Saturday, December 18, 2004

My Life As a Dog (Owner)

By way of Patricia Williams' column in the Nation, I came across E.B. White's wonderful ode to his dog, Fred. White said that Fred pursued each day "with the complete conviction that through vigilance and good work all porcupines, all cats, all skunks, all squirrels, all houseflies, all footballs, all evil birds in the sky could successfully be brought to account and the scene made safe and pleasant for the sensible individual -- namely, him. However distorted was his crazy vision of the beautiful world, however perverse his scheme for establishing an order of goodness by murdering every creature that seemed to him bad, I had to hand him this: he really worked at it."

Patricia Williams somehow segued from that quote to some thick argument about searching for explosives in airports. I didn't read all of that. I was stuck on what seems to me -- christened a dog owner two years ago -- the finest and most pinpoint-accurate description of a dog's psychology I have read. Anyone who has taken a dog for a walk in the madcap, twisted, utterly random world that ours must seem to be to a dog knows how close to his target White has hit.

My dog, Wesley, is a twelve-pound puff of orange and white, but he can -- and does -- stare down dogs that outweigh him by a factor of eight. He views birds as insurgents, poised to gather their forces around our front door and invade his hard-fought territory. Squirrels? Despicable thieves dead set on infiltrating Wesley's most closely guarded hiding spots and making off with the rawhide fragments secreted there. People, too, are wanton tramplers of ground that in a good and true world belongs only to Wesley.

Each morning, when he stumbles out the front door in the beginning light of the day, Wesley resumes his ceaseless fight against these and other forces of evil. During the day, he stands guard, monitoring the walls and ceilings for the creaks and groans that are the telltale signs of an impending intrusion by monsters who have discovered a weakness in our brick and wood barriers. At night, he is a sentry, barking once if the threat comes from outside, and one hundred times if it seems to come from somewhere closer.

Before I was a dog owner, these obsessive-compulsive behaviors annoyed me, and I couldn't imagine living with a creature that constantly exhibited them. Cats, on the other hand, seemed to be silent Buddhas, cleaning up after themselves and ably assessing the true nature of the threats against them. But once you've become a dog owner, his bark is not merely annoying; it is the voice of a friend who, despite his more endearing qualities, perhaps talks a little too much. At least twice a day, I lather him in accolades for the fact that he has shit on the ground. When he wakes me up because he wants to snuggle more closely against me, I go back to sleep a happier person. A cat now seems little more than a mildly animated toy.

I recommend dog ownership. Right now, it even seems to be an adequate substitute for child ownership. It remains to be seen, of course, whether Wesley will see a future child resident of our home as one of the evils that infect his world and prevent him from realizing his dream of a safe and pleasant realm for a sensible individual -- namely, him.


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