I’ve never told him to do this. One day he just decided that he liked being in wheelbarrows. I accept such things, without understanding them. Maybe he feels he is a clever dog and wishes to demonstrate just how so. I think it’s not so grand, though. My suspicion is, being in a wheelbarrow is just another strange thing of many that he likes.
Right now the yard is covered in thick snow. It is a world he has never known. When he goes outside, he runs, back and forth wildly, in leaps to keep his chest above the snow. Then he stops, bends forward, pushing his head deep into the white powder, and does a somersault, flopping onto his back, then kicking himself around in circles. Then he stops, jumping up completely still and alert, looks quickly from side to side, then rolls onto his back again, rolling and kicking snow into the air while snorting. Again, I don’t know why. I tell him that he’s crazy, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
He also has obsessions, namely tennis balls. Always, he carries at least one around with him. He even drops one into his bowl as he eats, apparently because it’s all good. He can hold them between his paws, while he’s laying down, his stubby claws looking more like fingers, wrapping around the little ball. He even rests his paws on them, slowing rolling them around under his touch.
Whenever I come upstairs from down, there is at least one tennis ball on the steps, waiting for me. I am expected to bring it to him. When I stand near the bottom of the steps, doing dishes or making coffee, I almost always hear a thwunk, thwunk, thwunk as a ball slowly bounces down the steps. Looking up, he’s laying at the top of the stair with his paws hanging over, staring down at me with a big grin, waiting for me to throw the ball back up to him. It’s irresistible. I throw it up to him, where he catches it, chews it for a moment, then sets it on the ground between his paws. Moments later, he hits it with the top of his nose, sending it bouncing back down the steps to me, with that silly grin.
There is existence and awareness in that creature, that is not illusion, I have no doubt. There is a soul, as certainly as we might have one. This is beyond most forms of Christianity, and many other religions as well. In this, at least, those religions are wrong. And so are people who believe cats can even compare.
He has a darker side as well, manifest through pathological jealousy. Any other dog who dares comes near to say hello, he intercepts, and shoves firmly away, but in the friendliest of ways. He is the only one that will have our affection.
There is even self-sacrifice. Hating riding in the car, he lays down stiff and motionless in the back seat, completely unresponsive. It isn’t terror or sickness. It’s more like the ultimate in “grin and bear it”. So why, you might ask, is he forced to ride in the car? And the answer would be, he isn’t. He insists on going because it’s a much better alternative than you leaving without him.
I think it is likely, in his dog brain, that he has no awareness differentiating himself from humans. Laying down next to him to pet his head, you will find his paw on your own head, which is not always pleasant, when claws are loving torn down your cheek. Nor always, your arm held firmly between his jaws when he is exceedingly happy about something. He has learned to curb his enthusiasm, to a degree, but not enough, by intent, to squelch his personality.
Sometimes he needs to be reminded, not of his status, but of his limitations; those sometimes arbitrary-seeming rules of conduct. For example, the table is not his place to eat. The counter tops are sacred places, with strange and wondrous things to smell and eat, but never to trespass upon. And all of this is accomplished through the two soul-crushing sounds for which everything must stop. “No!” “Bad!”
Happily for him, almost everything else is good. It is a peculiar and simple life, almost always coming back to tennis balls. There are times when he brings two or three in his mouth to you, laying them in your lap, wide-eyed and waiting for you to throw them. But other times, when you might be in the mood to play, he will hide them from you. And still others, he will hoard them between his paws, in an iron grip. He prefers sharing the tennis balls on his own terms.
But, being smarter than he, I have discovered ways to circumvent his particularities. I keep a spare ball, all my own, out of his sight. One bounce of that ball, anywhere in the house, and he will completely forget about any balls of his own. One bounce, knowing that another ball exists that is not his, and he will fixate, absolutely, on making it his own. It does not matter that he already had two or three balls. If you have one, he must have it. I have learned to exploit that laser-sighted greed to swoop in and steal the balls he left unguarded. He knows this trick by now. I can see it in his face, when he hears me bounce that ball, out of his sight. He knows I will end up with his, and hesitates. But another bounce will drive him over the top, where he simply must have it. And then I’ve won.
But other times he will just bring a mouthful of balls to you, laying them in your lap. Or sometimes he spreads them out on the floor in front his face, where he lays with his chin on the ground, staring at you until you come take them to play. If you stand near them, he will spring to his feet, crouched in a serious four-legged kung fu pose, completely motionless, waiting to catch the ball with his paws if you happen to kick one instead of picking it up.
It is far more interesting when a relationship is not domineering. Personalities blossom, in unexpected ways.
Here, the Fourth of July is very loud, with fireworks shooting up into the sky in any direction you look, with the occasional bright white flash of some deafening explosion. Jake loves the Fourth of July. He is the only dog I’ve known to love it. He runs out across the yard, barking at the lights and sounds, in a happy, not at all anxious way. And when he is hot from running, like the rest of the summer, he will lay in his little plastic swimming pool of water, rolling around in near ecstasy.
After balls, water is his second love. Even though he cannot sink his teeth into it, he tries. When you pick up the hose, he runs toward you, expecting to be squirted. He requires it. You cannot expect to use water from the hose without this dog finding a way to get in it. Even strong jets of icy water he will lay down in, as if it is the most nonintoxicating and pleasant massage. Short bursts he will bite at, trying to catch, or bat at with his paws. He is a strange dog.
Did I mention he does yoga? He loves to stretch, and loves help stretching further. Maybe this is how he can so easily leap into the wheelbarrow with such balance. Perhaps that is why his paws are more like hands. Certainly his flexibility, strength and precision set him apart from most other dogs. Perhaps this is just the pride of a parent.
For my part, I have never thought of Jake as a dog. Well, consciously you must. But I give him the benefit of more. Actually, I try to do that with all dogs. And yes, even cats. Well, after that initial period of ignoring them completely until they put themselves at a disadvantage by making the first gesture of friendship. But where they might walk away, I’ll listen. Even though it’s questionable they deserve it, after such games. But not all dogs, do I think of, as more than dogs. Their characters can be radically shaped by we humans. To me, that is a nearly overwhelming consideration. But it is not, for all humans.
It is a peculiar thing, the spirit of an animal. And peculiar even ourselves, when we have such power over it, what we choose to exert in that dominion. It is something telling, as all acts, and all inactions, are confessions of ourselves.
I can say he is a bad dog. Or a good dog. And I determine all boundaries and structures of his world. But I forfeit that power, as much as I can. Instead, I choose to be one creature to another with him. Perhaps this is how he can be something more – how he can be such a strange and wonderful dog.
In a large way, this is because of my dad, by his example, or the voodoo that seeps in through the alchemy of families. It is a realization that gives me pause. Because, if I must admit many things, it gives me, perhaps, just a glimpse, of my own wheelbarrow.
You might be seeing me, standing in it now, from your perspective that encapsulates such creatures. But I can talk. And were I to, I would tell you, I am not feeling particularly clever. I like the wheelbarrow. It’s a little above the ground and it’s fun to balance. Even when I get scolded. Or laughed at. I mean, look at this, standing in the wheelbarrow. You glorious little lunatic! Yes, you.
And so we know, there are people who say, treating your dog as an equal is a bad thing. They say, they need the discipline, hierarchy and rule of the pack. They are happier that way. Well, it isn’t true. They need excrutiatingly honest and sincere interaction with you. That’s all. And yes, that is a far taller order.