A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1889
October 2, 2017

An Unspoken Bond

MONTPELIER, VT – If there’s any other bond, any understanding, any closer than that between a dog and its person, I don’t know what it is. I didn’t say there wasn’t one; I just can’t imagine what it might be. After months and years together, each knows the habits, priorities, and quirks of the other, and can tell intuitively what’s coming next, for better or worse.

I’ve had the incredible privilege of taking a couple of dozen canoe-camping trips to the Canadian Arctic and seeing wild Arctic wolves that most likely never have seen human beings before we came gliding through their territory. Of all the animals there – caribou, musk oxen, ground squirrels, foxes, wolverines – they’re the ones that seem most interested in us, and even sort of interact. Paddling along, you look off to one side and spot, sitting on a rock perhaps half a mile away, a big white wolf. As soon as your eye lights upon him, he knows he’s been seen. He gets down off the rock, wags his tail self-consciously, and begins to trot in the direction you’re traveling. That night – it never gets dark there in the summer – after supper and general retirement to the tents, you look out through the mosquito netting, and there he is, peeking curiously in at you. Sometimes he even brings company.

You know what he wants; he smells the fish and food you’ve cooked for supper. But in that looking at each other, mutually unafraid and deeply interested, you can sense the possibility of a relationship that, given time, could develop into something mutually rewarding. I have old black-and-white photos of Copper Inuit on the north coast of Canada moving incredibly large sled loads of their belongings across the spring snow in harness with perhaps four husky sled dogs. It would be hard to believe that, utilitarian as that relationship was, it wasn’t also cemented by affection.

As I type these lines, about five feet behind me, snoozing alertly in an easy chair, lies a 20-pound dynamo impatiently counting the words appearing on this page. For some reason, though she frequently interrupts me when I’m surfing the Internet, by shoving her muzzle under my right wrist and lifting it forcefully off the mouse, she seems to lay off when she sees me performing this weekly task. I appreciate it greatly, and will reward her with some peanut butter inside a Kong when I finally get this off in an e-mail. I don’t have to say it; we just know.

Kiki came to me from a shelter in Texas: an attempt to help fill the emptiness created by my wife’s move to a nursing home. I don’t think I saved her from anything dire; she’s too cute and has too much personality to be passed over in a shelter and consigned to euthanasia. But she sure has changed things around here. The woman at the shelter who suggested that a high-speed terrier might be too much of a handful for an octogenarian knew what she was talking about. Still...

Early on, it was clear she was a flight risk, so I kept her on a leash whenever we went outdoors. Montpelier has a world-class dog park, a wooded, hilly maze of trails ideal for both dogs and their people. For two days I kept her on a leash. We both hated it, and she reminded me how dogs not much larger than she could pull heavy sleds in winter. The third day I took a chance. “Look,” I said, “you have a microchip under your hide, so ultimately you can’t get lost. Today you’re on probation. Make the most of it, and the leash’ll stay in the car.”

Released from the hateful restraint, she was off like a shot. Then – wonder of wonders! – she began circling me, like a moon its home planet, and checking every few seconds to make sure I was still where she thought I ought to be. She could range freely in search of prey to chase up trees or put to wing, and I could plod along untroubled and feeling like a genius of a dog-trainer.

She’s a nighttime cuddler (love it! especially as the nights get colder) and a slugabed (also great; I can get all the way through a complicated omelet before she even shows her nose in the kitchen). She’s apparently come to feel that this house is hers to keep safe from predation by wild animals and heating oil delivery guys. One of these days, they tell me, she’ll quit her destructive chewing and can be let into all of the house.

Meantime, we’re developing the same relationship as that between the earth and the moon. She revolves around me, and my tides and moods are affected by her. A lot of what passes between us is unspoken. When I get up to go to the john about one in the morning, she stands up and shakes her tags: She wants to go out. So I let her out – she races down the ramp into the yard with a terrifying growl and a soprano barking. Shortly, I’m ready for her to come in.

“Come on,” I say loudly, “Let’s go.” Sometimes she’s right there; at others, I hear her saying, “We have noted your request and have prioritized it in the order in which it was received. We are at the moment chasing a cricket. Please hold.” Do I have a choice? I call her any number of four-letter epithets, which she doesn’t mind at all; she understands only the affection in my voice.

Now and then I compare her to our last dog, dead now for years but so much a part of me that I often call Kiki by her name. She was so eager to please that I was embarrassed to ask her to do anything. That doesn’t appear to be a problem with this one yet. She can tell I’m closing in on a finish. Then a 20-minute proofread and some e-mailing. The rattle of some pill bottles and a water jug; after that, the sound of a deck of cards being shuffled and a hand of solitaire. At last the stargazing out back, all without a word or sound, and I’m off to brush my teeth. She’s learned that I’m defenseless then and keeps dropping that Kong on my foot to be thrown until lights out.

Photo by Willem lange