My Dog Taught Me How to Read

It is no secret that I love my dog. Since he came into my life, we’ve steadily increased our escapades—our run mileage and distance traveled from home and hours spent reading on the couch and number of seconds he’ll wait for a treat in all-consuming focus. He is the perfect companion, and I seem to hear from readers and friends near and far who ask if I’ve read any number of volumes about the bond between man and best friend.

In some cases, the answer is yes, in others, it is no, “But I’ll add that to my list!” And I always do. Now, friends and strangers alike end correspondence with things like, “Tell Hank hello,” or “Give Hank a pat on the head from me,” which I always do. The best part of this virtuous cycle of greetings and recommended readings is that Hank has steadily taught me how to read over the last couple of months. He’s taught me a lot of other healthy habits, too.

Up and At ‘Em

I figured getting a dog and sharing my bed with him would force me to get up and at ‘em, impatiently awoken with an abundance of energy at the rooster’s first crow. Instead, I got a dog who doesn’t so much as stir when my alarm clock goes off, who scarcely bats an eye when I extend my body to deactivate my phone alarm across the room without getting all the way out of bed. Then he starts his ritual of expressive yawns and adorable dexterity and pillow-sharing, which serves to keep me in bed longer rather than forcing me out of it. But at least I peel myself out of bed feeling cuddly and loved and groggy instead of lying in the dark staring at a bright phone screen while my hypnogogic reptile brain contemplates miserable nuances of life, death, spinning rooms, and the brain’s inability to comprehend the nature of an infinitely-expanding universe. Hank doesn’t know that the universe is infinitely-expanding, and he is a better man for it.

Speak No Evil

Hank is a profound, unwavering optimist. He approaches every person with the same joyful abandon, though I like to think he’s an excellent judge of character. He just hasn’t happened upon anyone to judge yet.

But what’s most noteworthy here is that he doesn’t have time for negative words. James 1:8-10 notes, “[N]o man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not be so.” Regardless of your ideology, these things ought not be so. Hank has no ears for gossip, and he does not respond to it. Instead, he prefers simple pleasures, greeting strangers and forcing me to initiate conversations with the same joviality that he brings to every introduction he makes.

I was thinking recently about the way virtually all of my pursuits are possible solo but are safer and more enjoyable with company. Driving, fishing, hiking, biking, playing music, photography, and writing are all fundamentally solitary endeavors whose pleasures are only amplified with company. Gossip is impossible alone. Malicious, spiraling self-awareness is easiest avoided by steering clear of anxiety-inducing social situations. For those of us who struggle, for whatever reason, with staying consistently, inwardly happy, it is far better to set ourselves apart from external negativity than it is to plunge into further discouraging mires.

And so it is, that Hank makes the innately pleasurable things more pleasurable with his company but never serves as an accomplice for malice. He has no ears for gossip, no desire to stand in depressing bars and feel sad about himself, no bone in his body that curses the beautiful world he lives in. Even on my worst day, simply sprinting like a wounded idiot across Zilker Park while he bounds after me in his bizarre Catahoula gait elicits my best giggles.

I read this article from the San Francisco Chronicle today after a too-distant relative sent it my way from reading this very website for a bit. My sharing has created a degree of reconnection amongst lost tertiary cousins bound by blood but little else, but that’s a story for another day.

In this case, the essay, titled, A Dog at Your Side, Peace in Your Heart, touched on something deeply raw and visceral that shook me to my core. The author, Tom Stienstra, speaks sage wisdom throughout, but this line paragraph rang especially true:

For those who have faced death, often in combat, or for those who have faced tragedy and withdrawn into mind-bending loneliness, the love of a dog or cat can represent their best hope of something good. When that good is then shared through the outdoor experience, often out hiking and camping, a barrier is broken and that hope is fulfilled.

I have only recently returned to enough of a state of self-awareness that I can call my problems what they are: post-concussion syndrome, depression, PTSD. In some strange way, those ailments’ negative side effects only amplify once we’re healed enough to become aware of them. I discussed this with my counselor yesterday; the recent return of self-awareness is the strangest case of two-steps-forward-one-step-back. To know that you’re a catatonic fly on the wall of a friend’s birthday party or a family dinner is far worse than to be so punch drunk that you actually don’t recognize the foggy layer between your brain and reality.

Back to the cardiac peace offered by canines. This article perfectly describes my struggles assimilating into quotidian life as well as the otherworldly enthusiasm I seem to muster for Hank. My counselor noted as much yesterday. No bike, no camera, no car, no person—sorry, dear reader, gets my neurons firing quite like watching Hank enjoy the footpath a dozen paces before me or scrambling after the enigmatic remote control airplane whirring around Zilker this morning.

Hank is entirely unawares of my dreaded ‘old self,’ the me that died slowly over time and all at once in the two bicycle crashes of 2016. He has no expectations that I cannot live up to and he is a perfect proxy-extension of my personality when I would rather live out my days through his youthful exuberance than my creaking, battered brain and body.

Literary Companion

When he lies at my feet, it makes me feel a million times more at-ease. I can actually focus on reading, I can laugh aloud in a silent house and not feel maniacal, and I do not feel the urgent scatterbrain that has plagued me since last June. I have finished three books since he joined my household two months ago. The previous six months, I maybe finished two. People often assume that as a writer I am well-read, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Especially lately, as my brain has developed a distinct aversion to focusing hard on anything at all.

It may seem cliché for man to feel drawn into the woods with a few useful, well-designed implements, a stack of books, and a loving hound and little else. But there is a reason this impulse exists, a reason why Stienstra’s story resonated with me and even with a close friend of his who’s been through something similar but different. Humans are wildly bad at talking about sadness. Men, especially, tend to cope by shutting down and gritting their teeth and drinking too much. Dogs make solitude immensely rewarding and restorative instead of dangerously contemplative. A damaged brain fears overstimulation, but it equally fears echo chambers. There is almost nowhere that is safe. Except for quiet cabins and the dreamscapes of paperbacks and sunny streams with the jingle of a collar and some hilarious yawny grunts to break the sounds of birds and bees.