The Literate Kerry (Vol. 2)

(This is an excerpt from a short story by Ann Patchett, entitled, “This Dog’s Life.” To read the complete story and others by this author, look for the book, Dog Is My Co-Pilot.)

“You were always my most normal friend,” my friend Elizabeth told me, “until you got this dog.”

While I think I would have enjoyed the company of many different dogs, I believe that the depth of my feeling for Rose in particular comes from the fact that she is, in matters of intelligence, loyalty and affection, an extraordinary animal. In the evenings, I drive Rose across town to a large open field where people come together to let their dogs off their leashes and play. As she bounds through the grass with the Great Danes and the Bernese Mountain Dogs, I believe that there was never a dog so popular and well adjusted as mine (and yet realize at the same time that this is the height of my own particular brand of insanity). The other dog owners want to talk about identifying her lineage, perhaps in hopes that one of her cousins might be located. It is not enough for Rose to be a good dog. She must be a particular breed of dog. She has been, depending on how one holds her in the light, a small Jack Russell, a large Chihuahua, a Rat Terrier, a Fox Terrier and a Corgi with legs. At present, she is a Portuguese Podengo, a dog that to the best of my knowledge was previously unknown in Tennessee. It is the picture she most closely resembles in our International Encyclopedia of Dogs. We now say things like “Where is the Podengo?” and “Has the Podengo been outside yet?” to give her a sense of heritage. In truth, she is a Parking Lot Dog, dropped off in a snowstorm to meet her fate.

I watch the other dog owners in the park, married people and single people and people with children. The relationship each one has with his or her dog is very personal and distinct. But what I see again and again is that people are proud of their pets, proud of the way that they run, proud of how they nose around with the other dogs, proud that they are brave enough to go into the water or smart enough to stay out of it. People seem able to love their dogs with an unabashed acceptance that they rarely demonstrate with family or friends. The dogs do not disappoint them, or if they do, the owners manage to forget about it quickly. I want to learn to love like this, the way we love our dogs, with pride and enthusiasm and a complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way our dogs love us.

When a dog devotes so much of herself to your happiness, it only stands to reason you would want to make that dog happy in return. Things that would seem unreasonably extravagant for yourself are nothing less than a necessity for your dog. So my boyfriend and I hired a personal trainer for Rose. We had dreams of obedience, of sit and stay and come, maybe a few simple tricks. She didn’t really seem big enough to drag the paper inside. I was nervous about finding the right trainer and called my friend Erica for moral support, but she was too busy going on interviews to get her four-year-old son into a top Manhattan preschool to be too sympathetic. The trainer we went with was the very embodiment of dog authority figures. After a few minutes of pleasant conversation in which Rose jumped on his shoulder and licked the top of his head, he laid out the beginnings of his plan.

Number one: The dog doesn’t get on the furniture.

We blinked. We smiled nervously. “But she likes the furniture,” we said. “We like her on the furniture.”

He explained to us the basic principles of dog training. She has to learn to listen. She must learn parameters and the concept of no. He tied a piece of cotton rope to her collar and demonstrated how we were to yank her off the sofa cushion with a sharp tug. Our dog went flying through the air. She looked up at us from the floor, more bewildered than offended. “She doesn’t sleep with you, does she?” the trainer asked.

“Sure,” I said, reaching down to rub her neck reassuringly. She slept under the covers, her head on my pillow, her muzzle on my shoulder. “What’s the point of having a twelve-pound dog if she doesn’t sleep with you?”

He made a note in a folder. “You’ll have to stop that.”

I considered this for all of five seconds. “No,” I said. “I’ll do anything else, but the dog sleeps with me.”

After some back-and-forth on this subject, he relented, making it clear that it was against his better judgment. For the duration of the ten-week program, either I sat on the floor with Rose or we stayed in bed. We celebrated graduation by letting her back up on the couch.

I went to see my friend Warren, who, handily, is also a psychologist, to ask him if he thought things had gotten out of hand. Maybe I have a obsessive-compulsive disorder concerning my dog.

“You have to be doing something to be obsessive-compulsive,” he said. “Are you washing her all the time? Or do you think about washing her all the time?”

I shook my head.

“It could be codependency, then. Animals are by nature very codependent.”

I wasn’t sure I liked this. Codependency felt too trendy. Warren’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Kate, came in, and I asked her if she wanted to see the studio portraits I had taken of Rose for my Christmas cards. She studied the pictures from my wallet for a minute and then handed them back to me. “Gee,” she said. “You really want to have a baby, don’t you?”

I went home to my dog. I rubbed her pink stomach until we were both sleepy. We’ve had Rose a year now, and there has never been a cold and rainy night when I’ve resented having to take her outside. I have never wished I didn’t have a dog, while she sniffed at each individual blade of grass, even as my hands were freezing up around the leash. I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren’t other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog.

Last Updated: 06/09/2004, 5:56 pm