By David Sherman
Love dogs. Had a few of them over the years. They can be irritating, messy, noisy, expensive, destructive and come with a guarantee – you will be picking up dog shit the rest of the dog’s life. You will be carrying bags of dog shit during revitalizing walks to some receptacle, perhaps half a kilometre or so away. You might stop to chat with friend or neighbour, a bag of warm dog manure in your hand.
Or, like a former colleague who worked nine to five while she barricaded the dog in the kitchen, come home and realize, bit by bit, day by day, the dog has eaten the kitchen, tore up the floor, ate the cabinets but left the appliances. And, therein lies the tale.
Dogs are dogs. They’re smart and furry and playful and life-affirming. They have beautiful, cobbled leather noses, curious eyes, come in all sizes, furry and not so furry, allergenic or not, frisky and less frisky, noisy or taciturn, protective or “So what? I’m sleeping.”
They’re smart and stupid, always hungry and will eat anything prepared by a human, from scraps to a complete loaf of bread left on the counter. Sometimes with the bag, plastic or paper, it comes in.
They’re not picky. But they will spit out dry chow, unless they’re on a starvation diet, but so would you. The only people who advise feeding dogs corn-meal laden dry kibble are the people that make it. Corn is not big on a dog’s list of preferred foods.
Since Covid, all over my town, as in towns everywhere, people are patrolling the sidewalks with various-sized puppies wrestling with their leashes. They’re sporting muzzles. Some are in coats. Some in coats and pants. (No, I’m not kidding.)
They’re learning to become well-behaved children. Do what they’re told, come when they’re called. Walk straight. Sit here and lie there. They’re having the dog removed from them. They’re being de-dogged.
We have decided it’s our species of choice to enslave for our pleasure though in several parts of the world a dog’s only use is in a stew.
Late night on the highway, listening to NPR, I heard an author of a book on dogs discuss what she insisted was a cooperative relationship between man and hound. Dogs went along with the rules to please their humans but they needed to feel it was reciprocal. They had to know you cared. They had needs humans were advised to accept or the dog would be miserable and maybe eat your kitchen.
She said a dog on a leash went against everything a dog was born to do – run, smell and explore. But the dog would accede to being tethered to you, muzzled and dressed so her wet fur wouldn’t stain the carpets or the furniture because she felt she was making you happy. She wanted your affection and your food.
But, part of the deal, was the dog had to have his way, too. A swim, a run through the forest, a trip to the dog park where, if he hasn’t been de-dogged, can hang with his colleagues and sniff butts and urine trails and run around and bark.
He could be a dog. And, once thus allowed a glimpse of what life can be, he will revert to the de-dogged dog when requested and lie at your feet and stare at you lovingly and run to the door when you come home.
Now, I’m not sure this advice is relative to lap dogs, who, it would seem, are bred to shiver, bark continually, live in leather bags and be carried everywhere. These critters are not dogs, they’re breathing, excreting, consuming plush toys.
I’ve read somewhere dogs can understand as many as 600 words. I have a friend who is a scientist and dog owner, but not in that order, who swears his dog understands what the day after tomorrow means. The highlight of his days is his walks with the dogs and a cigar.
My dogs had a more limited vocabulary. They understood “eat” and “outside.” After that, you were pretty much talking to yourself.
My last pooch was a black Lab, rescued from a cage at the SPCA where he had been dumped after living his seven years with another dog and a couple who divorced. The hounds were impounded and separated.
The Lab was renamed Jesse and answered to that after a couple of days and fell in love with the sofa. I lived on a lake but Jesse rarely swam alone, preferring to wait for a human before he paddled in circles, sometimes deciding he had to get stuck under the pier.
He watched the neighbour’s dog dive from their pier but he preferred a more gentle, genital-saving, slow immersion.
He chased sticks into the lake via some genetic compulsion and when he had enough, I fetched the stick and he lay down in the grass or on the pier, thinking who was the fetcher and who was the fetchee.
For solitary sport, he liked to fish in the shallows, stand perfectly still and poised and slam a fish with his front paw, prance around a bit with it in his mouth, drop its carcass and then punch out and head for the sofa, his work for the day completed.
For a couple of months, whenever I left the house, he immediately ran to the truck, tail wagging. I’m pretty sure he wanted me to drive him back to his other life.
I was on a couple of acres of trees with neighbours on both sides and he visited them from time to time but mostly he looked depressed and would only go out if I accompanied him. I think his former owners broke his heart but he never talked about it.
Hiking trails and the cemetery were our favourite haunts. He ran off trail and would circle back, as do most dogs, making sure I was coming. If I didn’t hang with him, he sat on the driveway and looked depressed.
When I had the audacity to use the sofa, he would walk over to the door leading to the porch and open the latch with his snout and push the door open. When I went to close the door, he took the sofa.
When I had parties, Jesse decided when it was time for guests to go. He’d go from person to person and give them “the look.” He wasn’t exactly anti-social, he just wanted his sofa and wanted the music to stop.
I had the good fortune to have a little land and access to a lake and trails a short drive away. Jesse was only on a leash in the city to get him from the car to a dog park. But he was not amused. He was not a fancier of dogs. He preferred humans and even cats.
He was great company on moonlit walks, where we would stand together and I’d star gaze and he’d lean his head against my thigh, nose frenetically twitching. I was always the first to suggest going home.
I never tried to teach him to sit or roll over or fetch my slippers. I figure he shared my home and a bit of my life and I gave him food and a lake and he gave me … I’m not sure what. Sometimes, he’d let me join him on the sofa and sometimes he slept with his head on my lap, after some grumbling. I watched his muzzle grey, his hind quarters grow tentative when he climbed stairs.
And I let him do what he wanted, go out and visit if he liked, go down and fish if he felt like it, take a swim, have the sofa.
Somehow, he always smelled good, looked majestic, except when he slept on his back with his feet in the air and his head half off the sofa. But whatever he gave me, I think I got the better of the deal.
Dogs are dogs. They’re imperial creatures, not designed for laps or apartment living, leashes or fenced in backyards. They will make you happy if you do the same for them and let a dog be a dog.
If circumstances don’t allow, maybe get a cat.