Summer read: Many people have a tendency to excessively fuss over their dogs as if they were children. But, writes Linda Burgess, it’s time to end the absurdity and start seeing dogs as the animals they truly are.
First published June 7, 2021
Edward is, at a careful distance, watching Badger. Badger is standing in the bay window in our bedroom, straight-backed, high on his hind paws, front paws barely touching the sash window, watching cars in Kelburn, across the valley. Edward is four, still wary of dogs, and fascinated by Badger’s un-doglike stance. “He thinks he’s human,” says Edward.
We’re at the SPCA, who, in Wellington, offer a terrific vet service. You have to drive up vast uninhabited hills through towering trees. The city has gone. We arrive at what used to be a fever hospital. In 2021 they could well use it again for this, but instead we’re met by the distant howls and barks of dogs waiting to be re-homed. Covid’s other victims. There’s the hint of human ghosts, a hint of the likes of Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield captured forever behind its brick walls, tantalisingly glimpsed through the windows.
We do the trip three times. The first time he bounces happily in and we’re sick with guilt at what lies ahead. He stands on the scales – 6kg. His coat makes him look twice that. He goes off with the nice vet. The second time we go it’s to fetch him, not long out of surgery, and we carry his soft warm fluffiness back to the car. He’s had the snip. It reminds me of my children when they were sick when small, the first day of fever when their listless little bodies snuggled into mine and my love for them knew no bounds. It’s the love that knows that tomorrow will be another day. Badger, still in recovery mode, lies in front of the fire with me on the floor beside him, looks truly, sadly, deeply into my eyes, and I think, is he blaming us for this? And I think, if he died, I would die too.
His breed is inclined, Google says, to get separation anxiety. We go to Moore Wilson’s and park upstairs and I say to Robert, you go in, I’ll stay in the car with him. In the backseat he stands, stretching taller and taller, craning for a last look, as he watches Robert pass the chook van and disappear. His hair, parted in the middle, makes him look like Groucho Marx, or, on a good day, Einstein. He emits a low, melodramatic moan. I feel like an extra in Doctor Zhivago. But once Robert’s gone, he settles happily back on the seat and gives his stitches a damn fine going over.
Just as the internet knows we’re getting older and could well require a retirement village or funeral package sometime soon, it knows we’ve got a dog. Facebook keeps sending me ads. Our dog is apparently wondering when we’re going to buy him a bed, the one that all other dogs, with owners who care about them, are so snugly, smugly, tucked up in. Facebook tells me it can stop my dog chasing squirrels. Facebook wants me to buy organic dog food, delivered weekly to my door. Facebook warns me never to leave my dog alone, never for a minute. Dog thieves lurk.
Trip three: ten days later we return to get the stitches out. Several times over those ten days I’ve found myself thinking that actually I could’ve coped if he’d been taken too soon by the grim reaper. Or, at the very least, if he’d been grabbed by one of the thousands of dognappers hanging around our street. He’s healing well, but he’s turned into what my friend Peter Wells memorably described as a boy bitch. He’s not getting as much exercise, so he’s got mopey and occasionally vaguely vicious. His game of tugging at my clothes can, accidentally (I hope), include flesh. In search of the gourmet treat that is a used tissue, he kicks open our bedroom door and glances over at me, sitting on the sofa, to see what I have to say about that. “NO Badger,” I say. He throws me an insolent glance and flicks his boy band fringe. He kicks the door again. I spiral mentally back to teaching in the 1980s: last period on a blustery afternoon, teenagers who couldn’t give a stuff, that awful spiteful girl who’s now a senior detective or something.
He’s teaching himself new games. I’m impressed that he can whack a tennis ball under the sofa that is not against a wall, then race behind the sofa to retrieve it. I don’t have to be involved. Because I don’t have to be involved, he takes to batting it under the other sofa, the one that is against a wall. He lies on his stomach, gives an exasperated moan then scratches the sofa. Hard. I lie on my stomach to retrieve it. Finally I put books under the sofa to block the ball. He eats the books.
While we wait for the vet to deal to those little stitches, we go through a box of pre-loved dog clothing, selling for a song. People have actually knitted little coats that could fit only a chihuahua. No wonder it looks unused, the neck is so tight it would strangle a mouse. There’s a tartan jacket that’s about his size. I pause. He’s got a long thick coat but it’s getting colder now. I attempt to try the jacket on him, but he clearly knows there’s something chav about that tartan which used to be cool when it lined Burberry raincoats but then got picked up by one of the Spice girls and its desirability took quite a knock. But it does match his fur nicely. He declines to try it on, which I agree with because one side doesn’t do up; it looks like someone’s eaten half of the Velcro. We find a little box of doggy gumboots but it’s not worth even trying to force his paws into those. Anyway, he’d be laughed off the dog park.
We come home and there’s a book in the letterbox. Our friend Murray has sent us Inside of a Dog, a New York Times bestseller by a cognitive scientist, Alexandra Horowitz. Thirty pages in, and lights are coming on at the end of multiple tunnels. “The principal experience of wearing a coat,” she writes, “is not the experience of being protected from wetness; rather the coat produces the discomfiting feeling that someone higher ranking than you is nearby.”
It’s such a relief. Tartan or not, classy or not, is not the point. Edward was right, Badger does sometimes think he’s human. And so do the humans. But actually, he’s not. He’s a dog. Stop attributing motives to him. Stop trying to second guess what he’s thinking. Don’t try to force a French beret on his head. Stop thinking that if only you quietly explain, he’ll get the point, change his ways. Acknowledge that there’s a lot he doesn’t get about a sentence like, “Badger it’s not a good idea for you to eat the toilet paper”. Just get a grip, see sense, put your knitting up high, the tissues out of reach. Put your new jersey in the drawer. Put the house in lockdown. He’s a dog.
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