Dogs dream with their whole bodies. When our dog Parker goes into REM sleep, the “E” stands for everything. His ears and nose wiggle in response to dream sounds and smells, and the rest of him twitches and shakes as if in demonic possession. People often say their dogs appear to be dreaming about chasing rabbits or some similar favorite canine pastime. We’ll likely never know for sure—dogs too might very well dream about being late for school and on the verge of flunking out—but whatever the subject, they sure don’t half-ass it. Full furry ass, waggy tail and all—that’s how Parker rolls.
When people write about their dogs, inevitably they talk about love and loyalty—that is, facets of the relationship between us and them. That’s not surprising; it’s well known that dogs are the first creatures domesticated by people, which means that this relationship has been cultivated over thousands of years. But a domesticated animal isn’t a robot. We haven’t programmed dogs; we’ve rather inserted ourselves prominently into the environment of their natural selection. And we’re not the only influence on them, not by a long shot.
When we first got Parker, we briefly joked that we could rename him Barker. The joke went ironic very quickly, as we discovered that Parker is not a barker, not at people, dogs, or (and we’d brought Fred along for the meet-and-greet to test this) macaws. The one exception, we discovered, is goats. This is not something the majority of pet dogs have to deal with, at least in the U.S., but we do, in fact, have goats. And as soon as he sees them each day, something jolts in his canine brain and he goes nuts. He barks. He leaps. He has literally worn a path by one section of the goat yard from dashing endlessly back and forth, watching them with anxious eyes. Somewhere in his doggy DNA, “GET GOATS” has been coded, passed down from distant ancestors who herded the cloven-hooved critters to appease their people. Possibly this particular gene sequence dates even earlier than that, to when dogs were wolves and didn’t get their food from Purina. One of my stepdaughter’s dogs—a dopier, goofier, sweeter-looking pup you’ll never see—once enthusiastically devoured a baby bunny he caught on our land, grinning a fur-and-blood caked smile afterward like he’d just done something to make us all very proud. He gets regular meals. He isn’t vicious in any other way. But old habits—really old—don’t die easy.
In other ways, though, Parker exemplifies the quality of dogs as more companions than either tame pets or wild animals. He is definitely a trail runner’s dog, to our great luck, and loves nothing so much as a jog through the woods. It’s jogging for him, sometimes not even that, given how slow I run compared to him, but his body language is still suffused with joy—as, I reckon, is mine. Running with a dog is a vivid experience in the world of the senses. There are so many new sights and sounds and oh so many smells. Something crackles among the trees—is it a branch breaking or a deer? A flurry of tiny moths rises like snowflakes caught in an updraft. The scent of the earth, damp from yesterday’s rain, wafts around us.
I think maybe what I’m enjoying the most about life with a dog is something unexpected. It isn’t just companionship; it’s another sort of connection. He reminds me, perhaps, of my inescapable animal self—reminding me to be alive to the world, in the all-too-short time we have.