Many people have a tendency to over-care for their dogs as if they were children. But, writes Linda Burgess, it is time to end the absurdity and see dogs for the animals they really are.
E.dward watches Badger from a cautious distance. Badger stands in the bay window of our bedroom, back straight, high on his hind paws, front paws barely touching the sash, watching the cars at Kelburn across the valley. Edward is four, still suspicious of dogs and fascinated by Badger’s un-dog-like demeanor. “He thinks he’s human,” says Edward.
We’re with the SPCA who have excellent veterinary services in Wellington. You have to drive up wide uninhabited hills between towering trees. The city is gone. We arrive at a former fever hospital. They could use it again in 2021, but instead we encounter the distant howling and barking of dogs waiting to be housed again. Covids other victims. There is a hint of human spirits, a hint of Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield, forever trapped behind the brick walls and enticingly seen through the windows.
We make the trip three times. The first time he happily jumps in and we feel sick with guilt about what lies ahead. He’s on the scales – 6kg. His coat makes him look twice like this. He goes away with the nice vet. The second time, we pick him up shortly after the operation and carry his soft, warm fluffiness back to the car. He had the snippets. It reminds me of my children when they were little, of the first fever day when their listless little bodies snuggled up against mine and my love for them knew no bounds. It is love that knows that tomorrow will be another day. Badger, still in recovery mode, lies with me on the floor next to him in front of the fire, really, sadly, looking me deep in the eyes, and I think is he blaming us for that? And I think if he died I would die too.
His race is prone to separation anxiety, according to Google. We go to Moore Wilson and park upstairs and I tell Robert, go in, I’ll stay with him in the car. He stands in the back seat, stretching himself bigger and bigger, and stretches for one last look as he watches Robert walk past the trolley and disappear. His hair parted in the middle makes him look like Groucho Marx, or on good days like Einstein. He gives out a low, melodramatic groan. I feel like an extra in Doctor Zhivago. But when Robert is gone, he happily settles back in the seat and lets his stitches pass damn well.
Just as the internet knows we’re getting older and may need a senior citizens’ village or funeral package soon, it knows we have a dog. Facebook keeps sending me advertisements. Our dog is apparently wondering when we will buy him a bed in which all the other dogs are so cozy, smug, snuggled up with their owners who take care of them. Facebook tells me it can stop my dog from chasing squirrels. Facebook wants me to buy organic dog food delivered to my door weekly. Facebook warns me never to leave my dog alone, never for a minute. Dog thieves are lurking.
Trip three: ten days later we return to remove the stitches. Several times in these ten days I thought that if the Grim Reaper took it too early, I could have finished. Or at least if he’d been grabbed by one of the thousands of dog snappers hanging around our street. It heals well, but it has become what my friend Peter Wells memorably referred to as a slut. He doesn’t get that much exercise, so he gets somber and occasionally a little vicious. His game of tugging at my clothes can (I hope) accidentally include meat. In search of the gourmet treat that is a used handkerchief, he kicks open our bedroom door and looks at me who is sitting on the sofa to see what I have to say about it. “NO badger,” I say. He gives me a cheeky look and snips his boyband fringe. He kicks the door again. I’m mentally going back to teaching in the 1980s: last lesson on a stormy afternoon, teenagers who couldn’t give up, that horrible, vicious girl who’s now a senior detective or something.
He teaches himself new games. I’m impressed that he can hit a tennis ball under the sofa that’s not against a wall and then run behind the sofa to get it. I don’t have to take part. Because I don’t have to join in, he hits it under the other sofa that is against the wall. He lies down on his stomach, groans in exasperation and then scratches the sofa. Heavy. I lie on my stomach to pick it up. Finally, I put books under the sofa to block the ball. He eats the books.
While we wait for the vet to take care of those little stings, we go through a box of beloved dog clothes that are being sold for a song. People actually knitted little coats that only could fit a Chihuahua. No wonder it looks unused, the neck is so tight it would strangle a mouse. There’s a tartan jacket that’s roughly its size. I pause He’s got a long, thick coat, but it’s getting colder now. I try to try the jacket on him, but he clearly knows that this plaid that used to be cool when it was lining Burberry raincoats was then picked up by one of the Spice girls and his desirability took quite a blow. But it goes well with his coat. He refuses to try, which I agree, because one side doesn’t fit; it looks like someone ate half of the velcro. We find a small box of wellington boots for dogs, but it’s not even worth forcing your paws into. In any case, he would be laughed at in the dog park.
We come home and there is a book in the mailbox. Our friend Murray sent us Inside a dog, a New York Times bestseller by cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz. Thirty sides and lights come on at the end of several tunnels. “The most important experience in wearing a coat,” she writes, “is not the experience of being protected from moisture; Rather, the coat creates the uncomfortable feeling that someone taller than you is nearby. “
It’s such a relief. Tartan or not, classy or not, is not the point. Edward was right, Badger sometimes thinks he’s human. And so do the people. But actually it is not. He is a dog. Stop attributing motives to him. Stop trying to guess what he’s thinking. Don’t try to force a French beret on his head. Stop thinking, if you just explain it quietly, he will get the point and change his ways. Acknowledge that there is a lot he won’t understand if he doesn’t understand a phrase like, “Badger, it’s a bad idea for you to eat the toilet paper”. Just grab it, make sense, put your knitting material up, the handkerchiefs out of reach. Put your new jersey in the drawer. Have the house locked. He is a dog.
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