They are everywhere, the dogs of Lindley Park, populating our beautiful neighborhood with their myriad breeds, conventional or unconventional behaviors, different gaits (some trotting, others bounding forward, ready to leap into any possible fray), and variegated vocalizations. Some, like the pair of gorgeously groomed white and black standard poodles walking regally down Walker Avenue, their noses high up in the air with possible conceit, their owner clearly aware of the reverent effect they produce in the onlookers. He even seems to square his shoulders a bit and proudly meet their curious gaze. One day as I’m driving down the street I suddenly spot a medium-sized dog, a candidate for rising star in a possible dog world who I think might be a flat-coated black retriever. As I’m trying to ascertain the certainty of the breed for my own satisfaction, my son suddenly yells, “Mom, WATCH THE ROAD!!” Just blocks earlier I swear that I spotted a Chinese crested and a Cavalier King’s Spaniel out of the corner of my eye on Elam Avenue and just barely missed hitting a bowed over tree.
As I navigate around Lindley Park, I am regaled and delighted by all the different dog folks stirring about: some happily trotting along, others rambunctious, maybe even oppositional, pulling at a leash or trying to engage a beleaguered cat or wary squirrel. I love them all for their canine-ity (like humanity) and the goodness and generosity they inspire in us humans who often require a jolt of humor to help us let go of our own self-absorption and stress. The reality is that dogs do funny things in our little neck of the city such as leaping up and grabbing that piece of pizza from Sticks and Stones that was originally destined for your mouth or tearing Duke Energy utility bills into smithereens (my dog, here) without the slightest bit of regret. We NEED that humor now especially in a world fraught with chaos and uncertainty with so many things missing – baby diapers to say the least …
The satirist Jonathan Swift once wrote “Every dog must have his day.” I believe that anyone who has ever owned a dog knows the implicit truth of this statement. In my pre-North Carolina life, the first dog I ever owned – a Bichon Frise named Beauregard, after a Confederate general by my Civil War historian son – taught me a new meaning of relationship, one where a form of unconditional love rose between a non-human creature and myself. Nothing was too good for that dog! – twice-monthly grooming appointments at the priciest spa, expensive food, treats and outfits, velveteen throws to lie upon. I didn’t even do these kinds of things for myself! When Beauregard died of renal failure/diabetes at age 11, the grief my family felt eviscerated us. The pain was so immense, it felt like some hugely physical weight was sitting on our chests and leaning in. I remember reading Psalm 34:18 in the Old Testament: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” and weeping as I read it. I turned to these words for solace, irrevocably changed by the death of my beloved pet.
For two weeks I barely ate (yogurt and peanut butter sandwiches or worse) and lost at least ten pounds. One night I awoke and saw Beauregard sitting on the end of my bed on his favorite log cabin quilt with a slight smile on his face. I am still not sure if this was his ghostly apparition or a product of my anguished imagination. I do know that grief can play tricks and one can never underestimate its power. I do know that I often felt him riding with me in my car or hanging out by my son’s piano bench as he so often did. My gentle and funny boy was in my head and embedded firmly in my heart which would forever skip a beat when someone’s Bichon Frist might amble by. Remembrances of how huge a part Beauregard played in our lives, now memories of things past.
We also know the benefits of having a dog. I know it more than ever as we traverse our lives, at times with equanimity, at others with trepidation, our second Bichon Frise in tow. The truth is that he is almost always with us, he is undeniably an extension of ourselves. The joy we derive from Jackson is bigger than that in itself – it extends to delighting in watching others having a similar relationship with their beloved pets and rejoicing in that not-always intelligible bond. I get a kick out of watching my neighbors walking their dogs, some struggling like myself to keep him on a leash when truth be told, as a rather brusque neighbor said to me, “he’s walking you – where’s the control?”
When people ask me “why do you have a dog?” I sometimes fall back on the American Heart Association’s chapter and verse that dog owners are 54% more likely to get the recommended amount of exercise than their non-dog owning counterparts. In their company our stress levels decrease, and they do other good things too like fostering social situations. I conveniently forget all the blankets that Jackson has torn and the furniture he thought was meant to be a part of his diet, chairs that are broken from his chewing and books that no longer sport dustjackets in untattered form. We already know how chatty North Carolinians are, but factor in the presence of a dog, and even the most reticent of individuals will make an approach and ask you a question about your fur baby. Still, I focus on the good things about dog ownership. A gentleman named Roger Caras once remarked, “If you don’t own a dog, at least one, there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.” The truth is no one needs a justification for having a dog because it may come down to simply this: the pleasures of creature comfort and being critically important to another living being. We can always buy another blank or a chair but who could possibly replace this one, this precious dog? Perish that thought …
I will go so far as to say that I prefer the company of people who own dogs. Once, when I still lived in the San Francisco Bay Area (and you could actually afford to do so), a kindly friend offered to introduce me to “a good-looking and successful single man” who however I was told “hated dogs (and cats too”. On that basis alone I told her, “Not interested, what kind of person hates animals anyway?” I thought about this today as my son and I, with our Bichon Frise, Jackson in tow, visited the Farmer’s Market in (or near) Lindley Park and recalled how many folks came over to meet our boy who enthusiastically returned their interest and affection. No one asked if he had pedigrees although several inquired as to where they could buy a dog like our pup.
Admittedly dogs are natural conversation starters, and the real treat of this morning was looking at all the dogs who were onboard, just clearly enjoying their lives and the unrequited attention of numerous others. We were thrilled to meet a beautiful 4-month-old Sheepadoodle named Grady and his owner Beth. An Australian cattle dog/German shorthair pointer mix named Quinn in company with “T” (full of good info about the breed) merited several photos and a bevy of compliments. So happy to cross paths with a Bernadoodle named Babka, 1 ½ years old and born on December 25th, hanging out with his better half, a Cavachon named Penny, both owned by Brooks. Avery, a 5-month-old part Burmese Mountain Dog, clearly had claimed the heart of John, its owner and a wee bit of ours as well. Top marks for every dog at the market, wishing that we had had the chance to interact in an inter-species embrace of gallantry and goodness.
Every now and then I run into someone who asks me about my dog’s bloodlines as if any dog really needs to be AKA-enhanced. Since he’s a rescue, I could only guess if his dad was a purebred or his mom fell a bit short on the standards of the breed. For all I know, Jackson’s mommy could have been “a woman of the night” in doggy form. Some of these dogs out here, truth be told, have more degrees than me (and I have 2 ½). Louis Sabin once remarked “No matter how little money and how few possessions you own, having a dog makes you rich.” I don’t have big money, but I do have a dog that makes me feel infinitely well-heeled (intentional pun) – when I come home, he’s barking up a storm and jumping up and down and flooding me with doggy kisses. In recent memory, I can’t remember when any man in my life was THAT happy to see me. But there’s always hope, right, that I can find a guy that loves me as much as my Bichon Frise. And Jackson can clearly teach him those behaviors that incontrovertibly impress …
I want all my Lindley Park neighbors to know that I love ALL your dogs, whether they are mutts or have the canine bloodline equivalents of a Secretariat or Man of War, whether they are Chihuahuas or Great Danes. I wish I could photograph all of them so each can enjoy some measure of posterity. Beyond a doubt, owning a dog has made my own son a better man and has expanded my emotional repertoire of what it means to love without the expectation of return. “Be the person your dog thinks you are”, a guy named C.J. Frick reputedly said. That means always sharing what you have and caring about others. If Jackson knocks over a quart of milk on the brand-new rug from Macy’s, I take a breath and say “pick your battles” and forego expressing any frustration. I say my mantra quietly to myself: “always choose love.” In my opinion, my dog cannot do any wrong. When I sing him the song my Polish/Canadian dad always sang to me as a child – “How much is that doggy in the window, the one with the waggly tail, how much is that doggy in the window? / I do hope that he is for sale”), Jackson listens intently and then moves closer for a hug.
There may be some point where that narrative changes and our Bichon Frise realistically needs a time-out, but for now our destinies are inextricably stitched together. He makes me happy, and I am so grateful for his presence in our lives. Once you really look, you cannot help but notice the unexpectedly large abundance of dogs in Lindley Park, all seemingly bent on bringing out the best in their peoples’ lives, simply sharing their lives with alacrity, knit in a self-same web of closeness and dependency as the one we have with our dog. We all shine for that effort and are grateful for all the dog-day afternoons we can get. Belly rubs to all you canine rock stars out there–I think I can say this with confidence: you are each inestimably loved.
Photography courtesy of Renee Skudra