Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dog day

This past Monday was St. Patrick’s Day, of course, but it was also the more-or-less birthday of the BF’s dog. Cayenne was a shelter dog, and her exact day of birth is unknown, so the BF decided to attribute it to March 17 just for ease of remembrance. She isn’t an Irish breed, though she is a redhead—red-eared, in any case, the rest of her a mix of red frosted with white. She’s twelve, and her face is almost completely white, yet despite her age she is most definitely still a distance runner’s dog. Over the weekend she got to hit two trails with us, putting in double-digit mileage each day and making it look easy. I suppose if I had that low a center of gravity and twice the legs I do now, I might find running just as easy, though I’d go broke from buying double the amount of shoes.

Cayenne loves to run. It’s a real pleasure watching her do it, experiencing the sheer joy she exudes even in the worst conditions. When the BF is cursing the mud and I am cursing the ice, wind, cold temperatures, trip-hazardous roots and rocks, fogged-up glasses, and legs that simply will not seem to cooperate and do what I want them to do, Cayenne will prance about with glee. People sometimes wish they could know what their dogs are thinking; at times like these I’m rather glad they don’t know what we are thinking, because she’d probably shake her furry head in disgust. Are you daft, woman? The trail’s in great shape! This is a glorious day to run! Stop whining and come help me chase that squirrel over there!

For her birthday itself she got a big treat, though an unintentional one: the BF, tossing grilled chicken with salad greens for his lunch, did not realize the container lid was not properly fastened. Kablooey: chicken, spinach, and shredded carrots everywhere. This was the moment Cayenne had been waiting for. The BF and I are runners; we eat a lot and we eat very fast and we never waste anything—which means we never drop anything. The BF looked down at the mess on the floor, looked over at Cayenne, and sighed, “Oh just take it already.” The chicken went first, followed by the carrots. The spinach was licked clean for its sesame-ginger dressing but otherwise, unsurprisingly, left untouched. To her credit, she ate a lot slower than we do and seemed perhaps to be savoring the moment. It might never happen again, after all.
Trail running, good day; floor chicken, best day.

I am often wary of the way people anthropomorphize animals, especially pets. For me, what’s wonderful about pets is that we can’t always make them what we want them to be. We want them to be stupid, so they prove us wrong in uncanny ways. We want them smart and they do something of such astounding knuckleheadedness we can only laugh. We want them obedient, and they are—though on their own terms. We imagine them as perfect and saintly, but how is that fair? Their actions and motivations can be just as unfathomable as our own.
Though pets by definition are given a limited space to inhabit, they can’t easily be put in other, intangible boxes. Even as the most domesticated of animals, a dog is still a force of nature, a life, moving on her own through the world. If she were merely a pet, she’d simply follow us on the trail, but of course she doesn’t. As soon as the leash is off she goes bounding away on her own, excited by smells and sounds, thrilled to be moving fast and free.

And yet she comes back. It’s not quite anthropomorphizing to recognize a dog’s desire for interaction with other beings. Cayenne follows the BF all around the house; when he’s going to be one place for some time (and that place isn’t the kitchen), she’ll stretch out her front legs, her body a lean right triangle, butt sticking up in the air before it plops down so she can sit and survey his shaving and teeth-brushing activities. (The kitchen, of course, requires vigilance; the grilled chicken salad incident may be repeated at any moment, after all, and one must be ready to reap the tasty benefits.) In these behaviors we can recognize our own needs, just as in Cayenne’s exuberant romping through the woods I recognize what I myself love so much about running. Sure, a lot of running is about discipline, control, and boundaries, but the part that keeps runners coming back to it is more about a sense of doing something just to do it, just because it’s fun, even if it’s pointless—perhaps especially because it’s pointless.
Twelve is getting-up-there territory for dogs, and the BF knows her running days are numbered. He acknowledges, sadly, that there will be a day his four-legged red-headed trail buddy will no longer be able to join him. He’s being realistic, as we all have to be with our pets, even though it’s painful to contemplate. I do know, however, that even after that sad day comes, I’ll still be able to picture her out there ahead of me, still be able to see that joy, as she bounds away, red ears flapping like butterfly wings, so light and full of life.


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