It’s not maternal pride that makes me tell you Helen is the valedictorian of dogs. If you don’t believe me, just eavesdrop on our conversations. She does not respond to tone or pitch, but to words. I’ll ask: Are you mangy? Angry? Angsty? Honey? No response. But when I get to hungry, she’ll bounce downstairs and wait for me to serve her meal.
To prepare for a visitor I’ll tell her the name of who’s coming over. When it’s someone she likes, she wags and goes to sit on her tuffet by the window. If the visitor is not among her favorites, she doesn’t bother to get up. She’s discriminating, but polite. Whoever comes to the door she greets with enthusiasm and flying kisses.
Her sense of humor is finely honed and her penchant for making her displeasure known pronounced. When I’ve been out too long, I’ll come home to find my Ugg slippers moved, but never harmed. She has more stuffed animals than the most spoiled child because her favorite is always the “new toy.” Novelty is her drug, although she loves to take a huge stuffed rabbit I got on sale after Easter – throw it on top of me, and, well, hump it. She understands commodification and believes bigger is better. When I throw rocks into the river, she’ll use her feet to feel around for them and then plunge her whole head under water to come up with a “good one,” always much larger than anything I would have thrown.
Helen’s looks are so arresting I’ve become accustomed to people stopping me on the street to ask about her breeding. Her ears are spade-sized, her coloring Creamsicle orange and vanilla, her expression intelligent. Often, when she meets strangers, she’s smiling.
Her lineage is uncertain. Her mom got knocked up, arrested, and sent to the pokey. Two weeks before she gave birth a volunteer at the Humane Society brought the stray home and doula-ed the litter. When I started haunting the halls of the three local shelters, firm on not wanting a puppy, that same volunteer told me of the 500 pups she’d helped raise, this was the best litter. She pointed to a little one – not even the most attractive – and said, “She’s a thinker.”
Helen adores children, all people, and some dogs. She plays gently with Cletus, a wiener, and loves to take Sancho’s leash and lead him around. She will put up with three hours in the car if I tell her we’re going to see Nadine.
Some dogs, however, especially those with sweet golden faces and invisible Kick me! signs on their backs, she bullies. I’ve come to know the type most likely to set her off – happy retrievers, aggressive yappers, and anyone who looks anything like her. She hates heelers with a vehemence known only to other owners of heelers.
So when we walk on trails I keep her away from other dogs. Often people will reassure me that theirs is friendly. Mine is unpredictably so, I respond, and hope they keep moving. I know I appear cold and aloof, scrambling up or down the steep hill, holding Helen’s leash tight and talking softly to her, not looking up while they pass.
The politics of dog ownership are more fraught than a middle school playground. What we have in common is that we love our canine companions and see them as family members, which means sometimes being blind to their less attractive qualities. We hear much about bullying in schools, but I’ve never once heard a parent acknowledge that their child is a bully. If no one parents the bullies, where do they come from? My dog is a bully. This, I know. I wish I could find a way to make Helen play nice with others. The trainer I took her to asked me, Do you like everyone you meet? Are you comfortable when someone comes running right up to you? Why should she react any differently?
But dog people are my people – they know what it means to be able to communicate across species and to treat a four-legger like a member of the family. In fact, I don’t trust people who don’t like animals. They seem to me all puffed up with superiority and self-importance, lacking in both humor and humility, unable to see the linkages that connect us.
In April, Eastern Washington University hosted Dr. Frans de Waal, one of world’s foremost primatologists. His research, which shows animal intelligence and emotion across a variety of species delighted me, but mostly my response was “Duh.” Anyone who’s ever lived with an animal knows what and how they think and feel. Animals teach us many things, including patience, tolerance, empathy and require a willingness to clean up messes.
Not only is Donald Trump the first president never to have served in government or the military, he is also the first in 150 years who does not have a pet. That’s nothing more than a fact. Make of it what you will.