My Life With Dogs

I read the following post at the Glen Workshop, on August 1, 2017. The essay originally appeared in the Good Letters blog associated with IMAGE magazine in June, 2010, under the title, “The Mutt and Me.”  “Jaeger,” the dog mentioned below, died unexpectedly in February of this year. He has been succeeded by “Samson,” (see photo) yet another mutt, who is slowly learning to curb his puppy energy and mischief, but my wife and I still miss the big galoot who preceded him. 

Humanity is readily divisible into two groups: those who divide humanity into groups and those who don’t. The wise—even those among the dividers—learn to hold their tongue among the former. More than matters of taste, the position one takes in intractable arguments reveals something of one’s interior life. Realist or Nominalist, PC or Mac, Whitman or Dickinson—such disputations are endless, fascinating, and deeply personal.

When it comes to the debate over cats and dogs, some humans fight like…humans. Many of us living in our planet’s rich and leisurely North have some stake in the matter, preferring one or the other species, though some don’t care, some can’t abide either, and others truly love both.

Here’s my confession: I’m a dog person.

It’s an a priori statement, of course. I may, at times, offer justifications and arguments, but that seems—to me at least—no more persuasive than appeals to DNA, subconscious, or some other fashionable astrology. Truth is, I’m just that way.

I realize entire cultures think differently. Old Testament Judaism considered dogs unclean scavengers with contemptible habits; most biblical references to dogs are disparaging. (Interestingly, the Bible says next to nothing about cats.)

Traditional Navajos claim anyone who spends money on a dog is destined to be poor. On the other hand, Navajos and Palestinian Jews use dogs for shepherding, and those dogs at work are a wonder to watch. Still, the judgment’s there, built into the cultural heritage.

I should make it clear that, while I’m not a fan of cats, I wish them no harm, nor do I think ill of cat lovers, however unlikely I find their affections. Cats have a finely tuned nose for the person least fond of them, and the cat my family keeps prefers my lap above all others when I sit outside. That may be related to another oddity: I’m also the only person in the house who remembers to feed her.

As for dogs, I like almost all, save those yelping little toys that make up in bluster and frenzy what they lack in mass. My favorite breed, though, is the mutt. Their jumbled heritage and plebian instincts resemble my own.

All the dogs that matter to me have been mutts. There was Fritz, a black and white genealogical mystery with an even temperament, a willingness to please, and breath stale as month-old saltines.

And Blondie, rescued from the Navajo Reservation and built like a coyote: white neck and belly, upright triangle ears and black mascara markings at his mouth and eyes. He loved to run and leap, snapping at grasshoppers that flew from the desert brush he trampled underneath. He climbed the ladder of the playground slide and took the short way down. He was the best dog I ever knew, and I still feel his absence like a weight.

Then came Ozzie, a stray who chose us rather than the other way around. Ozzie was a beagle-terrier mix with lots of smarts and charm, saddled with bad habits and odd behavior. Over time, he increasingly resembled a rehabbed Maserati: a beauty to look at, even if the wiring was never quite right.

I’m pondering all this because we’re hosting a new dog at home, a boxer-hound mix in for a required weekend tryout from the Save the Animals Foundation. My wife, Jill, included us in the decisions along the way, but when it comes to dogs in our house, Jill’s clearly the alpha mom.

She’s already taught him to sit and lay down on cue, and she’s working on “stay” and “come.” The boys named him “Jaeger,” which is German for “hunter.” It seems too solemn a name for this big galoot with a short, brindled coat of black and tan, but I’ll go along if that’s what they want.

Tonight, at dinner, we’ll discuss if he stays for good, though it’s hard to imagine returning him to the shelter now. There will be things to work out: where he sleeps, who takes responsibility for walks and feeding, to what degree we all participate in his training. All that will take time and effort, but later. Right now this dog is busy winning our hearts.

I like Jaeger for the same reasons I like most dogs. In a dog’s presence, I don’t have to decipher an agenda or guess how to behave. Dogs take joy not in what I can do for them, but because I and the squirrel and that interesting smell from one yard over exist. Dogs like to touch and be touched. They’re not obsessed with looks and never, ever use the words “self-esteem.”

Jaeger’s exploring the yard this on late afternoon, circling back on occasion to verify my affection. He rests his overlarge head on my chair’s arm, confident I’ll soon bend near for friendly nuzzle.

He’s right, of course; I will. My “to do” list groans with unfinished tasks, and I have more worries than is healthy for any man, but there’s a friendly dog next to me and all that busyness doesn’t matter just now.