Like a Dog

Photo credit: alles-so-schon-bunt-hier. CC0/Public Domain license.

I didn’t want a dog. My ex-boyfriend and I did occasionally dog-sit for Chloe, a cuddly, chubby, and apneic pug who belonged to our friend e.b., and for Max, a rickety Brussels Griffon, mean and delightful, who belonged to our friend Steve. I’d always liked animals, but I preferred them, like children, to belong to someone else. It was nice to hang out with a cute pet, but it was also nice to return to my own ordered, adult, and entirely human home. My family had only ever had cats when I was growing up—a successive pair of self-sufficient and barely domesticated creatures that spent the better part of their waking lives stalking birds and chipmunks in our big backyard and the woods behind our house. They felt less like companions than like friendly neighbors who occasionally popped in for a meal. Dogs were more effortful; they required care; they imposed.

But Steve, a born convincer, the kind of man who is always telling you to taste something, somehow got it in his head that we ought to adopt a dog of our own. And so it happened that he called my ex one day and said that we must, we had to get down to the Animal Rescue League, where a perfect little specimen of a Brussels Griffon was waiting for us to adopt it. It struck me immediately as a bad idea, but I was overly accommodating of my boyfriend at the time; his tastes and whims were like weather—you could complain all you wanted, but you couldn’t avoid them. I met him after work, and we went to look for a new friend.

This perfect little creature turned out to be sick, old, obviously dying, and while we wanted to be good, we were not, at the time, in any position to care for a terminally ill animal through its last sad, expensive months. But on our way out we saw in an open pen a slight little tricolor beagle with white legs and blue ticking on her neck and eyes that each seemed almost the size of her entire head. There are, I’ve learned, few things as cagey and surreptitious as the staffs of the Rescue Leagues and Humane Societies of the world; at the time, it didn’t even occur to me that they’d judged us with absolute precision and put exactly the dog that they knew we couldn’t resist in the path of our exit while we looked at another farther toward the back. Her name was Pippi. One zigzagging, anarchic attempt at a walk, a little paperwork, and $75 later, we took her home.

I should note that it was only a few months after Nathan, my younger brother, died. He was 26. We’d always been pretty close, even as kids, when a two-year gap in ages can be a kind of insurmountable void of obdurate animosity. But in adulthood our relationship transformed into a sort of friendship whose depth I only really grasped in retrospect. It was so comfortable and natural at the time; only in its irretrievable loss did I discover how profound it was to me. So it’s fair to say that despite not wanting a dog I desperately needed one. My ex and I had an unsettled life together, although that was something else I didn’t really see at the time. The dangerous currents were all underwater, but the surface was smooth. We were successful roommates and occasional lovers, but never precisely friends. In a curious way what we shared was neither passion nor affection but a certain aesthetic sensibility. I liked to cook elaborate dinners, and he liked to arrange flowers. We were popular hosts. He was supportive and kind after Nate died—for that, I have nothing but gratitude—but after the first terrible weeks when my heart broke and broke, after I fixed my face for going out in public again, after I went back to work, our home life returned to its old rhythms, and I felt, more than anything else, alone. A dog, at least, would liven things up.

Still, our first intention was to make Pippi into a kind of accessory to the one part of our relationship that was unquestionably excellent, which was our social life. Chloe the pug was the de facto mascot at e.b.’s women’s clothing store, lounging in the window displays and waddling about convincing ladies to buy a second pair of expensive jeans with her squished, expressive face. Max was both the soul and brand of Mendelson Gallery, a tiny ball of wiry fur in the crook of one of six-and-a-half-foot Steve’s long arms, ever prepared to nip at the fingers of anyone else’s hand. So I imagined Pippi, cocked head and wide eyes, narrow haunches, the picture of dainty canine aristocracy, as the perfect dinner-party companion. She could strut around the garden looking pretty while we all sipped the Spanish white wines that I was serving that summer. I could not quite imagine that while she stood like a ballerina, she would walk like a linebacker, head down and splayfooted. I couldn’t imagine her gargantuan shits. Where did a 17-pound animal store such huge, stinking turds? I couldn’t imagine how delighted she’d be to piss on every rug in the house.

When I think of these early days with Pippi, the placid unknowability that lurked behind her eager dark eyes, I think of an odd and wonderful poem by Delmore Schwartz, “Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers.”

Dogs are Shakespearean, children are strangers.
Let Freud and Wordsworth discuss the child,
Angels and Platonists shall judge the dog,
The running dog, who paused, distending nostrils,
Then barked and wailed; the boy who pinched his sister,
The little girl who sang the song from Twelfth Night,
As if she understood the wind and rain,
The dog who moaned, hearing the violins in concert.
—O I am sad when I see dogs or children!
For they are strangers, they are Shakespearean.

It’s one of those precise and unexpected poetic sentiments that strikes you as weird before it strikes you as uncanny. Perhaps it helps that Pippi was a beagle, and like all beagles, Pippi wailed and moaned. Perhaps it helps that I play the violin—badly, and much to Pippi’s past displeasure. For all its strangeness, the poem is apt and exact. “The dog in humble inquiry along the ground,” Schwartz writes in the second stanza. Is there a better description of my pretty girl, nose in the dirt, sniffing around to find her own old poops to eat among the late tomatoes?

In fact, Shakespeare was not fond of dogs. Caroline Spurgeon notes in the wonderful book Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us that Shakespeare associated dogs almost uniformly with what he considered people’s most base characteristics:

In one play, Timon of Athens, in which Shakespeare expressed some of his profoundest as well as his most bitter thoughts, we find that the whole subject is just this particular one about which he felt so acutely—a man betrayed by false friends and flatterers.

What do we find is the central image, the picture constantly before Shakespeare’s eyes in this play? Dogs: dogs fawning and eating and lapping and licking, with “gluttonous maws” devouring their lord’s meat; hounds feasting on the blood of the animal they have killed; dogs being given food denied to men; dogs licking up remnants; dogs being stoned and spurned and kicked; a mangy dog, a sleeping dog, an unpeaceable dog, a beggar’s dog.

Elsewhere, Spurgeon points out, Shakespeare associates dogs with evil itself, “as when Hamlet pictures the king’s guilt ‘unkenneling’ itself as he watches the play, or when he sees John’s fears, following, as a dog, ‘the steps of wrong.’”

Shakespeare isn’t unusual in treating dogs as base and violent creatures. Of course, classical antiquity, from which he drew much of his material, had Argos as the exemplar of faith and friendship; Ulysses’s single tear on having to pass without acknowledging Argos, and Argos’s death upon seeing his master this one final time after twenty years’ absence, may be the most moving passage in all of Homer. But the Bible, which Shakespeare also drew from, is far less kind; dogs are forever devouring men and licking up blood. (There is a strange exception, repeated in Matthew and Mark, where a woman asks Jesus to cast the devil out of her daughter. He replies, rather cryptically, that it isn’t good to take children’s bread and “cast it unto the dogs.” She replies, “Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” “For this saying,” Jesus tells her, “go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.”)

Well, whatever Shakespeare thought of dogs, they are Shakespearean. What other animal, at least within the human domestic orbit, possesses “so enormously” the quality Keats called negative capability: “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A dog is her own character, self-created in each moment without any obvious intention, at once reflective of her audience and entirely self-contained, clearly the product in some fashion of a human hand, and yet so seemingly without an authorial inventor.

In her wonderfully cruel and funny college and writing-workshop send-up Blue Angel, Francine Prose ends the very first paragraph with her sad-sack antihero Swenson musing aloud to his “appalled” students, “Is it my imagination, or have we been seeing an awful lot of stories about humans having sex with animals?” This question—literally true of his class and a recurring joke—eventually leads a friend and colleague to suggest he “check out Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. Pass it on to your students. It’s the best thing ever written about having sex with a pet.”

I remembered this passage after adopting Pippi, and so I checked out Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. J. R. Ackerley does not actually have sex with his pet, although his memoir does contain many memorable scenes of herculean attempts to find Tulip an ideal mate and get her pregnant, including multiple failed attempts to manually insert a suppository into her vagina, which force the gay writer to return to the “lady vet,” Miss Canvey, and ask in desperation, “Miss Canvey, I’m awfully sorry to bother you again, but where exactly is the vagina?”

Tulip is a wonderful literary creation, but as well as Ackerley reflects her character on the page, he is also remarkably lucid on the essential impenetrability of these animals, the fact that they are, as Schwartz said, not only Shakespearean but also strangers. Considering dogs generally, Ackerley

saw how amiable and well-mannered they were, in a way how sad, above all how nervous with their air of surreptitious guilt, and meeting the mild, worried brown eyes that often studied me and my friendly hand with doubt, I realized clearly, perhaps for the first time, what strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestioningly to obey, and whose mind they can never do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or “put to sleep” without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed—did they suffer from headaches?

This strikes me not only as very penetrating but as a neat, if unintentional, rejoinder to Shakespeare, a transformation of what the playwright considered essential flaws—false friends, flatterers—into tragic ones, the dog as a hero who risks betrayal and harm by her own nature.

Ackerley also lands on a more mundane truth of our relationships with our dogs. “Did they suffer from headaches?” They are stoical, and it is very hard to know when they’re in discomfort or pain. Pippi, I should mention, had had a relatively tragic life before we got her. She was, as far as we could gather, born in a breeding facility and forced to give birth to at least one litter before somehow ending up at the Rescue League, from which she was adopted not once but twice before we got her, returned each time by a family that found her somehow broken. She was shy of contact, easily spooked, and she did not chase sticks or play games. When she was older and becoming infirm, she learned to love napping with her human companions, but in her spryer years she was wary unless bribed by food. In any case, as she got older, as her health declined, as she injured her back and lost her teeth, I tried to learn to read the subtle signs of posture and comportment for clues to her inner suffering. I never fully succeeded.

Four years after I got her, and just as the pain of losing my brother had begun to transform from a crushing daily thrum to something more acute but intermittent, I had another lousy summer. I was out on my bike and was hit by a car. Or, technically, I hit the car when it swerved in front of me, but either way, beyond a lot of cuts and bruises, I pretty severely injured my right knee. This would eventually necessitate months of physical therapy, but in the weeks immediately afterward, when I was hobbling around the house in a brace and lying around with my leg elevated, my boyfriend broke up with me. It was long overdue; we both knew it. To his credit, he was just the one who worked himself up to saying it. To his discredit, he delivered the news when I was on my back, waiting to hear about a treatment plan and legitimately worried that I might never ride a bike or walk without a limp again. He left, but without the dog.

For animals whose physical suffering is so often obscure to us and who, as Ackerley says, apprehend our minds only “imperfectly,” it’s astonishing how attuned they are to our physical and emotional states, how they feel so precisely when we are sick and when we are sad, when we hurt. I liked Pippi very much up to that point. I enjoyed walking her and chasing her around the dog park by the river. It was pleasant to watch her tail go stiff and vertical and the prospect of a scrap of chicken from our human dinner. I only loved her, though, after we spent the rest of that summer and fall alone together, a time I remember as rainy, although I suspect that it was not. That was when she first allowed me to lay her beside me on the couch or bed, where I’d prop myself up to read while I elevated my painful leg on a stack of pillows. That was when she’d come and sit on the bathmat while I soaked my aching knee in the hottest bath I could bear.

There’s a painting by Pierre Bonnard in the Carnegie Museum of Art here in Pittsburgh, where I live, of the last of his nudes in bathtub, which he only managed to complete after his model, Marthe, who was also his lifelong companion, had died. It’s an alien, opalescent setting of a plain domestic scene—“exotic,” the museum’s narrative calls it. The woman is sunk in the tub up to her chin: beautiful, but melancholy. On the floor, their little dog lies curled on the mat. I used to find that painting a bit overwrought; now it’s one of my favorites in the collection. I can’t imagine there’s any other reason for my aesthetic change of heart than that I came to recognize the dog. It is absurd, logically considered, to propose that the mere presence of some mammal in a room can by itself make a person better, but that is what they do. A dog appears in at least one other Bonnard bathroom scene, but her presence in this particular painting, exactly in the center of the bottom third of the canvas, a dark space amid glowing pastels, seems to me now to also be a gesture toward the unwellness of the woman whom the woman in the bath became.

I met a new man. We fell in love. Around a year later, he moved in, bringing with him his immense, friendly cat, Napoleon—his size versus his name is a part of this cat’s particular charm. Napoleon was in some ways more doglike than Pippi: more readily handled, more solicitous of human attention. He was also able to catch and kill the birds and mice that Pippi only ever chased futilely. They became friends. Pippi followed Napoleon around the yard. Sometimes, when we’d come home, we’d find them curled up together in the same bed. Trevor taught Pippi how to give her paw in exchange for a treat. Napoleon developed an unusual affection for dog food. We were a foursome for four more years.

****

What is it, a dog’s life? We tend to think of our relationships with them in parental terms—there is even a rather silly fad for calling ourselves dog moms and dog dads. I tend to think that they are closer to siblings, younger brothers and sisters caught up in an unshakable infancy, idolatrous of us, overeager, annoying and solicitous, on our heels hoping we’ll notice them and decide to play. We think of them as stupidly happy, but I think Ackerley is closer to the truth: The profundity of their love for us makes them helplessly sorrowful, which is why even in her moments of the utmost, unmediated joy, a joy that our own nervous and overactive minds makes essentially impossible, a dog’s eyes remain achingly sad.

In the last year, Pippi’s health declined. She’d had persistent dental problems throughout her life. Then she’d injured her back running or jumping too enthusiastically, which caused a weakness in her hind legs from which she never really recovered. She still walked, but more slowly; played, but less readily. She still loved to eat. Then another dental surgery, in preparation for which we discovered a serious heart murmur. Then, so quickly we could hardly believe it, a terrible turn; she lost almost a quarter of her weight. She took to her bed and hardly moved. She barely ate. She stared at the wall. We took her to the vet. The murmur was worse. Her back legs were almost lame. The doctor found a tumor. “On her spleen, or on her liver. We could operate on the spleen, but it’s very unlikely to do any good. If it’s the liver, there’s really nothing we can do.”

My brother died of an opioid overdose, although we learned afterward, after the autopsy, that he also had a congenital defect in his heart that may have contributed. He was alone when he died. Is it absurd, an insult even, to compare that to losing a dog? Yes. Also, no. I got Pippi, that absurd, loud, dirty little animal as recompense for what I’d lost, as a small salve for the injury I suffered when Nathan left the living world. I came to believe her to be a person—not a human, but a person, a sibling substitute. “This which we live behind our unseen faces,” Schwartz wrote:

Is neither dream, nor childhood, neither
Myth, nor landscape, final, nor finished,
For we are incomplete and know no future,
And we are howling or dancing out our souls
In beating syllables before the curtain:
We are Shakespearean, we are strangers.

For more than eight years, I passed nearly every day under the same roof as her; except when I was out of town, I never spent a night not in the same house.

I lost her, too, to an overdose, albeit a deliberate one, one I chose for her as she watched me and heard me without understanding the sentence that I was morally obligated to pass in light of her plain suffering.

First, the doctor injects a painkiller into her hind leg and gives it ten minutes or so to start working. She goes immediately loopy, although it’s a few minutes before her rear legs begin to give out. Still, she waddles around, half-crouching, trying to keep her legs under her. Then two technicians come. They lay her on a blanket. They’re very kind. They shave a portion of her right front leg and set an IV. They flush it with saline as a test. The doctor comes back. There are two syringes to be administered through the IV. The first is a general anesthetic. Pippi’s eyes don’t close, but I see her fall asleep. Her head sinks. The second is the euthanasia solution, chemicals whose effect is to stop nerve transmission. I have one hand on her head and one on her tiny, swift, fluttering heart, which stops.

But the dark shadow of death closed down on Argos’ eyes
the instant he saw Odysseus, twenty years away.

I ask for a moment alone with her. I murmur the Mourner’s Kaddish—not really appropriate without a minyan, or for a dog, but it is the only prayer I know for the dead. It praises the name of God “beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort.” Comfort might also be translated as consolation. Then I leave her body in the room and go out to the parking lot where the man I love, who taught her tricks and combed her for fleas and massaged her back when her legs went stiff, who had to leave the room because he could not bear to watch her die, was waiting to console me as far as consolation is possible on this earth, and to help me back to our diminished home.

****

Love to The New Inquiry for this one.