Puppy teeth and wisdom
Now, the nice thing about dogs is that, since they can't talk, we can project on them anything we please. A recent Atlantic Monthly article argued that our dogs' behavior in "pretending to like us" is merely a selected-for trait in canine evolution. Dogs successfully adapt to their environment, the writer claims, by manifesting certain endearing behaviors to manipulate their human food-givers. Talk about cynical... As a human food-giver, I much prefer assuming that my puppy not only loves me, but is here as my divinely-appointed role model.
Yes, I want to be more like my dog. Why?
1) Luke is perpetually delighted, for no particular reason. Every day I wake up with Luke staring at me from the bedside, ears perked, patiently and happily waiting for me to join him in the wonder of the day. When I crawl into clothes and reach for the leash (as I have every morning since he moved in three months ago), he leaps and wiggles in gratitude. "Oh my gosh, she's walking me — again!" I imagine him saying. "I can't believe it; this is so amazing!"
Outside, Luke bounds across the yard, rolls deliciously in the wet grass or snow, and springs into the air for the sheer joy of it. The meander through our condo complex, the same route we've taken almost every day for three months, is alive with miracles, like sticks, lost socks and cigarette butts to smell and chew and throw into the air. By the time we make our rounds and head home, I'm beginning to believe it, too. What an amazing world right outside our door (although, spiritual underling that I am, I tend to draw more inspiration from dawn breaking on the peaks than from the occasional cigarette butt underfoot).
2) Luke is an unshakable pacifist. One day a neighbor dog sauntered along and swiped Luke's stick in mid-chew. Luke looked startled, then got up and found another twig. The neighbor dog abandoned her first stolen stick just long enough to dash in and grab Luke's new twig. Again, Luke, unperturbed, sniffed around and came up with a nice chunk of firewood to munch. The frazzled other dog spent the next few minutes fidgeting around, trying to figure out how to steal Luke's new treasure without leaving her loot unguarded, until her owner called her home and she had to abandon her booty altogether. The dog had wasted her precious free time fretting about expanding and protecting her hoard, while Luke had enjoyed a satisfying morning chew. I think there's a parable here.
3) Luke loves the world and assumes the world loves him. When he spots a stranger, his ears perk up, his tail starts wagging, and I imagine him saying, "Oh, yea! Here's another being who hasn't had the chance yet to love me and be loved by me. What fun!" Strangely enough, seldom is Luke's brazen approach repelled. He gives love without condition, he boldly asks for love in return, and he gets it. Then what the heck am I doing slinking around not wanting to bother people, not wanting to risk rejection, when the world is bursting with affection just waiting to be passed around?
4) Luke accepts without judgment. He adores people who are pretty and ugly, old and young, rich and poor, sweet and crotchety. He adores me when I walk him; he adores me when I don't. Luke is a good role model but a really lousy guard dog.
5) Luke doesn't struggle; he plays. A neighbor loaned me a book that described Labradors as the accountants of the retriever world and goldens as the partyers. Luke reminds me to shut off the computer sometimes and go frolic in a stream or snowbank. Just when I'm sad, frustrated, or struggle-minded, Luke drops a slobbery tennis ball in my lap, a slimy reminder that problems get resolved more easily from a place of opened-up delight than from a place of closed-in pain. At least, I think that's what he's saying.
Now, Luke also fits the heroic ideal because he is not perfect. I recently read a book called The Writer's Journey about the archetypal plot elements and characters in storytelling. The best heroes, this book claims, are those with weaknesses and flaws (even Superman had kryptonite and questionable fashion sense). When our heroes have imperfections, we can better relate to them and they have room to grow and change and generate a little subplot action. Perfection is a yawner.
In this regard, Luke makes a great hero. He boasts an abundance of flaws. We are past the puddling-paranoia stage ("Is that a squat!? Is that a squat!?"), but the carpet will never be the same. Luke also has a penchant for spreading muddy-paw graffiti, chewing notes bearing crucial phone numbers, ripping favorite t-shirts, going into occasional leg-humping manias most unbecoming of a gentleman, and thinning the flowers when they least need it. Yes, ample balance for his nobler side.
Luke joined us as a seven-week old puppy, when my son Chris' relentless pet campaign finally eroded our best parental resistance. Luke was a ball of white-blond fur so soft and cute that I wondered if we were hampering his motor development; we could scarcely stop cuddling him. He was like a tiny, lovable polar bear. For about a week.
Luke grew so fast that one morning I woke up to hear his feet scrabbling in vain against the slippery wooden floors beneath me. He'd grown so much in the night that he was wedged under the bed. A little girl in the neighborhood accused us of trading in our puppy each week for a bigger model.
We were determined to do this dog ownership thing right, so we heeded the one item of puppy-rearing advice that was universal: Crate train your dog. So we did, for about 15 minutes. We tucked our sweet new puppy into his new box, all cozied up with blankets and comfort objects. Sure enough, just like everyone said, he whimpered for a few minutes, then he stopped. He stopped whimpering so he could start crying, then howling, an impossibly piercing sound from such a precious little bunnykins. Soon there was harmony; Chris was howling, too. "Mom and Dad, this is so cruel! I can't stand it!"
We spontaneously invented our own version of puppy training, called "mattress training." Chris rescued Luke from his tortuous box, my husband Michael and I pulled the mattress off of our bed onto the floor, and Luke spent his first few nights contentedly tucked in among all three of his new humans. (Crate trainers may be the most vocal pet owners, but I suspect mattress training has been conducted in secret since Neanderthal youngsters first sneaked wolf pups into the family cave.)
Dog books and videos also suggested that providing good chew toys would help distract our little gnaw-fiend from destroying valuable household items. So by Luke's second week in our house, we were ankle deep in ropes, nylon bones, and vet-approved rubber balls. Mostly these items helped by impeding Luke's progress as he made his wobbly way to the sandals, notebooks, and fringed rugs that called to him so irresistibly. Later we read the fine print that instructed us to give Luke only three toys so as not to confuse him about allowable versus forbidden chew items. Oh. Well, no wonder Luke gobbled the adapter to Michael's keyboard, the earphones to Chris' CD player, and my favorite dictionary. He was just confused, poor guy.
Luckily, Luke loved training from the get-go. Within five minutes of the first training session, Chris had taught Luke to "sit." "Lay down" followed closely, with Luke plopping down so fast and with such happy vehemence that his ears flopped into the air and the floor shook beneath him. As with any young pupil, however, Luke's learning was directly related to motivation. Add a distraction or remove a reward and you might as well be giving orders to a dust storm.
Part of Luke's initial training plan involved socialization. I tried to bring Luke everywhere so he wouldn't be afraid of other people or dogs. As if.... Socialization was the last thing Luke The Gregarious seemed to need. He soon knew the neighbors better than I did. I still meet people in the produce aisle who say, "Oh, you're Luke's mom, aren't you? Now, what was your name again?"
In the course of bringing Luke out into the world, I stumbled onto a segment of it I never knew about before: The Loyal Order of Golden Retriever Lovers. Do kind, gentle, and generous people opt to have golden retrievers, or do golden retrievers transform their owners into kind, gentle, and generous people? Fellow golden owners have loaned us books, given us beds and supplies, and fallen all over themselves to share in the delight of these sweetest dogs on the face of the earth.
Years ago, I had a malamute dog, a grand, noble protector, ever vigilant, ever instinctive. It was like being married to a Mafia don — an intense mixture of love, loyalty, and lurking danger. When we got our malamute, the streets weren't paved, drunks threw each other through the Grubstake window, and Crested Butte was a rougher-edged husky/malamute/mutt kind of town. Now I look around and many of the dogs I see are goldens or labs, mellow to the max. The Grubstake window hasn't been broken for almost two decades.
Are we wimping out? Getting too civilized? Going soft? I'd rather think that we're being infiltrated by a group of highly-evolved, four-legged spiritual beings who figure if they're going to change the world, Crested Butte is a darn good place to start. •