Thursday, March 23, 2017

Let us now praise a famous dog

With thanks and apologies to James Agee and Ecclesiasticus

By Jonathan Price

Sam is dead. Our dog died seven years ago. That seven is a key marker for dogs – a symbolic marker for humans. The memories somehow persist.
    What after all is left of a dog after he is gone? – memories and myth. A dog, after all, is mostly myth. What we think he thinks, what his behavior means, our reading of ourselves through his gestures, sounds, somnolence, interest, licking, wagging, barking. These are all assumptions – pleasing and convenient and explanatory myths. But as some bright person once observed, the power of myths is that, though they may not be facts, they are in some sense true. Unlike a human, a dog doesn’t leave documents he has authored – perhaps some documentation of registration, of pedigree, of a human-observed past. So all our ideas about Sam are just that, ideas, imaginations, myths, intuitions, a sense that there was something there – beyond fur, paws, teeth, and tail.
    Sam, this German shepherd, had a particular relation to doors. Even in ancient houses there are doors, or at least doorways. First in anthropological inventions came the wheel, then the entryway. But in a contemporary house there are many doors. The front door, bathroom doors, bedroom doors, sliding glass doors to the back yard. Our current house has twelve, not counting closet doors, as from a Sam’s point of view they led to nothing interesting. Places of going in, coming out. Those doors contained and guarded those strange creatures, humans. Sam knew them all, understood them all. They were part of his job. He was the doorman, the doorminder. He was alert when someone approached the front door: this door was the key door, was this friend or foe, should this interloper be licked or threatened? (Sam never bit a human being.) He knew the difference between the front door and the patio door: no one outside the patio door was a threat, because it led to the backyard and humans appearing there had already been okayed by the masters, the owners. However, animals appearing in the backyard, such as squirrels, ducks in the pool, or one day an errant rabbit, were chased to within an inch of their lives – as they were interlopers.

Sam was an intimate of doors in ways that we, as taller beings with hands, could not intuit or usually understand. It makes sense. The handles on the doors, about at the waist level of adult humans, were right at Sam’s eye level and his snout level. His eyes, snout, and mouth were his major means of interaction with and manipulation of the world. Most doors in our contemporary house were Sam-easy. They had levers for handles. If I were a newly minted dog, I would have used my extended paw to press down on the lever, and I assumed Sam did the same. But of course I found out I was wrong. Sam was far more creative, less anthropomorphic, more efficient. He used his nose: it was right there, it took less effort.
    Some doors have knobs, not levers. Sam, when confronted with a closed knob-encrusted door, knew what to do. He used his teeth – again, easily at knob level – and twisted the knob until it opened. The teeth marks on several of our knobs still bear silent witness to his firm pressure.
    Ah, but, you say, what of locked doors? I don’t know about the knob and key or deadbolt kind, but there were sliding glass doors to the patio that gave access to our bedroom. Once, when locked outside and after the homedwellers had left, Sam had an urge, a need to enter, and so he managed it. He moved that patio door; I was mystified. But Sam did it. Human burglars have been known to perfect the skills to open closed patio doors. Sam, however, never divulged his methodology to me. He was inside when we returned. This was when Sam, by certain standards, was just a needy puppy. The next time I left the house to go exercise, I made double sure that that patio door was locked.
    Alas, that was a mistake. I returned to puppy chaos. Much as pet owners love their dogs, there is always a story or two of utter disaster and frustration. Sam had let himself in, played havoc with the contact lens fluid on the bathroom counter, which those of you who know know can be very sticky when dispatched onto substances other than eyes and lenses. But the contact lens fluid fiasco was merely the beginning. Sam then attacked two giant throw pillows filled with foam and disemboweled them. So, throughout the bedroom, about four inches deep on the floor, was a coating, sort of like sticky sand, of foam particles mixed and coated with contact lens fluid.
    The love of doors and its implications were what endeared Sam to my suspicious-of-dogs wife, who came late to our house and to Sam. Dogs shed; dogs smell; dogs need baths; dogs demand to be let out; dogs require kenneling when one goes on extended vacations – these were her reservations. But she noticed how thoughtful Sam was around the doors of our children and guests. He inspected every door in the house, to see who was behind it, kind of like tucking the kids in before they go to sleep. He didn’t really disturb anyone, he was just checking; he wanted to know! Janice came to love Sam because in his own way he was a concerned, caring family member.

Perhaps you have guessed by this point, particularly if you are far more knowledgeable about dogs or scientific facts than I am, that I really don’t know what Sam was doing in any of these key situations; I don’t really know what Sam was thinking or even if the word “thinking” is a gross misunderstanding of Sam’s intellectual and behavioral process. But now my memory and understanding and commentary here are the way, seven years later, the real, physical, shedding, shitting, licking Sam has receded into myth. I maintain that most dogs are myths to us during their existence here on earth, myths as a species, ultimately an inspired and necessary myth to us. We love them, we care for them, we use them, we train them, we clean up after them, we call the vet when we don’t know what to do, we study them. We intuit feelings or ideas or thoughts to them, but we don’t really know. We wonder what they would say if they could talk; we realize that their vocabulary of barks, whimpers, yips, moans is a kind of language. But it is not language; and perhaps they don’t understand their own reasoning processes, yet from our perspectives they seem to reason, and to have feelings.
    On the key issues such as the scientific origin of dogs we don’t really know either. We know genetically that dogs are descended from wolves, are all, from the Great Dane to the Jack Russell terrier, varied as they may be, part wolf. We don’t know whether humans domesticated wolves or wolves domesticated humans, whether wolves decided human hunters were great to stay around for scraps of food, or whether humans decided to train these animal hunters to help them out. We’re not sure on what continent, in what rainy midden, or hunting ground, or village garbage dump this all happened, though it – whatever your “it” is – clearly must have happened somewhere sometime, perhaps simultaneously in slightly different ways in different places, like Leibniz and Newton figuring out calculus separately.
    The affiliation between dogs and humans clearly has much to do with food. Humans who don’t feed their dog pets are generally frowned upon; and those with dogs are constantly shopping for dog food, or offering table scraps to the opportunist canine hanging around the table. Sam was no exception, though he was hardly a glutton or visibly demonstrative of his interest in food. Sam was delicate and seemingly disinterested in food, at least until you turned your back. He wouldn’t even finish his dog food in the bowl left outside. This was so common that we didn’t pay much attention until one day we saw a large rat in daylight come up to Sam’s food bowl and start munching right in front of our kitchen table, visible through the sliding glass door. There’s never just one rat. We got rid of the rats, but Sam stayed. His predecessor, also named Sam, had a keen sensitivity to food and his food bowl. That Sam’s rival and “top dog,” Max, would hover around both food bowls growling, intimidating all comers. But Sam discovered that plunging his paw into the bowl, spilling all the food randomly on the cement, completely dissipated Max’s interest or attention. Problem solved. With Max dead, Sam kept up the habit, regularly plunging the paw whenever he was served food in a bowl.
    Tasteless, unappetizing, commercial kibble was fine with the later Sam. But other things were finer. When we gave dinner parties, we served a variety of cheeses and crackers on the coffee table. Once, when we turned from the appetizer stage to the dinner stage, we looked back and Sam had, like a magician, made all the cheese disappear. On another occasion the spicy oriental green beans that we had spent a day meticulously preparing to take to Thanksgiving dinner in a distant city were left on a high counter while we left the house on a brief shopping trip. No problem; Sam ferreted the beans out and gobbled them up. Perhaps most egregiously, one of our sons had been given a whole packaged salami to take on his vacation. He stashed it under his bed, behind a closed door when he left the house. When he returned, Sam had devoured the entire 12-inch semi-cylinder, paper packaging and all.
    Sam’s life, a dog’s life, was not all escapades, idiosyncrasies, and exciting innovations. Once, when we were away on a week’s vacation and hired a Sam-sitter who would visit him daily, play with him, feed him, and leave him in the yard, he climbed the fence surrounding the yard – we guess looking for us – and roamed the streets, finally getting hit by a car trying to cross a major thruway. The car’s owner, devastated, brought Sam to a vet, where we found him, at week’s end, lying with his pelvis shattered, woeful, pitiful, not the dog he was. Nevertheless, Sam survived the pelvic repair operation, limped around the backyard for several weeks recovering, then returned to the energetic, original, inquisitive dog he had been. Sam demonstrated mythic dog powers of indifference, endurance, and recovery.
    As I’ve said already, Sam never sank his teeth into a human being. They were, aside from eating and opening doors, as delicate an intelligent instrument as a human hand. I could stick my hand way down his throat to force a needed doggie pill into him, and make sure he would swallow, and I would experience no side effects (after the very first time, when I admit to some fear). He seemed aggressive at the front door when visitors arrived, and this scared several, who would often back off ten feet. But he never attacked, never even growled. This was just his routine. Except in one distinctive case: a visiting family member who eventually turned out to be no one’s favorite, and was remarkable in his paranoid fears for his children (especially around Sam, but Sam would willingly submit to having his tail pulled by the three-year-old), in his lack of a job throughout years of marriage and two graduate degrees, and in having no particular direction in life. Sam knew nothing, so far as I know, of this person’s backstory and personality, yet Sam did act strangely, intimidating, growling, sensing something was wrong. He never put his paw or teeth on that something, but he knew it was there.
    He was a dog, true. His life span was short, about 13 years. But he was also an alter ego, an interlocutor, someone you could talk to and not know for certain that he didn’t understand. So maybe he did understand. Maybe he did understand that his faculties had decreased, that he was not the vigorous playful dog of yore, that his days were numbered, that he was dying, or about to die.
    Sam’s courage lay in the way he dealt with decline and death. He hardly ever whimpered or whined, except to be let in the house; for this he often barked, as in, “Hey, it’s my house, I’m the guard dog, I need to check out the smells again, I need to herd all of you, you ignorant human beings; let me in.” He adjusted to each decrement in his body or his environment and accepted it. If climbing and moving his hind legs was a problem, he no longer climbed the stairs to his favorite lookout position. If movement at all became painful, he lay peacefully and alert and uncomplaining by a couch. If he could no longer make it outdoors for the potty errands, he did it inside, sadly; but, eventually, we realized this was the best Sam could accomplish with his deteriorating spine. When he could walk on all fours, he did. Other days, he dragged the back two legs around without complaint.

   When Sam died, it was simple. He did not change his demeanor; he was relaxed, cheerfully gobbling down doggie biscuits unaware at all of his imminent end as the tranquilizer took effect. After the shot was given that put him to sleep and to death, he was equally tranquil and eventually just seemed to be asleep. It was as gentle, dignified, and warm as one could imagine it and did not seem threatening or painful or extraordinary or even anything special except for what we knew of its effect. Each of our deaths should be so painless, so placid, so thoughtful. But they won’t.

Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Price                                                                                                                                


  1. ok, when i can stop sobbing a few of the very best you have ever composed my dear brother...i miss him too xoxox

  2. It's easy to love a good dog far too well. In selfish moments, I hope Gabrielle out lives me.

  3. I KNOW what you mean, Chuck – in SELFISH moments, because we know that we accoutre our dog's world, feed him, let him out and in (Siegfried is a house dig), take him to the vet when he's seriously ill: he depends on us, expects us to BE THERE.

  4. Jon, a while after publication I realized that the meaning of seven's being a marker escaped me (and had escaped me during editing, but I failed to query you). What do you mean by "That seven [Sam died seven years ago] is a key marker for dogs– a symbolic marker for humans"? In what way is it a "marker"? What is it about seven, rather than some other number?

  5. Thanks to Jon for clarifying the point about seven being a "key marker for dogs" and a "symbolic marker for humans." He emailed it to me:

    1 dog year = 7 man years. There's also the 7 year itch, the 7 deadly sins, the 7 days in the week. The seventh son of a seventh son and so on. But it's also a myth. Dogs don't know how to count.

  6. Great column Jon, dog people understand each other, even though many don't really understand dogs. I flatter myself that maybe I do more than the average guy but still, how do we know? Some folks think dogs think they are people, but dogs only know dogs. They think everybody is just another dog; cats, people, whatever. Cats are little dogs who don't act like dogs ought; people are big dogs who REALLY don't act like dogs should. We put perfectly good food in a bag under the counter, won't let them eat it, and put it out by the road twice a week where inevitably someone steals it every single time. We don't like to sniff other dogs' rear ends to get acquainted, lick our private parts or eat puke, all of which make perfect sense to any dog. On the serious side sniffing each others' butts allows a dog to know what the other dog has eaten recently, to tell if they might be someone it would be profitable to know in case they might avail themselves of the same food source. Dogs know a lot. They know their address, they know their mommy and daddy, they know when dinner time is and when they have done something for which they are likely to be punished. Ever see a guilty dog? Any jury would turn thumbs down in a second! They are part of the family, and we celebrate their advent grieve their loss like any other member.

    1. I consider our standard poodle (Siegfried) a member of our family and think of him as a person. So it's strange that it never occurred to me that he may think of me as a dog! Makes sense, though.