Dogs: what are they thinking? What keeps them in check, what lets them break loose? Who are they, each of these canines who live beside us, who we live beside, who drive our love machines?
We got possession of an almost four-year-old dog* about five weeks ago, named Sundance. His personalities are as varied as the dances his name implies. There’s Sundance as Everyone’s Idol, and he knows it, dropping to his back, parting his legs, and showing his willingness to be petted on his tummy, and especially, his neck and ears. His head switches up to a Snoopy pose when you work on his jaw, his eyes closed, teleporting his divine pleasure and my part in it.
There’s the Ludic Kid**, who sprints loops around our 13-year old dog, Odin, who with his long face, appears to tolerate this young’un. Odin seems to say, “OK, for a few minutes, but I’ve already done all this, you know. I’ve seen it all.” These outbreaks are infrequent, and usually happen the moment we get back in the front door from a walk.
“I’m home. Home. I know this place, guys,” Sundance warbles. “Wowie kazowie,” and he play-bites Odin, then runs away to be chased before he flips over in pretend submission, then does a double side role when Odin gets close, and sprints away again. If Odin doesn’t give chase, Sundance is back to tackle him.
There’s the Hungry Sundance. “No one ever feeds me,” he groans. Then he finds a way to lie in front of the sink, in front of the refrigerator, in a doorway—wherever we might soon be planning to walk, just in case we forgot to notice him.
Then there are the Sundances who are hard to fathom. These Sundances bring to mind my own dark fears that only surface when my more noble or understandable fears are insufficient for the emotion I want to inhabit.
What goes on in the mind of a dog? Or a person, for that matter? So fickle, so changing. The dark side, unheralded, of a flickering shaft of sun.
~ ~ ~
I rush home from work to get Sundance to the vet. The appointment is in eight minutes. In spite of some treatments, his ears still itch, and his chin, and one paw. He won’t tell us why—allergies? To food or to something else? A lingering ear infection that has his systems off? Or some personal need to scratch, that comes from a different sort of need altogether? My husband says, “I haven’t seen him since I got home. I thought you had him.”
“This is an emergency,” I declare, certain that our spot of light is dead, on a busy neighborhood road. “Check the basement,” I order, as I rush up the stairs, heedless of my torn hamstring. “He might be stuck in a room behind a closed door.”
But there Sundance is, a black and white mottle in a perfect disk on the upstairs bed. “Napping,” he mutters when I stroke his beautiful back, my hand following his fur in a counter-clockwise coil. “Such a nice bed,” he murmurs, his eyes still closed.
~ ~ ~
Independent. We didn’t expect that. Odin and our beloved Hera, no longer with us after almost fifteen years of life, followed us from room to room. On walks, if they found a vole-smell to dig after, but saw that we had kept walking, they’d dig, dig … and then sadly leave their digging and come sprinting, bullet-like, back to our sides, often somersaulting when they tried to stop in front of us.
We are used to that dependence, that clinginess, and expected it from our new co-resident. In fact, we counted on it. With the frequency at which our game camera shows cougars at our cabin, we want our little morsels to stay nearby.
But we also expected that dependence, that attitude that our other dogs would explain: “Being with you, above all else, is important to me all the moments of my life. I live for you. When you leave I wait, only because I have to. What fulfillment I experience, what joy, when I hear you ring your bike bell on your return, or when I see the black neighborhood cat—oh, I do love thinking of that cat. It is very black. It arches its back, so slowly, and looks right up at me. I will catch it one day, you know. … Where was I?” Odin, or Hera, would have to start over. “Being with you, above all else … When I see the cat scram—stay with the thought, try, try—then I know that a vehicle will roll into the driveway and you will come in through a door. My anxiety lifts, but not until you are fully inside.”
“Does that explain why you bark every afternoon when the postal person comes to the door?” I could snicker.
“Don’t be silly,” Odin would answer for the both of them—himself and Hera. “I want to bite those fingers. Just a little chomp. Usually, all I get is the mail. I really like it when there’s a big envelope that comes at me through the slot, folded over. It gets pushed and pushed and pushed, which gives me time to move that accordion fence that gets put in my way every morning. I get a grip and pull.”
~ ~ ~
But back to Sundance, who I will declare, is definitely not a rescue. He’s a gorgeous, loving, well-bred, well humaned, and well-trained, awesome little creature. He’s a dog to beg for. Others did, and I did, too.
And yet, sometimes he almost has no personality.
What can I possibly mean by that?
It’s that look in his big eyes. He is too accepting. His eyes say “yes” regardless of what my eyes are saying. More appropriate some days would be that he back off, or sidle up slowly to whisper, “I see, another one of those days.” Or come to me with a frown: “You woke me up,” or “Odin took my sleeping spot three times today.” Or “How come I’m thirsty,” he could ask, and I could scold him gently in return, “Because you didn’t get over there and lap up any water.” It isn’t comfortable living with someone who doesn’t appear to judge the things that matter to me.
The breeder had placed him with a family—a busy husband and wife, with at least one grown daughter and another dog. But there was a divorce. I remember when my own relationship uncertainties (with a divorce) tanked my training of Odin. The dogs were my rescues at that point. Odin was young. Hera was middle-aged. The kids were in high school. I had kids and dogs and there was everyone’s health and my job and the garden. I was getting to the point of suggesting my parents move to Corvallis. I don’t know much about Sundance’s past, other than that his family sound very nice and responsible via social media, the fabulous breeder thinks the world of them, so I don’t suspect anything sinister or nasty. The family had reached a point in which they realized that Sundance would be happier with a family that could give him more of the company he craved. The breeder offered to take him in while the original family sorted themselves out post-divorce.
I had been looking for a puppy, “super-friendly, and preferably a really big one.” The breeder talked at length, many times, with the original family. Her dog had puppies. But one day the breeder mentioned the possibility of Sundance. We met him, we met the breeder, and we took the lovey-dog into the car and home. We’ve since had contact with the original family; we’ll meet them one day.
But to say we know what Sundance has experienced would be nonsense.
~ ~ ~
So now, Sundance, the Mysterious Dog, who startles at buckets, who some nights will not budge an inch if we drop the leash, even in our own yard, and yet who other nights will rush down the porch stairs on his own. The other night I was walking them through our town’s Central Park, and at his own bidding, he went into a perfect sit—and refused to move. His weight went from 25.2 pounds up to two hundred. I followed his eyes, which were trained on a sculpture that we faced. It was a whimsical bronze cast of a stack of animals on stilts with a cloak and a hat, that looked, in conglomerate, like a stranger on a sashay into town. I picked up our trembling Sundance, held him close, and murmured reassurances. I lifted him up to the statue, to rub his nose against the alligator’s that was underneath the mouse. He relaxed and ran ludically on.
Other times he has stopped on the trail. He will not budge; we don’t know why. And once when we stopped the truck to unlock the gate to our property, he let out three or four whines—impatient, anticipatory—jumped through the open door, and disappeared. We were half a mile from the main road and a third of a mile from the cabin, with the only runnable terrain being the road itself, and yet he was gone. Within fifteen minutes he appeared, breathless and covered everywhere with Galium fruits (those little armed balls from bedstraw). He wouldn’t tell us where he’d been or why, or what emotions he had been through in those minutes apart. We were left with only the emotions we’d been through, and with a reinforced knowledge that we need to know him better, and we need him to know us better, in many ways.
And in the evening hours at the cabin when we invite the dogs outside for a potty run, he breaks the cardinal rule, which is to stay within the bulb of the cabin’s light. He isn’t gone more than a couple of minutes, but that is enough for Big Tawny to take him.
~ ~ ~
My husband is a persona de pocas palabras, an expression I learned in Guatemala in the Peace Corps when the future Minister of Agriculture for that country described the horticulturist who would teach us to graft buds. That is a person of few words—but whose thoughts run deep, Rodolfo explained. My husband’s role in our dog ownership is to facilitate my having them. He can usually be counted on to help walk and feed them, and occasionally to take them to the vet. He doesn’t go down on the floor and make woofy sounds into their backs when he comes home, but If a dog appears at his side on the couch, he rests a hand on its back.
He left this morning with his granddaughter to drive to California for his grandson’s high school graduation. I leave tomorrow for Vermont for a professional meeting that I’m chairing and that I’ve been planning for a couple of years*. We said our goodbyes, me up on the porch, him with a hand on the handle of the car door. His granddaughter was already seated.
“Take care of it all,” he told the dogs, and drove away.
*a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
*ludic: undirected and spontaneous playfulness, see Let’s Hear it for Being Ludic
*Plasticity in Plant Vascular Systems: Roles, Limits and Consequences