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Color of Joy

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.”

Caroline Knapp (1959-2002), an Ivy League graduate and successful journalist, was the author of four books, including Alice K's Guide to Life; Drinking: A Love Story; Pack of Two; and The Merry Recluse (published posthumously).

Photo by Mark Morelli

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