I still have a scar on my left forefinger from that time in second grade when I cut up a cardboard box with a dull steak knife to make a house for my dog Lucky. He was a little yellow cocker spaniel mix and, although I really liked him, I only remember having him for a short time. My first real dog—the one we had until I was in my early 20s, was Tony. He was a small standard apricot poodle and my mom brought him to my fourth grade class as a present for my 9th birthday.
All the kids gathered around me as I held the tiny puppy. Little did I know that afternoon that he would be like a family member to me for the next 14 years. When I went away to camp the next summer, my mom would write me letters that were supposedly from him. When I was sad, Tony would lie by my bed quietly. When I would ride my white Schwinn around the neighborhood, Tony would often run alongside me. It was the first time that I felt authentic unconditional love.
What about the ability to be present, to sleep unfettered, to chase a tennis ball as if it were the greatest item on earth, and to swim in a river just because it’s there?
When I lived with my first long-term partner, we also had a standard poodle—Jessee. She was about as ill-behaved as a dog could be, but she was hilarious and loving and a nutball, the way a really great dog is. After that, I didn’t have a dog for a long time. I lived in an apartment with a mildly strict no-pets policy, which meant I had gold fish for a year or so and then got two kittens who mostly lived under the bed until I moved into a house a couple of years later. But even then, what felt like the potential chaos of having a dog overrode any desire I might occasionally have to get one. I wish I’d known that getting a dog would have actually been the perfect antidote to my fear of pandemonium and disorder.
Thankfully, I finally moved into a much saner period of time in my life and began to meet some of the dogs that would remind me of the true power of their tribe. Kim’s dog Mickey broke the ice, but it was really Tucker, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi, whose presence changed me. He was Jodi’s dog and, when we were first seeing each other, he would come over when she did. Corgis are working dogs and I often think that his job was to soften me, to let me know that he had things under control so I could just rest. From across the room, he would look at me seriously with his huge brown eyes and I really did feel a sense of things being okay.
Because here’s the thing about dogs—I believe it’s highly possible that they’re superior creatures. Who says reasoning and making tools and having thumbs are such great attributes? What about the ability to be present, to sleep unfettered, to chase a tennis ball as if it were the greatest item on earth, and to swim in a river just because it’s there? How can we actually believe that worrying about everything is a more evolved trait than being able to roll around on your back just because someone says your name?
We lost two dogs within three months this summer and my world is so much smaller because of it. Bryar and Tairiq, each in their own way, were as in tune with me as practically any human I’ve ever known. They knew when I was sad or upset, and they knew when it was time to entertain me. They understood when I needed quiet. Even when it was 10 whole minutes past their mealtime and they HAD to tell me about it, they would do it as unobtrusively as they could possibly manage.
I am consoled these days by our new dog, Nugget, who will have her first litter of service puppies in a couple of months. I am only just getting to know Nugget, but already I see how much she watches us lovingly, and sits next to us or away from us as she determines what we need. Mostly I am in awe of her, as I have grown to be about most dogs. I long for their patience, their ability to see past the ridiculous, and that uncanny way they have of reading their audience. In the face of it all, they trot toward us, grin goofily, and put their heads in our laps. I can't help but think that this as good a way as any to make one's way in the world.