Photo by Tom Simpson
I’ve always wondered about the strange symbiosis that forms between dog owners and their dogs. For dog lovers, the word pet fails to suffice. But the dog walker may speculate: is it an equally co-dependent companionship, where partners receive and transmit comparable levels of appreciation and affection? Or is it asymmetrical—an over-identification on the part of the human to blur the line between barks and consonants? In short, can the language barrier only be broken when a hankering for kibble comes to pass?
About a year ago, a family friend left me a voicemail. She was going out of town unexpectedly and asked if I could take over her dog-walking gig for the weekend. “Wait ‘till you see them, they’re such sweeties.” I wasn’t clear if she meant the dogs or the owners. “It’s so simple, you’ll love it. I told them you were a real animal lover and super responsible. Call me if you have any questions (although my cell may be out of service range). Thanks a million.”
Two days later I found myself navigating to the couple’s house. As my feet padded closer to their mossy brownstone’s apartment on that muggy day, I kept thinking to myself: “What are you doing? You don’t know the first thing about dogs. Do they eat kibble or bones? Are they like horses, will they sense if you’re nervous around them?” After I met the owners, a young couple with chic hair cuts, an impressive DVD collection, and uncomfortable bar chairs, I was struck by how much they expected of me so soon: “Maggie has been having some digestive problems, so she’ll need her pills.” (Pills?!) “They’re on the counter, she likes the garden light on, and if she follows you into the bathroom it’s only because she likes the company.” They left with smiling faces; I had fooled them, bluffed my dog experience and landed my first canine -sitting deal.
Maybe I inherited the snoop-gene from my family, but whenever I’m over at another person’s house, I can hardly keep from reading their books, glancing at what publications they receive in the mail, what groceries are left to buy on the sad to-do list, anything that gives me intriguing clues as to how they live their lives. As I searched their cupboards for something to nosh on, I ended up in their pantry. Beside the bin with folded microwave popcorn and the stack of ceramic bowls lay a black composition book, which read “Maggie’s Journal” in light pencil. Inside were a series of entries:
January 1st, 2010: I am adapting very well to my new home. Woof!
March 18th 2011: Exercising daily, working on my social habits, trying to eat more organic vegetables filled with fiber and nutrients.
April 20th 2011: I was not as good of a dog as I could’ve been because I lost my self control at the dog run this morning. Tonight I will sleep. Tomorrow I will be better.
“What on earth?” I thought. “Is this like a baby Einstein program for dogs? Why would this seemingly normal couple spend their free moments writing down their dog’s projected thoughts?” And then it hit me, as the greyhound curled up beside me: maybe dogs weren’t what I’d been skeptical about; maybe it was their strange owners…?
Ever since the first time I watched 101 Dalmatians, I had no doubt that dogs looked like their owners. But I’m beginning to think it might be the other way around. Who’s to say it’s the dog that sets the trend? Perhaps if the owners feel there is something missing in their lives, they look to their dog for answers and for wisdom. Maybe looking into a dog’s knowing eyes feels kinder than looking honestly into yourself. Our tenant of many years used to love to talk about her dog. Regardless of where the conversation started it would eventually circle back to her pup. This dog was like the period at the end of her thoughts. I began to wonder if she even had a wider range of conversation topics.
Surprisingly, that first gig wasn’t the last time I dog-sat. Word spread and for a few months over the summer, I had sat, visited and walked for a cluster of dogs and their owners. Walking dogs meant confronting the fact that you would run into twice as many people in a five-block radius than if you had walked fifteen blocks on your own. You get to know the circuits, the schedules, the morning runs, the afternoon strolls, the hasty night walks, the dogs are still the same from morning ‘till night but the people seem to take on a whole new light. There’s that moment when dog spots dog and owner confronts owner. As the dogs proceed with their usual territorial encirclement, barking, sniffing and surveying, the owners surreptitiously do the same, more inclined to like an incoming dog than the person holding its leash. “How are you?” a man once asked with a scrawny shiatsu, “Oh…I’m fine. Thanks.” “Oh, no I meant the dog,” he clarified gruffly. “Oh yes of course,” I apologized, puzzling over the purpose of the question in the first place. I face these awkward moments when I forget that people language can suddenly morph into dog talk with no interlude.
On the night of the hurricane, as my mother stood on top of our kitchen table taping up our windows and carrying in plants, my cell phone rang: eight missed calls. All from dog owners in the neighborhood calling to see if I could stop by and visit with Fido or Daisy, feed Rascal and walk Chum. I couldn’t be in ten places at once, so I arranged to pick them up and bring them all back to my house for the day. Later that night Chum and Fido needed one more whiff of fresh air. As we made our way up a side street we paused to see a woman up ahead with frizzy hair, looking intently at her dog. The woman said to me: “He knows…he knows all. He knows what the weather god’s don’t know. He can feel it.” “Ok…have a good night,” I said, turning the corner before this got any more Twilight Zone. Maybe the dogs do know. Or maybe we just like to believe.
Lily Lopate, currently a student at Bryn Mawr College, has been a staff writer, columnist and senior editor at Bi-College News and other publications. She has received national recognition for her personal essays and poetry from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the Columbia Press Association. She also has an essay in the forthcoming “Daughters and Fathers” collection from Seal Press.