A Woman's Best Friend Is Four-Legged, Furry--and thinks With Its Nose
Man's best friend is also a woman's. A strong woman can accomplish anything with a loyal dog at her side. Men may come and go, but dogs walk (and sniff) on forever. Like men, dogs think with their noses. Unlike men, dogs are fiercely loyal. I could tell you the story of my life through the dogs I have loved. I could tell you the story of the losses in my life through their deaths. Dogs come into our lives to teach us about love and loyalty. They depart to teach us about loss. We try to replace them but never quite succeed. A new dog never replaces an old dog; it merely expands the heart. If you have loved many dogs, your heart is very big.
Did I say merely? What dogs teach us is hardly mere. They teach us that if you love a creature, you can pick up its shit and not mind. They teach us that nothing is disgusting in love--neither smells nor spills. They teach us that all bodily effluvia are as sacred to God as prayers.
Where to begin this narrative of dogs I have loved? Shall I begin with Tangerine, the black cocker spaniel that came into my life the summer I was 13 when I lived in Lenox, Massachusetts? Or shall I begin with Jacques, the black poodle who joined our family on Central Park West when I was 16? These were family dogs, shared with sisters, yelled at by my mother (never a dog person), so in a way they don't count.
The first dog I adopted on my own was a Bichon Frise called Poochkin, named after Aleksandr Pushkin, my grandfather's favorite poet. I bought him at a pet store on the Upper East Side (before I was enlightened about the horrors of puppy mills). I was 30 and fighting my desire for a baby when I fell in love with Poochkin. He was a baby surrogate for a while and then became the inspiration for pregnancy. (I so babied that dog that I was more than ready to baby a baby.) My then-husband and I not only slept with Poochkin, we bathed with him, brushed him and jointly blew his curly coat dry (I worked the brush and Jon worked the dryer).
When we moved to Connecticut, Poochkin became a country dog, knocking up the neighbor's bitch (a Maltese), marking his territory aggressively and masturbating with the Marimekko pillows. He ran wild in the Connecticut woods, attracting ticks and brambles--until he finally met a terrible end under the wheels of a Jeep driven by my daughter's nanny while my daughter was strapped in her car seat in the back.
The nanny was in love with the carpenter who was building a new study for me. In her romantic delirium, she backed out of the driveway, and over the dog. I remember the howls of pain as I rushed Poochkin to the vet, my clothes covered with his blood, my heart as crushed as his. Not long ago I saw a Sally Jessy Raphael segment called "I Ran Over My Own Granddaughter" and I thought of Poochkin. I felt as guilty as those unhappy grandmothers did, although I wasn't even driving the car that killed Poochkin.
Poochkin died on the vet's operating table. I still keep an urn with his ashes in my study in Connecticut. Poochkin's dog collar and tags are draped casually around the urn's marble neck. On rainy nights I seem to hear him scratching at the back door to be let in.
During the days of Poochkin we also adopted a mutt from the pound, a big sorrowful-eyed red Raggedy Ann of a dog. Her pound name was Buffy, but we anointed her Virginia Woof. She persisted in answering to Buffy. She came to us with worms, dysentery and fleas. We nursed her back to health and in a month or two she became an ideal companion. Someone had trained her carefully and soon she reverted to that discipline.
When my daughter Molly was born, Buffy used to guard me while I nursed the baby, howling at Poochkin maternally if he tried to jump on me seeking a nipple for himself. Buffy was a female; she understood that the baby came first. Poochkin had a male's narcissism: he humped pillows while I nursed the baby. He was not pleased that the pack leader (me) no longer gave him pride of place. He was like a childish husband having a fling to spite the new dyad of mother and baby. Every pillow became stiff.
Not long after Poochkin's death, my marriage fell apart. Jon got Buffy in the divorce. The baby was to be shared, but I lost Buffy to my ex. It was clear I needed a new dog. I went to a Bichon breeder in Connecticut and adopted a Bichon bitch. Emily Doggenson had such great bloodlines and such a brilliant future in the ring that the breeder would sell her to me only if I agreed to show her. Naive as I was about strange Connecticut customs like breeding and showing dogs, I went along with this folly.
I soon learned that having a show dog is like having a kid in boarding school. You are constantly required to send money and equipment, but you rarely see your offspring. When she comes home she usually needs grooming and she claims not to know who you are. She wants to parade around the kitchen and be applauded. She doesn't want to mess her coiffure by wrestling with you on the floor or muck up her smile fetching sticks. She is, in short, a snob. Superstardom has ruined her. All the ribbons she's won have gone to her head. And the breeder wants to whelp her and take the pick of the litter. By then I was so sick of the show-dog mentality that I happily gave the breeder the pick of the litter and took the runt. This was Poochini, olive-eyed, gentle, as sweet as her mother was stuck up. Poochini and I bonded at once. That became a problem.
Emily Doggenson began to abuse Poochini. She chewed on Poochini's tail. She humped her mercilessly to show dominance. She became the Mommie Dearest of dogs. She acted as if this darling litter-runt was a disgrace to her noble bloodlines. I kept Poochini and gave Emily back to the breeder (who was jubilant to have her champion returned to the kennel). For a while all was well in Dogdom. Poochini arrived when my daughter was four and shepherded me through many relationships, many moves between New York and Connecticut, many summers in Venice. Poochini was amiable when I remarried; she adopted Ken faster than my daughter did and even remained good-humored when we rescued Basil Bastet, a green-eyed gray kitten from the Westport pound. Poochini was patient when we fell hopelessly in love with Basil. She even forgave Basil's unfortunate tendency to throw up on her in the car.
Poochini was a canine model of sobriety. She accepted the things she could not change. As she grew older, she became more philosophical. When Basil succumbed to cancer at six (after many months of chemotherapy), Poochini accepted, with equanimity, Latte and Espresso, the two kittens we adopted from Bide-a-Wee. By then Poochini was winding down. She had chased Basil around the house only to curl up and sleep with her, but Latte and Espresso couldn't rouse her much. Poochini had two knees replaced, plastic surgery on her moles, and she was heading for cataract removal. Increasingly, she began to resemble a stuffed animal--a stuffed animal that leaked. But she represented a whole phase of my life. Even when she impersonated an inanimate object, I could read complex emotions in her smallest sigh or snore. Even when she peed all over the Oriental rugs, I made excuses for her.
When she was 17 and her bodily systems were failing, I continued to mop up after her rather than question her quality of life. Even after the vet and I reached the decision that if she couldn't eat, couldn't walk, and had more and more trouble breathing she would have to be put down, I hesitated, waiting for her to recover. And she did come back to life many times. She took heart pills, arthritis pills and thyroid pills, but still I could not bear to make the arrogant decision to deprive her of what little shreds of her life remained. Finally, a day came when she lay in her own pee and couldn't get up. We cried while the vet attached the pink plastic butterfly to her vein. We cried as the poison went in and she trustingly took the dose. Her eyes remained open. A terrible shudder shook her body. A whole chapter in my life closed.
That was six months ago and I still haven't been able to commit to a new dog. The cats have gleefully taken over the house, chasing each other and my daughter's visiting dog, Godzooki, a soulful-eyed black-and-white cocker spaniel puppy. Godzooki is loving and full of life, but I don't want to become attached to her.
I visit Web sites devoted to poodle rescue, greyhound rescue, spaniel rescue, but Poochini's memory haunts me. I dream of Poochini. I dream that she is alive and healthy, waiting for us in Venice, on the fondamento in front of Harry's Dolce, near the crumbling palazzo we used to rent on Giudecca. With her are my grandparents, my aunt Kitty, my friend Grace--all my beloved dead. Buffy is there, too. And Basil the cat. They are simply waiting for my arrival. In my dreams, we are all reunited in the City of Shades.
I can't bear to think of another Bichon. This time I want a big dog, a hunting animal to keep me safe when my daughter embarks on her own life. But something always stops me. My husband says: "Let's get a boy dog this time--a Labrador or a sheepdog." My daughter tells me my life is incomplete without a greyhound--or two--saved from the racetrack.
Then, an amazing thing happens. My daughter breaks up with her old boyfriend and gets involved with a new boyfriend who has an allergy to dog hair. Suddenly I am taking Godzooki to the country on weekends, and the weekends are stretching into three and four days and sometimes even weeks. Godzooki is looking up at me as if I am her pack leader. She sits when I say sit. She retrieves her leash when I say "out." She annointeth my head with saliva.
She may be my grand-dog, but she is acting more and more like my dog. My daughter's love life may have brought her to me, but Godzooki is here to stay. The cats seem to know this and they have stopped hissing at her. When she chases them around the apartment, they only pretend to be scared. I have even caught Latte going right up to her and sniffing. I have glimpsed Espresso rolling over to have her belly rubbed in a very cocker-spanielish way. So, I am researching cocker spaniels now and I am biding my time. Either Godzooki is the first of a matched set or she will crawl into that hollow place in my heart left by Poochini. The hollow place has grown bigger with each dog I've loved. I am probably destined to spend my twilight years with a pack of dogs and a houseful of cats. Worse ends can be imagined.
"We have been here so short a time/ and we pretend we have invented memory," W. S. Merwin writes in his poem "Elders," speaking of human hubris among the animals. We humans like to flatter ourselves that we are smarter than the animals with which we share our lives. But really we love them for their wisdom, which is born of innocence. Dogs have no guile. Even vicious dogs such as Dobermans and pit bulls have no guile. They don't profess to love your work and then attack it. They don't lick you then bite to draw blood. In a world of hypocrisy and betrayal, dogs are direct. They never lie.
They think with their noses, and the nose is the most primitive and infallible organ. If we could all live by our sense of smell, our lives would be much simpler. Other organs--eyes, genitals--betray, but the nose never lies. Dogs have infallible bullshit detectors. Moreover, they heed them as humans never do. We love dogs because they show us how to live with utmost simplicity: Rejoice and kick up your heels after a good shit. Love the one who feeds you. Curl up with the one who strokes your belly. Cherish a good master and lick him into enduring servitude. Celebrate life. Praise God. Find your way home no matter how long it takes. Watch out for the coyotes in the woods. Sniff every corner of the room before you decide to stay there. Turn around three times and create a magic circle before you settle down to dreaming. Decide to trust someone totally before you die.
These are some of the things I have learned from the dogs in my life. Cats teach other lessons--lessons about keeping your own counsel, cherishing your independence and giving love without surrendering one's self. Dogs seem more slobbery and slavish. But it is we who become their slaves. As a species, humans are slow to trust. Perhaps that's because we have disregarded our noses for so many millennia. The nose is the only organ that tells it true. By living with dogs, we reclaim the feral in ourselves. We may seek to civilize them, but in truth they help us to reclaim the wildness in ourselves. They remind us that in ancient days we had much wisdom that we have since sadly abandoned: the wisdom of touch, the wisdom of smell, the wisdom of the senses.
These days I divide my weeks between Connecticut and Manhattan. When I want to work with the peace that comes only from long days alone, without the dynamo of the city whirring in my ears, I go to Connecticut, pray for snow and retreat to my studio on stilts to work on my novel. That is when I simply cannot do without a dog.
Godzooki is becoming an exemplary muse. I feel safe in the country without human companions as long as she is there to be my early warning system. I rely on the fact that her nose and ears are sharper than mine are. I know she will bark long before the doorbell rings and keep me apprised of who is coming down my driveway--whether deer or delivery truck. She has an I-thou relationship with every tree on my property so she constantly reminds me of how precious and singular each one is. The birches bend for her. The hemlocks drop their weighty armfuls of snow on her small head. Circling each one, she kicks up her heels like a creature that knows that God is good. She delights in the morning, greets noon by scratching at the door to go out, and becomes especially wary when the sun goes down. She is the wild side of me, expressing it without words. Somehow, she makes my playing with words more possible and more fulfilling. She and I have a perfect understanding about life. Language is good but language is not all there is. By sharing her domain of smells and sounds, I become more aware of the secret life that leads us.
"Every creature is a word of God," said Meister Eckehart, a fourteenth-century German mystical theologian. Listening to the animals, we hear the secrets of the universe.
Erica Jong, poet, novelist and essayist, is best known for her seven best-selling novels and six award-winning collections of poetry.