Culture: Stories & Lit
Examination of the enduring bonds.
You didn’t know how much you cared. Hell, she was only a dog. Nothing special. A Heinzey-57 varieties. Just a mutt.
But she …
Six months after your dog died, you still can’t talk about her. You turn your face away, embarrassed and perhaps ashamed of your tears.
Only a dog.
On one particularly bleak morning, Anne told me, “I wake up and Zippy’s gone and I wish I was dead too.”
“Only a dog”: that stupid, heartless diminutive comes straight from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran.
Why did the ancient Semites seek to disrupt the profound, ancient connection between man and dogs?
In legends of other native peoples, the dog is a benign and helpful creature; sometimes he’s God’s companion, sometimes the guardian spirit of the underworld. Maria Leach’s wonderful God Had a Dog lists 70 native gods who had or used a dog.
Early nomadic Semitic peoples needed dogs for hunting, watchdogs, war and to defend their all-important flocks. The Midrash counts Abraham’s sheep-guarding dogs as part of his wealth.
But Semitic writers never once praise the dog’s virtues. The dog’s fidelity and courage go unremarked. He is absent from the 23rd Psalm, and at Christ’s nativity, when those terrifying angels brighten the night sky, the shepherd’s dogs don’t bark.
I tuned into an Evangelical radio broadcast whose preacher instructed children, “Sure, you like old Spot and you must be kind to him, but remember, children, you have a soul and old Spot doesn’t.”
This doctrine troubles some devout Christians who hope to see their dog in an afterlife and, scripture to the contrary, presume they will. Some trust that since theirs is a loving God, He will slip their pets past Saint Peter. More consistent Christians assume they will be so busy worshipping God in the afterlife that they won’t miss their dogs—that their love for Spot is merely an earthly love, no more important than their affection for their Chevy Impala.
Early Semites worshiped gods of fertility and gods of war: Dagon and Hadad, and Baal, “the rider on the clouds.” Often cruel, these gods required propitiation, but you could do business with them.
These capricious, somewhat manipulable gods might make the barren wife fertile, bring rain, or cause an enemy’s spear to miss its mark, but they never shared with human worshippers their god-attributes, neither their power nor their all knowingness nor their ability to live forever.
Aspiring to a god’s powers was a bad idea; see Icarus.
Belly full, protected by the watchful dog lying beside him, man began to dream of the impossible. We can trace the painfully slow, irresistible progress of this dream through the years of the Old Testament’s creation.
Although they hedged their bets with Dagon, Baal and the occasional golden calf, some Semites began to dream of a single god. One can read the Pentateuch as the history of how Jews became monotheists. They swapped out a host of familiar, approachable gods for one remote, powerful, all knowing, loving but extremely cranky Deity.
Why did God love a species that often denied Him, defied Him and sometimes ranked Him second after that golden calf?
God loved weak, sinful, forgetful, rebellious man because, “And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth …” (Genesis 1:26).
“After our likeness”—that brilliant link made monotheism possible. Just as there is one man, so there is one God. The worshipper is commanded to become “like” God (imitatio Dei). And surely, if we are “like” God, can’t we share some of his attributes, even His immortality?
Emphatically, God did not make dog in His own image. Monotheism asserted an extreme human singularity that has engaged philosophers ever since: “Man, the featherless biped.” “Man, the rational animal.” “Homo faber.” “Man the animal that makes promises.” Our determination to distance ourselves from other animals—indeed, from nature itself—has powered eco-catastrophes that endanger all life on Earth.
When God made man in his own image and gave him dominion over all other creatures, he simultaneously banished the dog from his special place at man’s side.
The betrayal of dog by man—the “Lost Dog” story— is one of our oldest, most poignant tales. When Odysseus returns home after years of wandering, no creature recognizes him except his dying dog. “Infested with ticks, half dead from neglect, here lay the hound, old Argos. But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by, he thumped his tail, muzzling low, and his ears dropped, though he had no strength to drag himself an inch toward his master.”
Gelert was the favored hound of the 13th-century Welsh prince, Llewellyn ab Joweth . One day, Prince Llewellyn noticed that Gelert had left the hunt. When the prince got home, the bloody Gelert greeted his master exuberantly, but the prince’s infant son wasn’t in his crib, and blood splattered the walls. The enraged prince promptly slew Gelert. Moments later, he discovered his unharmed son, next to the corpse of the wolf Gelert had killed protecting the child.
There are at least 30 recorded versions of the Gelert story, the earliest before the Christian Era.
“Lost Dog” is paradigmatic; retold so many times in modern literature, it seems to be the only dog story we need to tell. White Fang, Lassie Come Home, The Incredible Journey, The Plague Dogs, my own Nop’s Trials: all stories of sundering and loss.
In Raymond Carver’s short story, “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” an overwhelmed husband abandons the family dog beside the road: “He saw his whole life a ruin from here on. If he lived another fifty years—hardly likely—he felt he’d never get over it, abandoning the dog … A man who would get rid of a little dog wasn’t worth a damn. That kind of man would do anything, would stop at nothing.”
We rewrite and reread this predictable, profoundly satisfying story, although in each recounting, we humans are cruel betrayers and dogs are our moral superiors.
The story satisfies because it is true. Yes, we betrayed the dog.
Our old partner, the animal who ensured our survival, who slipped into our genetic code like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, became “only” a dog, no more privileged than hogs or sheep. We needed to spurn him because the dog threatened the same dreams his watchfulness made possible.
Freed by dog to dream of God, freed to yearn for God’s attributes, to escape the tragedy of human mortality, man gave up his dog for the greatest vision man has ever had.
Yet the dog remains eager—pathetically eager—to renew that 100,000-year-old genetic partnership from which he has been forever banished: Lost Dog.
Man didn’t abandon his dog cheaply. He didn’t sell him for a mere 30 pieces of silver. Man asked the greatest reward any creature ever asked of his god: immortality.
We lost our dog to live forever.
Excerpted from Mr. & Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies, forthcoming from University Press of Virginia (March 2013). Used with permission.
British Invasion Redux
Blame it on the London Olympics, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey or fascination with the royals, but Brit-speak seems to be all the rage these days. Oft-heard terms such as cheers, brilliant, posh, loo, toff, mate, queue and even crikey are creeping into our everyday conversation. So, let’s bring these dog-related expressions across the pond as well.
Dog’s bollocks: Something really fantastic. (Not to be confused with “bollocks,” which is rubbish, er, nonsense.) Often shortened to “the dog’s.” Perhaps derived from dogs’ fascination with and time spent investigating their “down-unders.”
Mutt’s nuts: Something fantastic or excellent. Often shortened to “the mutt’s,” which is another way of saying, yup, the “dog’s bollocks.”
Puppy’s privates: The best; yet another, slightly more refined, take on the previous two.
Dog’s breakfast: A real mess. (Ed. note: I guess they don’t do gourmet pet food over there.)
Dog’s dinner: To be overdressed, or ostentatiously decked out.
Dog ride: Tagging along with someone doing an errand, or simply out and about.
Dog collar: A type of collar worn by the clergy. Also, the oversize head on a pint of Guinness.
Dog-end: A corruption of “docked-end”— a cigarette butt.
Dogsbody: A go-fer, or someone doing menial or boring work.
Dog-eye: Keep a look out.
Doggy: Stylish, of smart appearance.
Dogs are barking: Feet are tired and aching. For example, “Do you mind if I sit? My dogs are barking!”
Dog’s wages : Working just for food as payment for one’s services (Scots slang).
Give a dog a bad name: Someone with a bad reputation who’s blamed for everything.
And, lest we forget, there’s Cockney rhyming slang:
To all of which we say, “Dog save the Queen!” Given her devotion to her Corgis, that’s not much of a stretch.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Nine years ago, when our family got our first dog, I never could have imagined the number of lessons he (and eventually they) would teach us about love, connection and responsibility.
As a child, I didn’t have an opportunity to understand the bond that could exist between humans and canines. My parents didn’t think of dogs as pets, much less as members of the family. Neighborhood dogs came and went through my childhood with no collars, no fences and no place to truly call home.
When our kids were five and two, my husband and I opted to treat them to a canine friend. My husband was in the military and had just returned from artillery training, and we wanted a connecting and bonding experience for all four of us. We chose a Boxer, Arty (short for Artillery Howitzer Knight), who allowed our daughter to climb on him and dress him in boas and tutus. Much more than a baby-sitter, he quickly became our third child.
My husband deployed to Afghanistan, and before long, we got another Boxer. Not quite as smart but certainly as loveable as Arty, Clover was just as rambunctious as he had been at the same age. Because we traveled a lot, the dogs spent a great deal of time outside, with trusted neighbors stopping in to feed and play with them.
As the kids and the dogs got older, I managed to ease out of one job and into another that afforded me more time with both dogs and family. What I found was certainly amazing: The more time and love I gave to the dogs, the more was replenished, and at astounding rates. When I began truly having a relationship with them, my own patience and understanding skyrocketed.
One Christmas, we managed to save a mixed-breed pup from going to the pound (while my husband was on another deployment to Iraq), and I must say, she was a godsend! Freyja didn’t chew things up, and the Boxers took her in as their own. Her disposition was completely different from the others (barking was the only negative).
As if three dogs weren’t enough, we succumbed once more—again, we started down the puppy path, with vague memories of the havoc and chaos to which Arty and Clover had introduced us. Oda (Operation Detachment Alpha—my husband’s job in the military) began sleeping with me in the absence of my deployed (again) husband, and before much time had passed, he weighed 60 pounds and was no longer the little pup I’d invited onto the bed on those lonesome nights.
I am now working from home, which affords me a lot more time with my canine kids. Oda still sleeps with us, alongside Freyja and Clover. Arty sleeps on the floor next to the bed.
What I have learned from the dogs far exceeds what they have learned from me. I’ve learned to welcome all interactions with my children, who are now 15 and 11. I’ve learned I should take naps when I am sleepy, run when I have energy, be on guard when strangers approach the house and snuggle up with those I love.
I have also learned that when I extend love, I have more capacity to give it. I have learned to be aware of others’ feelings because they won’t always tell me what they’re thinking, and to try to understand what others desire or require for their own comfort and happiness. I have also learned that when I let the boundaries of who I think I am dissolve into the dogs, I am happier and more fulfilled because I recognize that we are truly connected. This has taught me to do the same for the people in my life. When I allow my own edges to blur into theirs, we are one. And when we are one, I feel nothing but kindness, compassion and love for others (who are really just extensions of me).
Thank you, Arty, Clover, Freyja and Oda, for teaching me how to love, really love, the people in my life.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The Chloe Chronicles
My dog Chloe has been in a serious relationship for two years now. Her boyfriend is a handsome English Setter named Rainbow, and they are very well-matched. Both weigh about 60 pounds, and both are not-very-birdie bird dogs. Both love to play tug and keep-away; both love to swim in our nearby creek and hunt for fish. (Chloe actually sticks her snout into the water and tries to catch them; Rainbow barks at the fish from a safe place on the shore.) In terms of hierarchy, Chloe is definitely the boss, which suits them both fine. Chloe always passes through doorways first, always wins the rope during games of tug-ofwar and always tries to steal Rainbow’s food. And because he will so willingly let her steal his food, we try to feed them separately, for Rainbow is always on the verge of being too thin and Chloe is always on the verge of being too fat.
“Chubs” is what Rainbow’s guardian, Greg, calls Chloe behind my back. I know this because Greg and Mindy’s seven-year-old son, Clayton, tells me everything. We are neighbors in idyllic Woodstock, N.Y.
But anyway, it makes me happy to see Chloe and Rainbow together. It makes me happy to witness dog love: the joyous, raucous way they greet one another; the impish, playful ways in which they bite each other’s ankles; and, at the end of the day, the adorable way they nap together, sometimes facing with legs entwined, other times spooning like an old married couple. Always, their bodies are touching, and I love to see the content, tired look on Chloe’s face when she sleeps with her head draped across Rainbow’s neck. That look speaks of companionship, and ownership, and true love. It makes me want two dogs, but that second dog would have to be Rainbow, and he’s not on the market. So, as with most relationships from which we want more, we take what we can get. I call Rainbow my half-dog.
Recently, however, Chloe and I went on an extended book tour, which meant that for seven weeks we had to leave Rainbow behind. That’s seven weeks without anyone biting your ankles, or pinning you to the ground so that he can bite your neck, or trying to take away your saliva-soaked stuffed bunny rabbit, or cuddling with you on a big stinky dog bed. By “you” I mean Chloe, of course. Every night, before we went to sleep, I promised Chloe that soon we’d see Rainbow again. I even, as a joke, marked the calendar with our return date and pointed to it as proof. “See? That’s Rainbow Day!” She always smiled at me and thumped her tail.
About two weeks into our tour, I called Greg to check in on the family. “Rainbow has a new girlfriend,” Greg said.
“Who is she?” I said, in the same exact voice I used, oh, 20 years ago when the Love of My Life told me he was in love with someone else.
“Her name is Phoenix,” Greg said. “She lives next door.”
“What kind of dog is she?” I said, again in that voice.
“A black Lab.”
My heart stopped. You see, Chloe hates black Labs. I can’t explain this hatred; it seemed to come out of nowhere 12 months prior. One day Chloe was a friendly, open, I’ll-play-with-anyone kind of dog; the next day I had to pull her off a female black Lab who had had the audacity to say hello at the dog park. Since then, any time we see a black Lab, Chloe makes a strange rumbling noise—not quite a growl, more like the revving of an engine—and strains determinedly on her leash. It’s the sound of hatred, I guess, of exacting some sort of revenge. But for what? Maybe Chloe was psychic. She knew the love of her life was going to cheat on her with a female black Lab.
“Rainbow really loves Phoenix,” Greg was saying. “They play all day long. She’s a really fast dog.”
I was offended. Chloe, being on the verge of being fat, was not as fast a runner as Rainbow. But that was part of her charm.
“But what about Chloe?” I said to Greg in a whiny voice. “Chloe’s in Massachusetts. So are you. He has to play with someone.”
So, basically, it was out of sight, out of mind. Spoken like a true male.
After Greg and I got off the phone, I sat down on the floor next to Chloe. I smoothed out the sun-bleached fur on her ear flaps, I stroked her heart-shaped little brown nose, I told her she was a pretty, pretty girl. I can’t explain how heartbroken I was at even the thought that Rainbow loved another dog more than he loved Chloe. That Chloe had been replaced. Just like that. We turn our backs for 10 minutes and look what happens! I actually started to cry.
Now is probably the time to admit that I myself do not have a boyfriend. I am not the love of anyone’s life. No one nips at my neck or my earlobes. So, of course, it gave me pleasure that at least my dog was getting love. Someone in this equation has to get the guy. I mean, in order to believe in love you have to see it, every day, in action. That’s why so many women read romance novels and see sappy movies. You have to keep that hope alive. Otherwise you become the pathetic single woman who lives alone in Woodstock and apparently lives vicariously through her dog. This was quite disturbing.
I did not tell Chloe about Rainbow and his black Lab mistress. I simply pointed at the calendar and told her that Rainbow Day was coming soon.
Meanwhile, there we were on Cape Cod. Which is not a bad place to be Without Love. We spent our mornings at the shore of a tiny freshwater pond in Brewster, Mass., watching the mist rise off the water in the postdawn light. Chloe swam around hunting for fish while I meditated and read Harry Potter. In the afternoons, we went to the beach, where Chloe hunted for more fish—a smorgasbord at low tide—and I just watched the horizon, never growing tired of how vast and mysterious and promising the world could seem if you just kept your eyes on this proverbial horizon rather than on your computer screen. It’s hard to find love through a computer screen, which doesn’t even show your own reflection.
Meanwhile, Chloe went and fell in love.
It happened at the Brewster Book Store. I had gone in to sign some copies of my paperback, and to introduce Chloe to the store’s owner, Nancy, a real dog lover who has rescued several dogs herself. Nancy had set up a wonderful display of dog-themed books on a small antique table, and had placed, at the table’s base, a large stuffed animal— a black-and-white Husky, with one of those benign Husky smiles embroidered onto its fake-fur face. He (I assumed this stuffed Husky was a he) was about the size of a real-life Springer Spaniel, and his straight-legged, straight-spined stance made him look noble and rugged and devoted. Which is perhaps why Chloe fell so hopelessly in love with him.
You should have seen it! First Chloe stood in front of this stuffed animal—this Love Effigy—and touched her nose to his. (This is what she does to me when she wants my attention—she pokes me with her snout.) Then she went down into a play-bow, with her tail swishing madly. Then, because the Husky still had not responded, she barked at him—just a playful, flirtatious little yip. Still, the Husky remained mute, stiff and guarded.
I decided that the dog’s name was Skipper, because he looked like a Skipper (his steady, glass-eyeballed gaze seemed to imply he was looking beyond the horizon of a great blue sea).
I also decided that maybe Chloe wasn’t as smart as I’d always made her out to be. We’ve always thought she was part Border Collie—the smartest dog out there—but no self-respecting Border Collie would ever mistake a stuffed dog for a real one, right?
Ah, love. It makes even the smartest females blind.
Chloe poked Skipper with her snout again, and then threw herself at his feet, rolling onto her back and displaying her pink-spotted belly.
Nothing. No response from Skipper.
She shimmied a little and barked and flailed her legs in the air dramatically. Nothing. Skipper remained impassive. Finally, she nipped him on the ankles—a sweet, playful gesture that always worked with Rainbow.
Meanwhile, Nancy and I watched, along with a number of very amused customers. We laughed. We made comments about “men.” How aloof they can be, how non-responsive, how no female can resist the strong and silent type.
I’ve always loved cross-species friendships: the tiny kitten who snuggles with a Pit Bull, the horse who nuzzles a pig, that famous Ridgeback in South Africa who foster-mothered a baby lion. This says to me that love knows no boundaries— that love is simply Love. So even though I was standing there watching my dog Chloe flirt with an inanimate object, and worrying that she was less intelligent than her brethren, and basically making a fool of herself, I also told myself that didn’t matter. Whoever said love had anything to do with intelligence, anyway?
Finally, after receiving a particularly vigorous ankle bite from Chloe, Skipper finally toppled on top of her and then just lay there, on his side. Chloe, in response, sprung onto all fours—in that remarkably quick way dogs have— and proceeded to bite Skipper on the throat—another one of her favorite moves with Rainbow. But Skipper continued to lie there, unmoving.
“I used to date a man just like that,” one of the bookstore customers said. And we nearly died laughing.
This leads to a tangent: About a year ago, I developed a disturbing and all-consuming celebrity crush. I’m really not the celebrity type—I don’t watch TV or read magazines or even see all that many movies. And I certainly have never followed celebrity gossip. But in this case, I happened to meet the man in person, locked eyes with him (eyes as blue as the sea!) and experienced, well, a form of zap that stayed in my system for months. I won’t bore you with the web-trolling, image downloading, fan-site drooling details… (okay, it was Viggo Mortensen) but I will share with you the conversation I had with one of my friends, who’d had a similar obsession with Orlando Bloom. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” I remember her telling me. “This crush has awakened something in you. Since your divorce you’ve been kind of shut down toward men. You should be thankful that this person has brought back your capacity to love.”
“And lust,” I said.
“Oh, yes, that too.”
Anyway, seeing Chloe flirt happily and unabashedly with her fake-dog boyfriend made me think fondly of my own fake boyfriend, and of all the happy times we had together (in my head). It made me realize that it can just be so much fun to love someone. It almost doesn’t matter if he/she loves you back.
And what does this have to do with Rainbow? Nothing, really. We were totally over that cad.
When we got back to Woodstock, the first thing Chloe and I did was visit Rainbow. Their reunion was riotous. Leaping, chasing, biting, throwing themselves at one another. Rainbow brought Chloe one of his toys—a little rubber doll—and Chloe immediately stole it from him and then flaunted her triumph, tossing the toy in the air and refusing to let Rainbow have it. They chased each other around the pool, across the tennis court, in and around a grove of pine trees that bordered the land. They took turns tearing mock-savagely at one another’s scruffs; they bit each others’ rumps and ankles. They played until they were exhausted and too weak to stand up anymore. And even then, lying together on the rug at the hearth, they played, mouthing each other silently, clacking teeth. Finally, after another hour, they fell asleep entwined, their very breaths in sync.
As I watched them, I found myself filling with happiness again. And relief. It was clear that Chloe was still Rainbow’s favorite girlfriend. She had not been replaced. At least not at this instant. Plus, the thing about Dog Love is, there’s always plenty to go around.
I never told Greg’s family or Rainbow about the stuffed dog. Primarily because they would have made fun of me. Plus, Chloe’s brief affair was like any summer fling… fleeting, insignificant, all style no substance. So it was a private joke between me and my dog when we presented Rainbow with his reunion present: a stuffed black Lab.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
An interview with Jeffrey Masson
This is one of the first interviews (if not the very first interview) ever to appear in the pages of Bark. It was originally published in Bark’s third issue in fall 1997—back when Bark was still printed in black-and-white on newsprint—when Jeffrey Masson first released his book Dogs Never Lie About Love.
On the day of our interview, Jeffrey Masson’s lovely Berkeley home was a bustle of activity, with friends and family popping in and out, the baby, the three dogs and the cats. There had been a wedding only days earlier and Masson was preparing for a major book tour. We were very grateful that he’d found time to squeeze us in. As we settled in for our talk, the phone rang——his agent calling to talk about Masson’s appearance on Dateline the previous night. “I’ve got to go, I’m being interviewed by the Berkeley Bark,” Masson said, cutting short talk of national TV to give this interview.
Your title is Dogs Never Lie About Love. It reminds me of a Fats Waller song, “Be sure it’s true when you say I love you, it’s a sin to tell a lie.” To me it has always been an odd lyric, because how do you lie about love, or how do you not lie about love——our emotions are so complex. What exactly do you mean by this title?
It was suggested to me by my trainer, a wonderful guy at Guide Dogs for the Blind——Mike Delosi. He said you’re gonna laugh, but I just thought of the best title your book——Dogs Never Lie About Love. Laugh!, it’s perfect! And it really is the thesis of the book, that dogs are incapable of any kid of deceit when it comes to their emotions. They don’t hide them from others and don’t hide them from themselves. We sometimes don’t know what we’re thinking and feeling and certainly often attempt to prevent others from knowing what we’re feeling. Nobody doubts this. But dogs are so upfront about their feelings. They can’t, they just can’t...
They don’t mind being the fool.
That’s right. This is who they are. They don’t think, “If I’m showing my joie de vivre they’ll think I’m unsophisticated and naive. What they’re feeling is who they are. And I think that love is really the master emotion for dogs. They really seem to have an endless supply, an endless capacity to love that just astonishes me.
You say in your introduction that you were originally attracted to the observation of wild animals because you felt that somehow the domestic dog was contaminated by association with humans. Have you changed your mind about this?
Well, I don’t really know. It’s fascinating to me that dogs feel as much as they feel and that we can read them so easily. So the question is, why can we read dogs so easily, why are they so transparent to us and we to them? There’s no other animal like that. We don’t know what a bear is feeling. You know when they’re angry, but you don’t know when they’re sad and disappointed and nostalgic and homesick and all these things that we have in common with dogs. So the question arises, did canines learn it from us or is it just some miracle of parallelism. Or is it that all animals share these things and we just can’t read them. I haven’t discovered the answer to that. I suspect one could. If you were to live with wolves long enough you might be able to say it’s clear that wolves feel the same things that dogs feel, therefore they didn’t get it from us.
Didn’t some of your studies of the wild animals, for instance elephants in the zoo, show that they have a rapport with their people?
Not like dogs, possibly, but not even cats. I have two cats here and I love them but they really don’t have that same intimate constant interaction with us that dogs have. Horses don’t, parrots don’t, no animal does.
It begs the question … Was is there from the beginning, and that’s why we got together with them?
That is an interesting question. But it’d be awfully hard to answer. I think if you knew enough about wolves, if we discovered that wolves show the same emotions with other wolves, then we could say it’s the nature of the beast——it’s not us. But I suspect that it is us. Because dogs are so eager to please us and understand us. When I first got my three dogs, I thought——I can’t do this. It’s just too much, three big dogs walking around Berkeley, how am I going to get them out of the car and into this park without putting each one on a leash. I can’t do it. And lo and behold it was really easy after a while. They figured out what I want from them and they give it to me. It took time, and I didn’t train them. It’s just that they watched me and observed me long enough to figure that “Oh, he want us to do this! Ok, I get it, I can do that.” And that’s amazing! Cats don’t do that, they may know what you want, they just don’t care.
In fact, some part of them may know what you want and do …
...the opposite. And a dog will never do that. Very rarely will a dog do what he knows you don’t want him to do. Very rarely.
My dog is very willful. If he doesn’t want to do what I want him to do he won’t look at me. He pretends he can’t hear me.
Hysterical deafness in dogs.
I find your last book (When Elephants Weep) and this book almost radical because I think it’s been anathema for intellectuals to discuss emotional states in animals. Even though anyone who has ever lived with animals or worked with them in a lab could observe that.
The people who work with them in labs have a vested interest in denying that they feel. Because if you say that you think that a dog can feel pain and can suffer as much, if not more than we can, then what kind of person inflicts that pain? It’s hard. The honest ones will say yes, that animals do suffer but animal testing helps mankind. OK, I don’t agree, but you can live with that. What I don’t like is when they say animals don’t feel anything. I don’t see how they say that about a dog. I mean maybe with a rat, I don’t believe if for a minute, but I can understand someone saying he can’t see emotion in rats.
I think it’s easy for people to denigrate their own observations because of what experts say.
You have to look at what vested interest experts have. In the segment of Dateline I just did they had to have a critic talk about my book so they get Dr. Hart who’s the head of the behavioral clinic at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and he said, “Masson is totally wrong——everything a dog does is pure instinct.” And that is the cliché——that’s what they were taught and it’s very hard to get them to move away from that. You could say that about every human emotion. If a mother saves a child who’s drowning——is that instinct or love?
I expect that there are people who have those theories about humans.
I’m sure that there are. But most people who would say that about a dog would not say it about a human being. Why would a dog have an instinct to save a human being anyway? It can hardly be instinct, and there are literally thousands of stories of dogs that have saved people.
I like something you said in your introduction. You asked, “Why is a lab scientist a more reliable observer?” Most people take it for granted that scientific method is objective and that the scientist must necessarily be an objective observer.
We’ve been taught that. They say, well you’re telling us a story and that’s just an anecdote. Anecdotal evidence. What do they think they have when they’re in the laboratory? It’s just another story. And if you have enough of them, if you’ve collected a thousand similar stories, isn’t that data?
You go over how you selected your dogs and what you were looking for and I was struck that all three were females. Did that make a difference to you?
Well, my publisher was very annoyed about that. He wanted me to have a male dog. And it’s true, it would have been interesting to compare. It just so happened that all three of the ones I wanted turned out to be females. So I’m sorry, I’d like to know whether, for example, males are more aggressive than females. These three dogs are just not aggressive. They have never gotten into a fight with each other or another dog. They’re not perfect dogs by any means, little Simi gives this horrible Grrr to every dog she meets. But she’s never actually gotten into a fight, and I wonder if she were a he, would he get into fights?
They’re all so individual.
That’s true too. Certainly there are male dogs that we encounter that would never fight. And there are certain females that we meet that would. But no dog has ever fought with mine. My theory is that males will not fight with females unless they’re trained to fight. But if we’re just walking around and they do something offensive, males will forgive it right away. And females don’t seem to fight much between themselves.
My dog has a lot of propriety and he expects other dogs to be … dignified. He gives females a lot of slack, but not males.
I think that dogs can be very dignified and there’s a difference in a dog who is not and one who is. It’s an interesting quality. In a lot of the working dogs, I have the sense that they feel that there’s a way to do things and an improper way. I was hoping to get a Border Collie for that reason, but I also hear that they’re hyper. They’ve got to be doing stuff. I’m spending three, four hours a day out with my dogs, so they get plenty of things to do. I didn’t think I would spend quite that much time, but with a little baby it’s fun. I like being out anyway and since it turns out to be my research …
What a nice life. Are these your first dogs in a while?
The last dog I had was a long time ago, about six years ago. I had moved into someone’s house who left the dog behind. An old German Shepherd. And I really bonded with him, I was amazed, but it was in the last year of his life. And before that, in my previous marriage, we had a Standard Poodle for 15 years——I loved that dog! And before that it was as a child. So there haven’t been that many dogs in my life.
I haven’t really had a dog since childhood. My dog now, I feel very conscious of him and have a close bond. And I think that he’s taught me a great deal about human nature, too. I wonder what your dogs have taught you.
For me, that’s how the book came to have this thesis. I really do believe that dogs feel more intensely, more purely, more passionately with less ambivalence than I do. I can’t speak for you, or anyone else, but for me they definitely do. And I want to learn from them, and I do learn from them. How to live in the moment——dogs are very, very good at that. They’re really like little gurus. All these gurus claim to live in the moment, but don’t really do it. Dogs do it. They really live in the moment, and they don’t compare things. I still have a bad habit that I picked up from my parents of comparing one thing to another, one place to another, one person to another. Dogs never do that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the landfill in Berkeley, that tacky little beach opposite where we always go. But it has the world’s ugliest beach! And I took my parents there once and they said, “Jeff how can you even walk on this beach, remember when we were in the South of France and Cannes and do you remember the Italian Riviera?” And I said yeah, this is really tacky …. My dogs——they love it! They’ve been to the most beautiful beaches in the world up in Oregon and here … they don’t care! For them, it’s the moment that counts, they’re with the person they love, they’re chasing sticks, they’re jumping in the water, they’re perfectly happy——they never make those comparisons. So, those are the things I’ve learned from them. Also, I haven’t learned it, but they’re very good at forgiving. That, I’m not so sure I want to learn, but they can do it. I mean you can, I never have, but people hit dogs and a minute later the dog will lick their hand, I mean a minute later! I guess some dogs less than others, some dogs probably will remember and hold a grudge. But most dogs don’t hold grudges, they really don’t.
There is an interesting story in your book about a police dog stopping his master who’s unjustly beating a guy.
It’s a Vicki Hearne story and I believe it. It’s utterly fascinating! I wish I had observed it, I’d love to know what was going through that dog’s mind.
That’s a very complex thing!
Very complex. If that’s true it shows an extraordinary … if it’s true you don’t see it very often, that’s for sure. I asked the police here, “Does a dog ever stop a thief or a shoplifter?” No, they wouldn’t do that, they don’t care, they don’t share our values. But obviously this person had overstepped some canine value. I think it’s an utterly fascinating concept. I’ve never observed that. That’s Vicki Hearne’s. She’s very unsentimental, that was one of the few sentimental stories in her book. She’s a big trainer and I’ve seen a lot of training now and I’m not into it, it’s not my thing.
I believe she’s written about circus animal training. I just saw a film, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which featured a lion trainer, whose attitude toward the lions was adversarial, one of fear ….
Never turn your back, show who’s boss. A lot of dog training is like that too.
The interesting thing about the film is that the lion trainer had a protégé whose attitude was not adversarial, she built a rapport with the lions. The elder trainer had a very grudging respect for his young apprentice——well, it seems to work but someday she’s going to be sorry.
Right, it’s that way with dog training, also. I went to visit one of the legends of training, a guy named Sapir Weiss, have you heard of him? He’s an Israeli paratrooper and he’s trained dogs to carry dynamite. And he was amazing, I have to admit. I walked in and we started arguing right away. He doesn’t believe in emotion, nothing——it’s all training, it’s all conditioning. He says, “It’s all about who’s boss, and I’m the big boss and they know it and I have a way of letting them know this right away.” And I said I didn’t believe it. He said, “You know, I’ll prove it to you.” He said, “Are these three dogs very attached to you? I’m going to walk with them and you call them back to you and I guarantee you they won’t come.” I said no way. And they walked right by me and I called “Sasha, Simi, Rani,” and they looked at me like, “I’m sorry I can’t come”——they wouldn’t budge. I said, “What is this, is it a magic act?” He said, “I convey I’m the boss and they know it, I know how to communicate that to dogs. You don’t hear a single dog in my kennel of ninety dogs barking, do you? That’s because I let them know I won’t tolerate it.” It’s very impressive—I still don’t like it …. He had a dog, a fabulous Schutzhund but the dog seemed miserable, he never goes out, does everything Sapir says and looks at him in constant apprehension.
It’s hard to know how the dog feels about that, but for me, I don’t want to have that kind of relationship.
That’s a good point. I can’t say, but in my opinion, the dog would rather have a more equal kind of relationship. I can’t answer that. But I don’t want that with them, and I’m not going to train them to go blow up trains with dynamite so …. On the other hand I also went through Ian Dunbar’s training with the puppies and that didn’t work so well. I finally decided that the best training was no training—you hang out long enough with the dogs and they figure out what you want and they do it. My dogs come, they stop for traffic, they do the important things. I taught them the command “Leave It” when they’re eating horrible garbage. They do that.
My dog hasn’t got that one down.
Well, when I tell them stay they’re not going to do it, and I’m sure I could train them to do that but it would mean breaking their will to some extent, and I’m just not prepared to do that.
Yes, I don’t relish that authoritarian relationship, consequently my dog is not the perfect obedient dog.
But I think it allows them to be more of who they are. This is also the problem with guide dogs for the blind, I mean I’m very impressed with what they do and obviously it’s wonderful work and it’s wonderful for the blind people, I wonder how wonderful it is for the dog. You know this is not something the dogs would choose to do on their own, given the choice.
Well, you know I think there are some individual dogs who must want to.
Maybe, they take pride in it, yeah.
Like herding and working dogs, a lot of them really love to work and they do take pride, and that’s a big part of life.
But it’s not all of life … pleasure is also part. They’re not big on pleasure at Guide Dogs for the Blind. The dogs have a certain amount of time when they play but my dogs basically play all day. They don’t work and I think it makes them very happy. It’s very hard to judge. Who’s to say who’s a happier dog.
Your dogs have a good life.
They have a very good life.
What say you about leashes?
Berkeley must be the best city in the world to have a dog because we don’t have a leash law on the street. The police don’t always know it but I went to City Hall and got a little piece of paper with the ordinance that says if a dog is obedience trained and is under voice control then it shall be deemed to be upon a leash. The few times that the police have stopped me, I live across the street from the Berkeley Police Station, I’ve just shown it to them and they’ve been very nice about it. Most of the time I don’t get stopped, and I walk around Berkeley with my three dogs off leash, and I really like that. It’s just different, it really is different. It makes me feel that we are more equal. They can stop and sniff things, they can deviate a little bit. I mean, they still basically go where I want to go, it’s not equal in that way, but they’re free and I really like it.
On the other hand there is a leash law in the parks.
Yes there is, and I just don’t obey it. If a ranger tells me to leash them, I do. Most people don’t care. When we go to Inspiration Point for walks, most dogs are off-leash and people are very happy about it. But, at least once a walk, somebody will come to me and say, “Those dogs are supposed to be on a leash!” And the dogs aren’t doing anything, and I ask them, “Can you explain to me how they’re bothering you?” “It’s a law!” “Well you’re right, but they don’t seem to be harming anybody, and they’re getting so much pleasure, do you really want me to leash them? “Yes, I do!” You always get a few, but for research it was interesting to hear that.
Do you ever take your dogs on leash? Because it’s a very different experience.
I really don’t like to do it. Sometimes outside of Berkeley you have to. We went on a camping trip and they were very unpleasant sometimes if the dogs were off-leash so we took them on-leash in the camping grounds. I just hate it!
I think that dogs are more aggressive on-leash.
I’ve read lots of training books, and there are many different theories. Some feel that the dogs become more territorial on your behalf on lead.
I don’t understand it. Another thing I don’t get … my dogs go completely nuts when they’re in the car and we pass a car with another dog or pass another dog on the street. All three of them. Walking down the street they pay no attention.
Not even when the other dog is behind a fence?
Behind a fence, yes. Behind the fence they hate.
I once saw a baseball game when the pitcher hit the batter with a fast ball. The batter stormed the pitcher’s mound in an attitude of “Let me at ‘em.” But both players kept their arms at their sides, shoulders back. Not until teammates came to restrain them did they really start flailing. When they were safely restrained from hurting each other, the killer came out. I see this behavior in dogs behind fences. They can engage in a little aggression because they really can’t do anything.
Maybe you’re right. If they pass each other on the street they could hurt each other, but they can’t in the car or behind a fence. Interesting. But the car thing, I don’t like it and I’ve begged them to stop, but it doesn’t do the slightest good. Not the slightest good.
You were initially not interested in studying dogs—they were perhaps contaminated by their association with humans. Have you also found that you see the wildness in dogs?
Oh yes! That’s the miracle to me, that we are living on intimate terms with a wild animal. It really is, it’s a wolf. There not that much difference between wolves and dogs, and it’s a very humbling experience. Suddenly your dog does something or howls and you feel my God, this is a wild animal and it has accepted me and we are living together! And no other animal gives you that … well cats a bit too, because they really are tigers. But dogs even more, and it’s just such a miracle to me. I can’t get over it.
Q&A with Ted Kerasote, author of Merle’s Door
In 1991, while rafting Utah’s San Juan River, award-winning writer Ted Kerasote came upon the dog he would later immortalize in Merle’s Door. According to Kerasote, Merle, an adolescent stray who had been surviving on his own in the high desert, told him, You need a dog, and I’m it. It didn’t take Kerasote long to agree with him. Heartbroken after Merle died in 2004, Kerasote vowed to do all he could to ensure that his next dog— Pukka—would enjoy a long and healthy life from the very beginning. His quest began before Pukka was born— researching genetics and how to choose healthy parents, finding a breeder willing to rethink standard early vaccinations—and continued after Pukka came home, delving into quality-of-life concerns for all dogs, such as food, birth control and routine health care. Pukka’s Promise is the culmination of Kerasote’s extensive research. Bark contributing editor Rebecca Wallick recently spoke with Kerasote about some of his experiences and observations.
Bark: On your quest for longer-lived dogs, what were some of the more encouraging things you learned?
B: What did you find that disturbed you?
B: If someone wants a dog of a particular breed, what should they think about?
B: Of all aspects of canine care and companionship, are there things you feel are happening too slowly?
B: You spent a lot of time at shelters, investigating what makes some successful in becoming no-kill, while others can’t seem to reach that goal. What do you think makes the difference?
B: In Pukka’s Promise, you take on some big players in the dog world—breeders, veterinarians, dog-food and toy manufacturers. Are you concerned about their reactions?
B: What is the big take-away you want readers to get from Pukka’s Promise?
For the full interview, see The Bark, Issue 73, Feb–Apr 2013.
Culture: Stories & Lit
At times, I forget that my dog, Floyd, can’t talk. Like, all the time. During our long walks, I’ll comment on the weather, the progress of a neighbor’s new fence, my plans for the day. My constant chatter doesn’t seem to bother him, as long as he can stop and leave some messages of his own.
Dog-behavior books give conflicting advice regarding human/canine conversation. Some experts recommend speaking in cheerful tones. One book suggested singing to dogs, a constant flowing river of happy sounds. I wonder what kind of music Floyd likes best. Howlin’ Wolf, or perhaps the Stray Cats? Other trainers recommend silence. Words other than commands only confuse the pooch. Wolves don’t chitchat. Save the speech for commands, for the words that matter: Sit. Stay. Snuggle.
I’m in the first camp. Dogs have been hanging around with our species long enough to know that we constantly voice our thoughts. I believe they’ve learned to tune us out until key words like ride, fetch and treat bubble to the top of our verbal slurry.
So I don’t think my non-command words confuse Floyd. If anything, I think they embarrass him. This may be in part because of my horrible timing. We’ve had several instances where passersby misunderstood my comments. While Floyd circled, shimmied and hopped to achieve the perfect angle for his mark on a fire hydrant, I said, laughing, “What are you doing, you freak?” Unfortunately, I posed the question as a woman pulled up next to us with her car’s window down to inquire about Floyd’s breed (only he knows, and he’s not telling). Instead of letting my comment die a quiet death, I tried to explain that I’d been talking to my dog, not to her. Her expression said it all: “Well, freaks must come in pairs then.”
Once, I said, “Come here, little man” to Floyd at the exact moment a diminutive gentleman turned the corner. How I wished I could scoop up the words in a plastic dog baggie. I wonder if Floyd is relieved that I have finally stopped calling him “Big Stink” and “Monkey Butt” in public after one too many sharp glares from someone nearby.
Calling “Get over here, you handsome devil” while Floyd played in the leaves next to my married neighbor was probably a poor choice of words. Particularly as another neighbor overheard me. Relationships on our street have been strained since.
Not only is my timing awful, I have a constant and inexplicable desire to explain everything to Floyd. “We can’t go to Reigning Cats and Dogs for a peanut butter biscuit today. I didn’t bring money.” His gaze slides to the man walking by who overhears us. I mean, overhears me.
Though I know Floyd is not going to whip out his daily planner to coordinate our schedules, I always explain why we’re taking a shorter route, or why he needs to hurry up. Dogs probably rank “clocks” up there with “lids” as the worst human inventions ever. Yet, I have said, “Give me five minutes, buddy” more than once. I have said this in front of people. Floyd chomps on an acorn to fill the awkward silence that inevitably follows. Signs instruct owners to “curb your dog.” I should really curb my comments to my dog.
My conversations with Floyd shine an ugly light on what kind of parent I would be. After he gobbled some rancid dumpster meat before I could stop him, I yelled (in cheerful singsong), “What were you thinking? We spend a fortune on your organic kibble. If you get sick, don’t come bellyaching to me.”
Did I really blurt, “You know better”?
Yes, yes I did.
And when I say things like, “Now, what did I just say to you?” I only shame myself.
Watching Floyd’s helicopter-tailhappy- dance when I ask, “Are you my best boy?” I realize that he sometimes gets a kick out of the babble. He’ll make a play bow, which is canine for “Well, yes I am. Now toss me that squeaky toy and let me show you a good time.”
We’ve all said things we regret. I’ve happened to say many of those things to my dog. He doesn’t hold it against me. A long walk, squirrel patrol and a possible biscuit later make my monkey chatter completely bearable. Or so he tells me.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Animals In and Out of Books
[Guilty Pleasures] Like kale and cod liver oil, books about string theory or shenanigans on Wall Street are no doubt good for us. But are they what come to mind when we’re looking for something to read? No, they are not. When we want to relax and lose ourselves in an engrossing puzzle, give us a mystery every time, especially a well-written British police procedural. In this category, Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series definitely makes the short list. These two Scotland Yard detectives, their lives with their sons Kit and Toby, and the nuances of their work are so well articulated that we were utterly gobsmacked to discover that Crombie isn’t British but rather, Texas born and raised. Today, she lives in northern Texas with her husband, German Shepherds and cats, and divides her time between the U.S. and the U.K. Read on for the origins of Crombie’s dog love.
The German Shepherds were my husband’s fault. When he was very small, his parents kept a German Shepherd for friends who had to go overseas for a summer. He adored the dog, which was very gentle with him, as Shepherds usually are with small children. He would put his hand in the dog’s mouth and pretend he was a lion tamer. (I can imagine the little blond imp shrieking with glee at his daring, and it has just occurred to me that my fictional little blond imp, Toby, might bear some relation to my real-life husband as a child.)
The German Shepherd went back to his owners, and my husband grew up with other dogs — a Bloodhound, a Boxer. But none replaced the German Shepherd in his imagination or affections.
I, on the other hand, did not grow up in a pet-friendly household. My mother did not care for cats and she was afraid of big dogs — she’d been bitten as a small child — and above all, she didn’t want anything in the house that shed!
When I was nine, my parents gave in to what I’m sure was my incessant and annoying whining, and took in an adult toy Poodle (no shedding) from some elderly relatives who could no longer care for her. Oh, dear, oh dear. The disappointment on all sides. The poor dog, Jolie, had been raised as a faux-human, and never adjusted to the deterioration in her circumstances, although she bore with us bravely for a good many years.
But this dog, who didn’t care for children and had never been taught to play, was not Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, and my heart was broken. I consoled myself by reading books about imaginary dogs, and spending hours poring over dog encyclopedias trying to decide on the perfect pup.
My first dog as an adult was a buff Cocker Spaniel, bought as a surprise for our seven-year-old daughter. His name was Taffy. He had every bad trait that plagues Cocker Spaniels. I adored him, and he me. We lost him to cancer when he was nine, and we found we couldn’t bear being dogless, even for a week.
I’d had visions of an English Cocker, perhaps a bi-color or a blue roan, but my husband had his heart set on a German Shepherd, and so Hallie came into our lives. She’s 14 now, and frail. Our younger Shepherd, Neela, is seven, and they have been everything that that long-ago little girl imagined as the ideal dog — brave, loving, loyal, smart, playful and funny. Oh, and we live in a sea of dog hair.
Gemma, of course, got the blue roan Cocker Spaniel, Geordie, and he is the dog of her heart. Kit’s Tess, on the other hand, the little foundling who might be a Norfolk Terrier, sprang out of nowhere, just as dogs sometimes do in real life. A frightened boy seeking shelter and solace found a frightened little dog behind a supermarket, and a match was made.
Before the fictional dogs, however, Duncan acquired a cat, Sid, a big black fellow who had belonged to his late friend and neighbor in Hampstead. Having resisted the temptation to give my primary f ictional characters German Shepherds, I’ve given the GSDs walk-on roles in a number of novels.
Dogs and cats weave in and out of all the books in the series. I notice I’ve had a particular fondness for black Labrador Retrievers, which pop up in a number of books. Duncan’s parents have a lovely Border Collie. One of my favorite fictional dogs has been Mo, the English Mastiff in Where Memories Lie (Wm. Morrow, 2008). Mo was modeled on a real English Mastiff named Big Mo. Big Mo’s owners bid at a Humane Society auction for the opportunity to have him appear in a book, and I hope I did him justice. I certainly enjoyed spending a book with him, drool and all. I particularly love the scene where he eats the tub of ice cream.
But if working dogs have had minor roles in previous books, they get their due in No Mark Upon Her (Wm. Morrow, 2012). Finn, a black Lab, and Tosh, a female German Shepherd who just happens to look exactly like our Neela, are search-and-rescue dogs with a volunteer organization I’ve called Thames Valley SAR in the book. TVSAR is based on a real volunteer group called Berkshire SAR, whose members were extremely helpful when I was researching the book. They allowed me to handle a search dog in training exercises, and to hide and pretend to be a victim. (In the dark, in the mud, I might add. All the more fun.)
I have tremendous respect for both dogs and handlers, and if the dogs in my book are heroes, their real-life counterparts are more so.
Will there be dogs and cats in future books? Undoubtedly. I can’t imagine my own life without their companionship, and my characters deserve to be equally blessed.
There is one caveat, however — the dogs and cats are not allowed to talk.
This essay first appeared in the “Animal” issue of Mystery Readers Journal and is reprinted with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The social patterns of a dog park
The West End cemetery is full of old dead sea captains and soldiers from the War of 1812, kids that died of cholera and wives that, after six or eight or ten children, just gave up. There are rich people under monuments, the Longfellow family in a vault, and paupers without so much as a wooden marker. No one’s been buried here since the middle of this century, and so the place has fallen into disrepair. You see a lot of the marble and shell headstones in puzzle pieces on the ground or standing at crooked attention. About ten years ago the cemetery was a popular hang-out for prostitutes and junkies—but now it’s just dogs and their owners.
When I first moved to town a couple years ago with my girlfriend Sara we walked our dog in the cemetery. There was this guy there named Jeff, a big brawny American Indian, from the Duckwater tribe I think, who sort of qualified as my first friend in Portland. He told me how he grew up in Nevada and was adopted by white parents and then raised in a little redneck town where people really didn’t like Indians. He’d moved around a lot and I pictured him as I was now, the stranger in a strange place. He walked with me in the cemetery, sometimes twice a day, whatever the weather. Or rather, we were both being walked by our dogs. His was a wolf mix named Keana, with a vacant, slightly menacing glint in her eye, who liked to rough up young puppies. And mine is a simple mutt named Trout, whose passion for chasing squirrels follows her lifetime commitment to rolling in poop.
It seemed like Jeff was always at the cemetery, sometimes up to eight hours in a row. He said he worked at night, supposedly for a local scuba-diving outfit, and that’s why he had so much free time during the day. He told stories, endless stories, about his high school football exploits and the blown-out knee that ended his college career at safety. He talked about fishing, how he gill-netted in the rivers of southeast Alaska and then how he and his girlfriend had bought a house and now they weren’t together anymore, and she had the house and he was here, a country away, walking his dog with people like me. He didn’t seem angry at all. No, in fact, he seemed happy. Like every day he was as happy as he’d been the day before. And because of it he was good at drawing people out, at connecting the various factions inside the cemetery so that everyone stood around, nodding dumbly, listening to Jeff, our oblivious mayor, holding forth on Keana’s new collar or perfect shampoo, while Keana took her pound of flesh out of some hapless pup.
This is not the way things usually work in the cemetery. The mere fact that I knew Jeff’s name was unusual. Usually people didn’t interact that much. Instead, we knew each other by handles. There was Dalmatian Man, father of three speckled dogs, one to whom he spoke in sign language. There was Greyhound Lady, regally walking her trio of Greyhounds until the day that Lightning, her beloved, dove through a plate-glass window during a thunderstorm and died. There was the man who walks and reads, and Frisbee Dude, and the Lawn Chair Family: an old father and his fifty-something son who daily set up their folding chairs near the cemetery gate. And the Pickup Artist, around whom no one was safe. And there was Crazy Shouting Man, owner of three ragtag mutts and an elder statesman of the cemetery, who, when I finally talked to him wasn’t Crazy Shouting Man at all. His name was Al.
“There are loads of people up there that I see all the time, some of them I’ve been seeing for years and I don’t know their name. I recognize them and they recognize me, we talk about all sorts of things, and it just never really occurs to you to ask their name because you know their dog’s name.
“As a matter of fact, I’ve always had these funny occasions where you run into people that you talk to a lot at the cemetery—you meet them somewhere … we were down at Granny Killams when it was open one night and this woman came over and said, ‘Al, how are you? how’s the dogs? how’s all this?’ and I was with a bunch of friends and I thought, ‘And this is …,’ and I realized I had no idea, it wasn’t that I had forgotten her name, it was that I’d never known her name. I knew her dog … I mean, I had no idea. And, this was not somebody that I just knew very casually, this was somebody that I probably walked with three or four mornings a week. But you always find you know a lot more dogs than you know people, which, I think, says something about who’s worth knowing anyway.”
Even today what strikes me as amazing about the cemetery is that there are people here, people who show up twice a day and see other people here twice a day for years and many of them just don’t know each other’s real name, let alone what the other does for a living, or dreams of at night, or loves or hates. They just know each other’s dogs’ names. So when they refer to one another, they might say, “Circe’s mom said Milk Bones are full of preservatives, which is why she cooks her own.” Or when they bump into each other downtown Christmas shopping, they’ll say, “Ellroy’s mom!” and then when nothing’s left to say, say, “Uh, how goes it?”
Was this intimacy or a complete lack of intimacy? Sometimes it felt like both at once. You had the warmth of intimacy and the comfort of hiding behind your dog. And yet every day you saw people at their most naked, talking baby-talk to their hounds, kneeling to pick up poop. I asked my friend Julie, Reuben’s mother, about this.
“I think I really get a sort-of window into people’s … well, into people’s souls. You watch people very contentedly walking around, throwing the ball, interacting with their dogs or totally ignoring their dogs, and going at their own pace and every once in a while yelling for their dog and ….”
Here’s Al again: “I mean, I really judge people by how they behave toward their dog. When I see people hit a dog, I’m really sort of appalled and amazed that you would do that.
“I mean, I know who really, really likes their dogs and who doesn’t. I know people who’ve got trophy dogs and people who’ve got the scruffiest, ugliest dog, but they really, really love that dog.”
I think it was the love part that kept me going back to the cemetery. And then it became my social hour, my escape, where, more often than not, I’d find Jeff and Keana. The minute Jeff realized I was a writer he went to the library and over the course of a week read everything I’d ever written. And then, to my horror, wanted to talk about it. And he did this kind of thing with others, too.
When the leaves began to change during my first October in the West End cemetery, Jeff was already talking about a Christmas card he was planning—a photograph of Keana and himself. He brought it up obsessively, about how Keana was going to have a haircut and shampoo and have her nails clipped, and how he had arranged for a photographer, and how they were scouting locations. There were ups and downs in the saga as it played out over weeks—a good location that might not work out the day of the shoot if a nor’easter hit, the need to time everything just perfectly so that Keana would leave the beauty parlor and then immediately sit for her picture before she could come back to the cemetery and get muddy.
In retrospect there were little clues even then that something strange was going on with Jeff. While he said he owned a truck, I only saw him at bus stops around town. And the scuba-diving … later when I called various outfits in Portland, no one had ever heard of him. In the end, he had the photograph taken at Sears, he and Keana in the stiff, unsmiling pose of a Civil War-era husband and wife, he in his familiar blue sweatshirt hulking behind Keana who was perfectly coifed. He was beaming when he handed the Christmas card to me, literally beaming.
After Christmas I left the country for several weeks and when I came back, some time after a massive ice storm, Jeff was nowhere to be found. The cemetery glittered with glazed headstones. It took days to unravel the story because people didn’t seem to want to talk about it … didn’t seem to want to talk about anything. Everyone just bundled into themselves, and Jeff … he was a very touchy subject, one that suddenly made us all feel defensive. What I learned was this: he’d had health problems, an infection of some kind. He went to the hospital at the same time that he was apparently forced out of his apartment. Money was tight. He’d asked someone from the cemetery to put him up, another line crossed. But that hadn’t worked out. Keana was taken to a kennel by Megan, Matty’s mom. And now she was calling the kennel regularly to see if Jeff had picked her up, but he hadn’t. Week after week she called until it was clear that Jeff couldn’t or wouldn’t pick up Keana, that he was gone. That’s when Keana was adopted by someone else.
Here’s Megan: “You start talking about this stuff with somebody and then you realize, “I didn’t even know this person … like with Jeff, I mean, it was like you knew everything about his life but in the end how much of that was actually true? And, you know, you didn’t even know this person … it was like August to December and he was gone. But it seemed like forever.”
There were completely unsubstantiated rumors that he’d robbed a bank. Someone knew someone whose cousin had seen his photo on a Boston newscast. Maybe. But then most people were quick to accept this as fact. In a weird way, I wonder if we felt betrayed. Betrayed because Jeff had broken the simple rules of the cemetery. He’d become too intimate. Now he was gone and it was hard to say hi, let alone catch someone else’s eye. During those dark winter months the cemetery became a kind of haunted, trustless place. In one of the endless conversations we had about him later, some people worried that he knew where we lived … someone threatened to track him down. But what for? So that he might never again bamboozle other hapless dog owners in other seaside towns into chatting about doggy shampoo?
Sara and I kept the Christmas card on our refrigerator right up until a couple of months ago, actually, when it quietly fell to a new rotation of refrigerator photos. We kept it there in hopes, I think, that he would come back and explain where he’d been, for I was pretty certain that he couldn’t have robbed a bank. And if he had, I told myself, maybe it was because he had to. Maybe he’d been inches from a life he imagined for himself, with a dog that gave unconditional love, with friends he was guaranteed to see every day and he’d had a couple of bad breaks—got sick, ran out of money, lost his dog and then panicked.
Now time has passed. People come and go and every six months the galaxy inside these gates breaks apart and reconfigures. Dogs die, people leave for nursing homes, others move, more arrive and every day, today even, people are here walking in spectral circles like they’re in Mecca. Circling the Ka’ba. In general I’d say things are back to the way they were—intimate but not intimate. We stand around in dumfounded joy with ten, twenty, thirty other gaping grown adults, reveling in the simplicity of stupidly entertaining dog play. Dalmatian Man still flashes sign language at his deaf Dalmatian, the Pickup Artist still works his magic, the Lawn Chair Family still sets up by the cemetery gate each day, covering their legs with wool blankets.
Fact is, even without somebody like Jeff pulling people together, if you stand on a corner with a bunch of strangers, eventually something happens that brings you together. Sometimes something small. The other night I went to the cemetery at sunset. There were the same broken headstones, the same sea captains and paupers, and there were all these living people, too, who only know me as Trout’s dad, or as the guy who stupidly named his dog Trout, or however they see me. The dogs were playing hard, racing in circles, not wanting any of it to end, and a gigantic moon came up, came up tangerine. It was the kind of moon that stills everything, and we stood in a circle watching it rise. For a minute or two we just stood there glowing orange, the dogs didn’t exist at all.
Culture: Stories & Lit
When I’m asked if I live alone, I reply, “No, I live with Lucy.” Lucy is my 12-year-old Beagle. She’s a stubborn little dog, but especially sweet and loving. My late husband, Don, and I adopted her from the local shelter nine years ago. We had been checking the shelter weekly, and when we drove up one Sunday in early June, the attendant said, “I have just the dog for you.” He led us to a tri-colored hound, unlocked the pen and said, “Her name is Lucy.”
The frisky Beagle charged toward us, running from one to the other. She wiggled all over when we stooped down to pat her. We were hooked immediately by her affection. “Her ears are like velvet,” I said, stroking her and smiling up at Don. He nodded, then asked the attendant, “Where do we sign?”
Within minutes, the paperwork was completed. Don opened the back door of our Buick station wagon and Lucy hopped right in. The trip home took about 10 minutes. She sat looking out the window as though she had ridden with us all her life. When she placed her front right paw on the armrest, we knew she was special; later that night, as we listened to her snore, we agreed she was a perfect fit. I intended for her to be Don’s dog. He had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I had read that a dog would be helpful. They became buddies at once. Don spent hours in the back yard throwing a tennis ball, which Lucy raced after but never retrieved. She’d sit at the ball and wait until Don traipsed across the yard to pick it up and throw it again. They never tired of that little game. As his illness progressed, his stride became a slow shuffle. Lucy waited patiently for him to reach her. “Go get it,” he said, tossing the ball again.
One afternoon, it became quiet in the back yard. I headed toward the door to check on them, then noticed that they were both asleep on the braided rug in the family room. Don’s arm was around Lucy. When I approached, she opened her eyes without moving an inch, so as not to disturb him. I ran for the camera.
When Don puttered around the yard or went down to the basement, she was at his side. Evenings, after they had their ice cream, he sat in his recliner with Lucy curled up on his lap.
In September, we signed her up for obedience training. I handled her during classes, as Don’s memory was failing; he sat on a bench nearby and watched. The instructor said Beagles are stubborn, but Lucy surprised us. Head and tail held high, she pranced along beside me like a show dog. As a proud mother, I beamed.
When I could no longer provide Don’s care, he became a resident at a nursing facility. Lucy mourned his absence in our home. She waited at the back door with the tennis ball in her mouth. If I opened the freezer door, she dashed into the kitchen, expecting ice cream.
Each afternoon, we visited Don. Lucy was so excited that she dragged me across the parking lot. She stood on her hind legs at his wheelchair, her entire body wagging. Don’s laughter filled the hallway. As his illness progressed and he was no longer able to acknowledge us, Lucy was completely undemanding. She sat quietly at the foot of his wheelchair and grieved.
Evenings at home, when I sat in Don’s recliner, Lucy would jump up on my lap. I welcomed the closeness, but her 36 pounds was too much for me. I’d point to the floor and say, “Down, girl, down. You’re too heavy for me.” Reluctantly, she’d jump down and nestle alongside the chair, looking up. I rubbed her velvet ears, and we were both comforted.
It’s been nearly four years since we lost Don. That sensitive little Beagle has transferred her love to me. Her companionship and loyal devotion fill the void in my life. She is never far away, and I talk to her all day long. Her bed is in a corner of my bedroom. Every night before she settles down, she comes alongside the bed for a little smooch. I pat her head and say, “You’re a good girl. Mommy loves you.” It fills a need for both of us.
I’ve had many dogs in my 83 years, but never one as loving and devoted as my Lucy. She keeps me company, makes me laugh and snuggles up when she senses I’m lonely. She is the perfect housemate. I don’t know what I’d do without her.
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