Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Normal Dog

Yesterday, to celebrate my birthday Barley and I went to our favorite place, the Holden Arboretum, to check out the setup for Goblins in the Garden--especially Scarecrow Row.  We found a Charlie Brown scarecrow and I had to take a picture.

Barley's excited about the Great Pumpkin!
Last December, Barley and I watched I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown.  Usually, I am not a huge Charlie Brown fan, but this show and the Great Pumpkin are the exceptions, and having had Barley for almost a year at that point, I could relate to this episode even more.  In I Want a Dog for Christmas, Rerun desperately wants a dog for Christmas, but his mom won't let him have one.  In one scene, Snoopy has done something weird and Charlie Brown laments, "Why can't I have a normal dog like everyone else?"  Rerun reminds him that he's lucky to have a dog at all. 

Last December, I felt the way Rerun thought Charlie Brown should feel--I was lucky to have a dog.  Now, as Barley and I wait for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin 10 months later, I feel like I'm lucky to have this dog.

In his dog books, Jon Katz frequently quotes his dog trainer as telling him that "if you want a better dog, be a better human."  In the almost two years that I've had Barley, I feel like I've become a better person.  In The Story of Rose, Katz discusses his life with his border collie Rose and reflects on their time training and working together: "From the first, my work with her challenged me to be a better, more patient and empathic human.  Dogs do that for us.  They make us better if we listen to them and learn from them."  I think my work with Barley has done the same thing for me.

In most of his books, Katz discusses the idea of a lifetime dog--he doesn't seem to come to clear conclusions about whether one can have more than one lifetime dog, but I like to think that you can.  Katz defines lifetime dogs in a couple different ways.  One definition is "Lifetime dogs are dogs we love in especially powerful, sometimes inexplicable ways."  The other is a dog "that enters your life at a particular, critical point and changes or affects you in ways no other animal can or will."  Based on these definitions, I've had two.

My prettiest girl, Possum.
I got Possum for my 2nd birthday--before I even had a sibling!  My earliest memory is of bringing her home--I remember the leashes and collars hanging on the wall in the shelter and having her in my dad's car that had a leaky sunroof.  We grew up together--we shared cookies and water and helped my mom get over her obsessive hand washing between touching the dog and touching me; we ran away from home together; we fought (especially when she ate my Minnie Mouse shoes and my Miss Piggy toy's legs); we watched Lassie together and she got my mom when I fell and had a rusty nail go through my knee; she was my friend when we moved and I didn't know anyone.  She was everything a dog should be, and she was my best friend.  I loved her and still cry, 12 years after her death, when I think about her; for years, even after we moved to a house she'd never been to, I would still think I saw her sleeping on the rug beside my parents' bed.  I will never have another dog like Possum.  But, Possum and I were babies together, so the second definition doesn't really apply to our relationship.

This crazy girl is the complete opposite of my Possum in every way . . . and I wouldn't have her any other way!
Barley, on the other hand, has changed my life in ways I never thought possible as I've talked about elsewhere.  Katz writes, "I have read and come to believe that without the natural world, without animals, humans are broken, that something is missing from us and our own humanity."  Even though Barley and I spend a lot of time working together and adventuring on our own (or hiding from my neighbors . . .), she really has reconnected me with humanity.   She helped me connect with my neighborhood--before Barley I never just walked around the neighborhood, now I do almost daily--and she forces me to acknowledge strangers because people can't help but comment on what a cool dog she is.  She also helps me be more patient with people--for example, one day, we were walking in the neighborhood along a relatively busy street, so we had to stay on the sidewalk; we eventually caught up to two twitterpated teens who were walking (ok, stumbling) down the sidewalk with their arms around each other and completely oblivious to the world around them.  Initially, I was annoyed that they forced us to slow down, but then they realized we were behind them and moved over for us.  The boy looked at Barley and said, "Wow, that's a really cool dog" and held his hand out for her to lick.  All of my frustration with the oblivious teens was erased.  Some times, I forget that it's ok to slow down and that everyone doesn't always have to move at my pace.

I am so excited to eventually get our TDI certification because I think Barley's real gift is making people happy.  Katz spends a lot of time in his books talking about how every dog needs work, and for some it's just loving their family, for others it's chasing balls or herding sheep, but every dog needs a job.  Until I got Barley, I had never thought of dogs needing work, but she made me realize that she definitely needs a job.  Recently, I've realized that her real work is making people smile.  When we walk, if someone fails to comment on how cute she is as we cross paths, she will look over her shoulder and watch them as we keep walking like "How dare you not acknowledge my presence?"  At first, I thought this was because she was just vain, but now I think she genuinely enjoys seeing people smile.

Yesterday, there were lots of school groups at the arboretum.  We waited for a long time for the staircase from the boardwalk to the main trail to be clear.  When we got close to the top, I realized there were two chaperones and a little girl standing there watching the rest of the class walking along the boardwalk.  One of the chaperones said, "Oh, what a cute dog!  You'll be the highlight of our trip.  Oh, don't you just look like you're smiling!"  We stopped for a minute and everyone pet Barley and got some kisses--even the girl who had been hiding between the chaperones as we had climbed the stairs.
Who wouldn't smile seeing this crazy face :)
Today, we saw our neighbor from the group home, who I believe has Down Syndrome, riding his bike around the block as he does multiple times each day.  He and Barley have a special bond.  If he sees us and we're across the street, he yells out "Hi, Doggie!"  If we're on the same side of the street, he stops his bike, pets Barley, and says, "She just loves people, doesn't she?" before riding off.  Barley sits patiently and wags her tail the whole time and usually gives him one or two licks on the hand.  She doesn't even mind when he almost drools on her.  

So, even though Barley is not the calm, patient dog that my Possum was, I wouldn't trade her for anything.  I love that I can't answer the phone while we're walking because she needs me to be 100% focused on her.  I love that she does look like she's smiling all the time.  I love that she loves almost every person we meet and expects them to love her back.  So, I'm not just lucky to have a dog.  I'm lucky to have Barley--even if she's as far from normal as a dog can get--and I can't wait to be able to share her with other people who need her presence in their lives.

Smiling by the sheep scarecrow.

I will border collie stare you until you do what I say.


  1. I think the real star of this blog post is the little blonde in the pic with Possum ;-)

  2. I'm kind of partial to the one in the pink plaid . . . but I guess the little blonde's kind of cool, too.