Maybe We Deserve Dogs

Your dog is so perfect, what did you do to make him like that???


I usually shrug and agree with the passing strangers, noting that he is indeed perfect and that I just got lucky that he chose me. 


And I do believe that Hank is a perfect expression of soulfulness and love in a canine wrapper, his amicable nature and big smile all impossibly beautiful reminders of the best things about existing. 


But lately I’ve come to realize that all beings have their own unique form of goodness inside of them, if only that good gets the opportunity to unfold in a safe and welcoming space. 


I don’t take credit for anything about Hank’s disposition, but I recognize that he deserves the chance to enjoy and express his fullness. To spend as many hours a day as he wants to outside, sniffing, frolicking, meeting humans and dogs and watching the deer graze across the street. I do everything in my power to make sure he spends as few hours as possible laying dutifully by the door waiting for me to return or cooped up inside on a pretty day. 


Hank has taught me that life can be enjoyable, or at least memorable, pretty much constantly. As long as you follow the natural desire to do all the things instead of hedging bets and staying comfortably numb. 

These days, Hank and I have a lot of time to go on walks around town, and I notice all the dogs that sit in their windows and watch the world go by. Some of them are home alone while their humans are at work or out socializing without them. Many of them stare longingly out while the TV flickers and silhouettes of people sit on couches glued to the entertainment. Some of the dogs silently watch, others bark madly, their surplus energy and primal jealousy manifesting in behaviors that get them screamed at by exasperated “owners.” 


It seems so obvious to me, that everyone would be happier if we spent more intentional time focused on what matters to each and every one of us. But that requires silencing the noise, turning off the TV, putting down the endless feed of passive entertainment on our smartphones. It requires going on the dog walks when they’re behaving chaotically because they are so exuberant and haven’t gotten to use years’ worth of surplus energy or learn the basic ropes of what makes walks easier for all involved. 


I think a lot about the way we discuss the beings we are fortunate enough to care for. Parents, children. Pets, owners. Unquestioned systems of power that imply there’s only one way to do things, and it’s the way we’ve always done them. 

I do my best to question this, to say things like “Hank and I met in 2016” when people ask me “How long have you had him?” As if one can possess another, can truly control their spirit just because we are responsible for their food and safety.

I often realize that much of what Hank has taught me is modern day Zen wisdom. What is in front of us is all that there is. Life is obscenely fleeting, and unlike our own species, our canine family members are not expected to outlive us. I do my best to dwell on Hank’s fleeting mortality. To remember that even if we are crazy lucky, we’ll get 15ish years together, and that’s it. 


I’ve sat with a hand on my childhood dog as she breathed her last breaths. I’ve pulled a mortally wounded elk out of a dark and lonesome highway as she screamed and sighed. I know how quickly it goes, and how quickly the warm fur goes cold. 


When Hank flips over onto his back and displays his belly for a good rub, I do my best to remember that the only guaranteed chance I have to rub it is right now. He notices when I have one hand on my phone and the other on him, and with those judgmental yellow eyes he’s taught me not to multitask my precious life away. I rub his belly and nuzzle his neck and know that someday it will be my last chance to do so. 


I remember when my life was nearly ended on a day that I never suspected would be my last. The ricochets of skin and bone and brain, the constant reverberations of my own brain function shaken into an unreliable haze. It sent me down a different path than the one I believed in, it scared the delusion of predictability out of my comfortably numb psyche. It pushed my life onto a collision course with Hank’s – two beings drifting through life looking for a chosen family – a pack – to do things with. 


After a lifetime of being taught a certain order, restrictive rules, an insistence on upholding the values that those with power imparted on me, it was liberating and refreshing to meet a half-domesticated wolf, a wild spirit far more curious than scared, far more wild than tame. I learned quickly that you cannot control a dog with the “fear of god,” or the fear of man made horrors for that matter. While many people try to control their dependents through yelling and raised hands, the traumatized fear of discipline is not the same as a thoughtfully well-rounded life. It is easy to lose your cool, it is far harder to patiently demonstrate that true freedom requires moderate restraint.

Each day I contemplate Hank’s understanding of the world, I question my own a little more. To watch him approach everyone with the same curious and soft eyes, wiggly wagging body seemingly hinged at the hips, tail dancing in a circle that sometimes makes me wonder if he broke it in the past, is to remember what it’s like to be excited about each situation that presents itself. To enjoy the feeling of childlike wonder, of wanting to ask questions and share discoveries and giggle without fear of retribution. I consider it my greatest accomplishment in life that Hank is not afraid of much, and that when something does spook him, he runs to me and then seeks to approach the spooky thing side-by-side with me, an interspecies wolfpack bravely facing the flapping tarp or the bear in the bushes.