The other day I went to a birthday lunch for an old friend. I was a little late, and when I arrived the three other women were showing each other photos on their iPhones. There were exclamations of “Oh, isn’t he cute” and “Look at those eyes.” As I slid into my chair, I didn’t need to look at the screens. I knew precisely what was going on. They were passing around pictures, not of their kids or grandchildren but of their dogs. I felt as though I were in a New Yorker cartoon, one that, as the best of them do, sums up the state of things, the heart of the matter—or is it the matter of the heart?—in one witty take.
Most of my close female pals are enchanted by their dogs. I think that is the best verb: enchanted. It certainly describes the way I feel, and I make no effort to hide it. There was a time when I did. A decade ago people who were not bewitched by dogs were visibly disturbed by those of us who were. We drew pitying looks. Clearly we were compensating for some lack in our lives. I had written openly about my unsuccessful attempts to have a baby, and when I broke into a rapturous smile while speaking about my dog at the time, a Labrador retriever named Wilson, I could read their thoughts: “She has got herself a substitute child,” and they found this kind of sweet and kind of pathetic at the same time. They communicated those sentiments, often without saying a word.
But in recent years more of us have come out of the canine lover’s closet. Witness the lunch with my friends. I, too, shared images of Dixon, my current six-year-old Lab. He was roundly admired, his health inquired after. We talked dog food and vets. This line of discussion didn’t go on forever, of course. We turned our attention to the world situation and books and recipes. But the preface to the meal was our animals. None of us is under the illusion our dogs are human—none of that anthropomorphizing. We agree that William Wegman’s photographs of Weimaraners are vulgar, the dogs tarted up in bridal gowns and other garb, their eyes looking into the camera from their beautiful-sad gray faces (if Wegman means this as a commentary on what we shouldn’t do to our pets, the point is lost on me). No, I don’t want my pup to be human. It is his very dogness I love. We cannot converse. I cannot use the weapon I have used all my life, my hyperarticulateness, to make him love me more or respect my intelligence. He simplifies everything. Let’s go play outside, he wags, dropping his ball at my feet. For women who rush around, who juggle a lot and plan a lot (all those people to look after!), the invitation from a dog is remarkable in its directness. We are together on this planet, in this moment. Don’t you think we should relax and take a walk around the block? After a tough day out there in the world, coming home to a dog is magical. Where have you been—thump, thump, thump—I have missed you. Shed those work clothes and let’s get some air, catch some sniffs. Irritations fall away. If they don’t, if I come through the door carrying a dark cloud and continue to stamp and rant at a report on the radio or some vexing professional interaction, Dixon will curl away from me. It is an instructive curl. Should I succumb to audible sorrow, he will push up against me with his comforting bulk. He doesn’t tell me what to do, offers no bromides about keeping a stiff upper lip or things being better tomorrow. He just leans into me. Cynics say our pets are playing us—with their tail wags and deep-pool eyes—to get their needs met: food, water, companionship. As anyone who has a dog knows, it is a mutual scam. I have never thought there was a hard line between love and need. That demarcation, in fact, is one of the messiest I can imagine.
How lovely it is to make a living, breathing something (I can’t say “someone,” given what I have just written—though the temptation is there) so happy. Much more rarely can we do that with a person. But we can light up and elicit the joy of these creatures with so little effort—a walk, a treat, a scratch on the rump. Sometimes we go overboard in our desire to cater to them. I confess that we put a small pool in our backyard for Dixon. Obviously we intended to use it ourselves, but the impetus was his pleasure. Only after it was finished and he began swimming in it every afternoon did I realize why we had gone to the expense: This city is not very welcoming to dogs. I had never really thought about it before. There is all this froufrou stuff—boutiques with silly sweaters for tiny terriers and the like—that’s routinely featured in the media, giving the rest of the country an opportunity to smirk (again) at our fads. But the truth is, L.A. is fairly hostile to dogs. You can carry around a teacup pup in your purse or gym bag, preferably with a bow in its hair. But for the larger varieties there are many no-nos. They are not allowed on the beach. In most public spaces they have to be on a leash. There are scant places where they can be wild and free to exult in the use of limbs and noses. Yes, there are dog parks, but they can be muddy, noisy, and smelly—not to mention occasionally confrontational (human altercations as well as animal ones). I do not find them peaceful or joyous. This is such a vast, verdant playground, and yet we don’t want our animals to partake of it—not really.
I am always struck by this when I am in San Francisco, where my sister lives. We walk down by the water, and there are dogs gamboling every which way. In Europe, too, dogs seem more integrated into the life of the metropolis. At cafés they sit at their owners’ feet. They swim in the sea. What is it about us? Are we afraid that we will no longer tightly control our paradise, that it might be soiled? It makes total sense that the rather fierce Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan—who believes dogs need to be dominated—calls L.A. home. Just walking around my neighborhood with a big, friendly Lab on a leash, I am taken aback by the fear-filled looks I get, the reflexive recoils. What are they so worried about: beasts run amok, canine noir? I do understand and have some sympathy for those who aren’t comfortable with dogs. L.A. is a huge multicultural sprawl, and in the mix are people from places where intimacy with animals is considered weird, unsanitary. But I always want to say to the scowlers: You are missing out on something. This is the species we keep in the closest proximity; we were by them domesticated and they by us. To not have a dog, to not experience their animal intelligence and appetites, is to pass up one of the easiest avenues to intimacy in a city not given to personal warmth.
Men’s attachment to their dogs can be just as strong as women’s, from the strutting, tattooed guys with their thick-necked pit bulls to the stubble-chinned young men with their chick-magnet puppies. My own husband, who lived most of his life without a pet, fell fast and hard when on Christmas Eve of 1987 I presented him with his first dog: the Lab he named Wilson after the North Carolina town he came from. He was 57, and for the next ten years he and Wilson were inseparable. The man who had always awakened a bit grumpy, a wary eye on the world, now began the day with a “Good morning, little boy.” That’s the other gift: Dogs gentle us. When Wilson got cancer and we had to euthanize him, my husband let out wails of grief. No, he howled, over and over, No, no, no, no. The only time I saw my father cry was when his golden retriever, Charlie, was killed by a car on San Vicente Boulevard outside his house. Some of the most beautiful poems in the English language are those written by my friend W.S. Merwin, the current U.S. poet laureate, about his departed dogs, his beloved chows:
I wait for you my promised day
my time again my homecoming
my being where you wait for me
I think always of you waiting
This is the final stanza of “At the Bend,” which I can read only when I am feeling brave. For any of us who live with dogs, there are the constant undercurrents of time’s passage and inevitable loss. We experience, with each one, the arc of a whole life lived in roughly a decade. I keep a hard eye on my Lab. No—I keep a gauzy eye on him. I don’t really want to witness the signs of aging, the first white hairs on his chin, his slightly lowered exuberance when someone comes to the door (for everyone else, a relief; for me, a harbinger). I see and I don’t see. Today we will swim and later we will take a last, moonlit walk around the neighborhood. We will be happy.
Illustration by Gracia Lam