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Sun., Aug. 10, 2014

Jamie Tobias Neely: There’s plenty to learn in real dog days

Not since 1906 have the dog days of a Spokane summer been more aptly named. And for the first summer since I was 8 years old, I’m facing the heat with an actual puppy by my side.

A miniature labradoodle named Henry came to live at our house last month, a 4.6-pound cream-and-apricot pooch, and in the process he’s slowed us down and changed our lives.

The ancient Romans believed the dog star, Sirius, rose in the sky to bring extra heat and light to the Earth. This period, which traditionally begins in July, invites humans to relax, to sink into the shade and even embrace indolence. Nothing could be more countercultural, nothing more canine, nor more human.

This summer’s news has been enough to break your heart, with its immigrant children at our borders and its wounded and dying young people in Gaza. And yet, in this corner of the world, we seem to save most of our collective angst for a 2-year-old black lab named Arfee, killed by a Coeur d’Alene cop’s mistake.

Just as the summer’s first heat wave settled in, Henry arrived to transform our family life in a way only topped by the births and marriages of its actual humans.

In one month’s time, I’d discovered an alternate universe, one I’d barely glimpsed before. It’s a world of dog owners, with an estimated 56.7 million households in the U.S. alone, in which the behavioral norms are turned upside down. It’s a world where the neighbor who walks her dog past our house in her pajamas most mornings suddenly makes sense. A world where the physician and the executive are playing on the same field as the lonely and the struggling, all of us interrupting and confounding our lives for the love of an animal.

Bring a puppy into your house and friends show up, bearing bags of doggie treats and toys. Neighbors emerge from quiet houses. And a short walk turns into a schmoozefest.

In our backyard, under Henry’s influence, we’ve found time to glimpse a hummingbird soaring past the arborvitae and to watch the day lilies bloom. On sunny Saturday afternoons, Henry and my husband have taken to sharing a shady corner, the man on the top of a hammock, the puppy tucked into a net shelf underneath, like two bunkmates away at summer camp.

Henry’s life is simple, bounded by the raspberry patch in one corner of the backyard, the hydrangeas in another. He bounces after his miniature tennis ball, cocks his head at the squirrels and dashes off to hunt for low-hanging berries. He digs in a mound of discarded potting soil, coming up for air with exuberance and a muddy beard. The dangers in his life are diseases like parvo, the toxins in our cherry pits, and hawks. A large dog may mistake him for a rodent, but a cockapoo puppy named Rosie down the street has already devised strategies for sauntering over for mushy, yet tempestuous play dates.

I didn’t anticipate that training a puppy leads many of us right to our growth edge. If we have trouble slowing down for family life, the puppy will demand it. If we hesitate to assume leadership, the puppy will push us to reconsider – even if he has to become the most spoiled dog on the block first. If we’re inconsistent or unstructured or spacey, the dog will give us plenty of opportunities to practice new habits. He will insist, louder than Oprah herself, that we become our best selves so that our dogs can have a chance to become theirs.

At his best moments, Henry bursts with optimism. He prances across the yard, his feathery tail curled over his back. His first weeks passed in a newborn haze, all sleeping, eating, bonding and body fluids. Now he’s here to help us connect and heighten our awareness.

Better than a Zen monk, he has focused my attention on the small, rich moments of this beastly hot summer. I’ve steeped endless pitchers of iced tea and even baked a fresh raspberry pie. Henry pulls me out into the sunshine, infuses my system with vitamin D and oxytocin and fills my heart with peace.

What more could any human ask in a month of heat and a world too consumed by urgency and war?

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former member of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board, is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is

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