A good friend of mine recently asked whether he should get a dog. Relatives and well-wishers were all offering advice, the good and the bad that we have all heard before.
They would talk about unconditional love. Regardless of how your day went, whether your wife was mad at you, whatever happened at work, when you went off your diet again, your dog will be there for you to forgive and provide honest empathy. He will be excited when you walk through the door, even if you’ve only been gone ten minutes. There is no judgment. Your dog doesn’t care that you spent the night watching YouTube videos or playing candy crush rather than doing all of the things you said were so important. And dogs are loyal to a fault. Our beagle Eliot used to bark at our handy man, Darren, until one day Darren gave him some sausage from a breakfast sandwich. Eliot’s career as a watch dog, ruined, but he and Darren are friends now for life.
The pragmatists among us also would point out all the difficult things. Dogs are a lot of work. They are toddlers that never grow up. When they are puppies, dogs will cry all night and pee on the floor. When they are old, they sleep all day and pee on the floor. Gone are spontaneous trips for the weekend or grabbing a beer after work on a whim. Around the holidays, dog sitters want a vacation too. There are the medical bills and chewed up furniture legs. Every couch and comfortable chair will smell like “dog”. And as much as they love you, dogs are incapable of understanding that there are some days when you simply need to sleep in, or that you head is throbbing. When it is time to walk, it is time to walk. And even though you fall in love with them, with love comes attachment and worry and midnight trips to the doggie hospital with your crying children because he has swallowed a pinecone or ruptured an anal gland.
“I agreed with all of it,” I said. “We are just getting over a flea outbreak.” And somehow whenever I was the busiest, the most overwhelmed and stressed beyond measure would be when Eliot would poop on the hardwoods. Or at one a.m. he would cry wanting to go for a walk. So I would pull on my shoes and winter coat and take him out into the cold dark. And rather than just get it over with and finish “his business” and get back home again, he would stop and smell the same bush he smelled this morning. He would turn up some leaves with his nose and search for clues for who might have passed by. Or joy-or-joy, he would pick up a scent of god-only-knows-what and feel the call of the wild surge in his veins like a canine Walter Mitty.
Eliot is smarter than I realized. Sure, he had figured out how to unhook the latch on the gate so he could roam the neighborhood at will, but there is an emotional perceptiveness and a subtly of implementation I have come to admire. On one level, the post-midnight walks in the park were about him, the poop on the floor about his needs. But none of us, not dogs, not people, are moved to act by a single motive. We are all overdetermined. Altruism need not be pure. Ours is a non-zero-sum relationship. Our fortunes are correlated for better or worse. And so his cries to walk in the woods were about me too. Eliot, my friend, would sense that I was stressed, that I was overburdened, and with forthrightness would insist “Let’s go for a walk. Let’s stop and sniff beneath the overturned logs. Let’s slow down and discover the beauty and wonder and majesty that is just a few steps outside that door.”
I told my friend he should get a dog.
The Title is a gentle play on the name of a wonderful poem by Phillip Levine, “Having Been Asked What is a Man, I Answer”