an awful lot like a German Shepherd to me. That’s a lot of symbolic weight to put on a breed that didn’t even exist in ancient Rome.
At any rate, we don’t have dogs named Hell, or Satan, or Star Thunder any more. It’s all Mr. Snappy, and Foo Foo, and Princess Booger. Can you imagine Hell in a tutu? Nor can I.
Mark Derr, a canine expert, railed against the new canines back in the ’90s, calling their creation the “appalling human practice of breeding mutant animals for ego satisfaction.”
Well, maybe that’s a little harsh.
After all, the world of dogs was dominated for centuries by bearded dukes grinning fiercely as they tore into chunks of venison by roaring fires, massive mastiffs scowling at their sides. Czars in troikas followed their Borzois as they tracked down elk.
Aristocrats invented breeding mutant animals for ego satisfaction. And only the aristocracy could own these beasts. King Canute of England established the Forest Laws in 1014, which decreed, in part, that any “meane person” caught owning a Greyhound would be punished and the dog’s feet mutilated to prevent it from hunting. A Greyhound was valued more than a serf, money-wise, and if you killed one, you would be charged with murder.
On the other hand, we still have the descendants of those heroic dogs: police dogs, firehouse dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, cancer-sniffing dogs. Now anyone can own one, not just a king.
So the heroic dogs are still among us. And who knows, maybe even a fierce Shih Tzu could turn the tide of battle. But maybe not. “At my signal, unleash Fluffy!” It doesn’t have the same punch, does it?
Copyright © 1997-2017 The Bark, Inc. Dog Is My Co-Pilot® is a registered trademark of The Bark, Inc