June 03, 2008


In my family we rarely keep pets, but we often share our homes with fur-people. These people are generally small, four footed, and often have tails, though not always. They understand English, but seldom speak it. They see no need to encumber themselves with unnecessary concepts and instead prefer to communicate succinctly with body language, facial expressions, ear and tail positions, whisker twitches, nose wiggles, and a variety of uncomplicated vocalizations.

When I was four, we had a dog named Andy, some kind of sturdy oodle-mutt with curly white hair. He was my mother’s dog. One evening I was making mischief as only a four year old can make. I reached down to filch the rawhide bone he had been chewing on all evening. As my little hand closed over it, his teeth closed over my little hand and he growled. I promptly turned to my mother, cradling the white, unblemished skin of my little hand and pitifully crying “Andy bit me!”

”Well, what did you do to him?” my mother asked, not at all concerned, barely looking up from her cross stitch. After all, Andy was her dog, the dog which she had raised and trained, and she knew very well that no dog of hers would draw blood. She trusted her dog far more than her daughter, as well she should have. The dog had far better manners.

This weekend a friend of mine came down to stay with me, a rekindled flame, you might say. My housemate, Anne, was out of town visiting her family and it fell to me to look after Sugar, a scrappy young cattle dog-mutt. Sugar did not like me when I first appeared on her doorstep, but after two weeks of being the regarded as the devil incarnate, she was learning to appreciate me – or at least appreciate that I would let her out of her kennel, take her for walks, and feed her treats. She was also reluctantly beginning to mind. While she was fit to be tied when introduced to me, she took to my friend with not a single bark. Figures.

At least, that is, until it came time to shut her out of the bedroom. She was having none of that and immediately began damaging the door. So into the kennel she went. The kennel has never caused her a moment’s qualm, but not five minutes later there was a furious rattling and then the rapid tattoo of dog paws throughout the house. She had pulled the kennel door in towards her, out of its moorings, bending the locking wires, and tearing off two claws in the process. I have never in my life seen such a thing.

At that point you can only laugh. You have to stay calm and speak calmly and radiate love as you pin down a dog (who’s just ruined your romantic evening, mind) half your own weight and apply disinfectant to her paw. You have to continue with this patience and with diligence apply the disinfectant regularly over the next forty-eight hours as her efforts to evade you become more and more effective. She is, after all, a very smart dog. Smart dogs, like smart people, are always the more difficult of the two.

Being with animals is a kind of meditation. Walking a dog or riding a horse, no matter how well trained and trusted the creature, requires a kind of mindfulness and diligence seldom found in other practices. I tend to think it is similar to the kind of attention parents give to their children when they are out in the world together. Riding a bicycle can never replace riding a horse, keeping an eye on the landscape ahead, the tree branches that would scrape you off, feeling his weight and your weight shifting together, the rhythm of the gate, noticing the turn of the ears which reveal the animal’s mood and attention. When I’m on my bicycle, even in traffic, I can still space out, daydream, go over my to do list. Horses demand your attention, even in an undemanding way. I give my full attention happily to animals the way I seldom have with people.

The ability to evoke that kind of mindfulness makes me think all fur-people are really just buddhas in disguise.

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