“Mostly, I want a dog, and the kind of life where I can go on a lot of walks with the dog.”
This is a sentence pulled from my career plan, written in the fall of my senior year of college, as I outlined the possible lives and occupations that might be conducive to such a desire. Remote work, and a town with streets to walk down, and trees to pee on. There were other details, none of which are too important now. The dog is the important goal.
So, come spring, when I graduated, packed up my New York apartment in my parent’s van, said goodbye to my girlfriend, and drove across the country towards Montana, I started the daily process of scrolling through the “Available for Adoption” page of my hometown shelter in Colorado. I liked the idea of my companion and I being from the same place. I took screenshots and texted them to my sister: “Don’t you think Bubba is soooo cute?” I liked the big ones, with fat necks and huggable chests.
The day before I went to the animal shelter, as I was sitting with my dad on the front porch of my childhood home, I passed him my list of potential new best friends. “How about Bean?” he asked, flicking through my phone. I smiled but shrugged. Bean – large, tan, and lanky, sporting a gaping and toothy smile in his photo – was so named because he’s a “jumping bean”, and shelter staff had warned potential dog parents in the notes that Bean had some pretty high energy levels. I liked him, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle him.
When I pulled up to the shelter, Bean was the first face I saw, grinning at me over the wall of an outdoor kennel. As I approached, he leapt in the air in excitement, legs flailing, belly twisting. I laughed, said hi and went inside. I met every dog in the place. I juggled puppies, learned Daisy’s rules for who is allowed to touch her, and how, got my fingers nipped at, watched a young couple fall in love with Bubba and take him home, and distributed many treats. It was one of those Goldilocks situations, or the prince going around with the shoe, or whatever. Bean was the last dog I hung out with. We went on a walk in the hills behind the animal shelter, paths I grew up walking with my childhood dogs. We just clicked. He didn’t pull the leash or freak out when I touched him. He listened to me and sat when I asked him to. I wish I could tell you what his first impression of me was. He seemed to like me plenty. Now, I know that he loves everybody, instinctually. I too, it seems, have an instinctive predilection to love dogs, so we made a pretty good match. He came home with me the next day.
Our instinctive predilection for one another is an ancestral inheritance. There's been some scholarly debate on when dogs deviated from wolves, and how, but current estimates range around 15,000 to 50,000 years ago. It’s difficult to come to a consensus because, perhaps, dogs have been domesticated more than once. They emerged in Asia at least 14,000 years ago, though evidence has been found for early neolithic dogs in ancient Europe nearly 40,000 years ago, and again in Europe as a different lineage, some 8,000 years later1. They spread rapidly around the world, following humans wherever they went.
It was previously thought that humans domesticated dogs for help with hunting and gathering, or later to guard agricultural crops of herds. However, recent studies support a “survival of the friendliest” theory instead, one that suggests that wolves might have actually domesticated themselves. It was the friendlier wolves who may have gotten access to human food scraps; these wolves who would then have an advantage over others. According to Brian Hare, director of the Duke University Canine Cognition Center, “this is self-domestication. We did not domesticate dogs. Dogs domesticated themselves.” Selection for this friendliness would have led to the difference in physicality and temperament that we see between dogs and wolves. It was a willingness to enter into a friendship that led to the evolution of our best friends. As I write this, and Bean eyes me down for his breakfast from across the room, I wonder if it’s perhaps arguable that dogs have domesticated us, too.
Allow me to attempt a portrait of my companion. He has the temperament of one of those inflatable windsock guys that are smiling and waving outside of car dealerships. He’s incredibly soft, and smells like honey, earth, and my bergamot hand lotion. He kind of resembles a kangaroo, or Scooby Doo. When he’s deflated and still, he curls up into a soft coil, and tucks his long snout under his paw. He loves people, almost to a fault, and one of the most useful words he knows is “boundaries” (also useful: “be cool, man.”). He’s a sixty-pound lapdog who always wants to be touched by someone, he’ll bat at you until you rub his stomach, will splay himself out on the floor exposing his soft underbelly to the world. His tongue, the length of my palm, is invasive, wet, and sandpapery. It’s a sticky paint roller, a giant slug on crack-cocaine, a flopping fish out of water, prodding my fingers as I tap out this sentence, because once you start petting him, he won’t let you stop. I’ll be right back.
I used to joke that pets and their people grow to look and act like one another. There’s a photo of Bean and me on a hike in Colorado on one of our first days together. We’re both smiling, lanky and tan, brown eyes squinting at the camera. Next to me, my sister holds her little aussie shepherd, Mar, both of their wide grins punctuated by fluffy dark hair. Maybe, more likely, we start to see ourselves in each other. Start to slowly grow into each other, the way a stiff shoe eventually molds to fit a foot.
We’re both mutts. He’s half Labrador. I’m half white, half Indian, both amalgam identities of dozens of languages and cultures. We don’t know what his other half is – maybe Pitbull, or Husky. I tell people he’s a lab, because my apartment building doesn’t allow Pitbulls. Labradors emerged off the east coast of Canada, in Newfoundland2, as companion dogs for fishermen diving for cod and hauling nets. Our lineages are both connective webs emerging from generations of globalization, trade, and interaction. "In how many ways do we inherit in the flesh the turbulent history of modern capitalism?” asks scholar Donna Haraway in her Companion Species Manifesto, on Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness3. Our relationship doesn’t merely consist of Bean and me, but is rather a complex intergenerational, interspecies collaboration across cultures and economies.
He always seems to know more than me. I could spend years reading about moral philosophy and queer theory, and the more I learn about both, the less I know what it means to be “good” or “bad”, or to be a “girl” or “boy” or “nonbinary”. I’m sliding fast down a slippery slope of applied postmodernism and gender theory, but Bean’s not worried. He knows what it means to be a good boy. He’s a good boy. Yes, he is.
Sometimes, I feel guilty for having to teach him English at all. He knows words like “outside”, so there I’ve gone, constructing an inside/outside binary and placing nature on one side of it, and him on the other. My anarchist ideals of environmentalism make me want to believe that there is no binary, no boundary at all, in fact – that's it’s all natural, we’re all natural. There’s nothing really separating the outside from the inside, it’s all an ecosystem in which we participate. But for chrissakes Bean, don’t take a shit on the carpet, you dingus. I’ve had to use ideas of “good” and “bad” to train him, even though personally, I try not to use moralistic judgements like that, and try instead to operate out of a more Buddhist presumption of non-judgmental observation. Non-judgmental observation isn’t very useful when you’re trying to convince the dog not to eat the trash, though. I see that you’ve torn through the garbage again, buddy. I get where you’re coming from- it probably smells good, and trash is also kind of a social construct. Unfortunately, the surgery he had after going on a trash-picking rampage was not a social construct.
It’s times like the trash rampage, and the subsequent weeks of the cone of shame, the staples in his belly, the hole in my bank account, and the fear of ever leaving him alone that make me worry I was right, maybe I’m not able to handle this. But that’s not the type of thing you can really afford to wonder about after you enter into this type of relationship. You just keep handling it, and learning how to handle it better. I’m always going to try to put him first, though, and if there comes a time when what’s in his best interest is not me, I’ll find him someone who can love him the way he deserves. (I wrote this thought down quickly, on the floor, on my phone. He woke up from his nap and followed me over here, to check on me. The tongue paints my fingers again. This dog deserves the world).
Of course, even though his affinity for trash is endlessly inconvenient, it too is part of our interspecies history. Human food waste was likely an instrumental ingredient in the deviation of wolves from dogs, one of the first stages upon which our species met, as scavengers rummaged through our discard, the more approachable wolves would begin to grow more confident, and progressively closer. Eventually, some of the scavengers were invited inside, and stayed.4
The dog is teaching me new ways to be in my body. Sometimes, our long sighs align, breathy heaves in a silent room. Sometimes, though, our energies don’t quite sync. His arrival upended my yoga practice. When I attempted to practice yoga the “right” way - rolling the mat onto the living room floor, moving slowly and peacefully for 30 minutes to an hour - Bean makes it impossible. He sees any prolonged time of mine spent on the floor as an invitation to play, and his tongue is an investigative wet towel, an invasive slobbering facial. If I lit a candle, he’d knock it over instantly. Though my practice was once daily, intensive, and maybe even regimented, it now felt disrupted, inaccessible, incompatible with my new companion. Of course, it’s not that tragic. People have been doing yoga with dogs since there’s been yoga – maybe in some ways, since there’s been dogs. One of my little mantras has become “never not doing yoga” - a reminder that wherever you are, you are a body, breathing. That’s basically all you need.
Bean is never not doing yoga. He places his lanky limbs with intention, even when they’re flailing. When he’s still, he’ll stretch his long belly out on the floor like a sphinx, all perfect angles and parallel lines of legs. I, meanwhile, have crunched my spine into a C in pursuit of this paragraph. Bean is curled into a natural and contented Q next to me. Sometimes, he seems like the embodiment of ease. He seems to always be entirely in his body, which makes me notice when I’m not fully in mine, and adjust accordingly.
More than yoga, this dog is helping me remember how to be an animal. I’m not usually very physically affectionate with other humans, unless I really like them. I’m not the type to always go in for a hug, or anything. But this dog’s love language is touch. He communicates with me largely with a petulant prod of his nose, or a firm nuzzle into my side. As I write this sentence, we are stretched out on the floor, his leg draped over mine, chin on my thigh. My hand follows the grooves of his soft golden fur, perhaps, the way they were evolutionarily predestined to. In the next room, our beds lay next to each other on the floor, and every morning he crawls into mine at 4am, and spends the next hour or so being the softest, warmest, most consistent alarm clock I’ve ever had. Our circadian rhythms have synced, and as the sun rises, I know we too will soon need to rise and take a walk.
The walking is meditative. Two long walks a day, and at least one shorter one. Up and down the Milwaukee Trail, usually, in the direction of the sun. Bean has the best taste in trees. He picks the ones with the large canopies like a wide-brimmed hat, with circles of thawed snow and damp earth beneath. Circles them a few times, so both he and I have turned to face the sun. We trod the same trail every day, letting the seasons work through us, freezing and thawing and melting over and over again. It’s iterative and nonlinear (another mantra). It’s a cathartic process, the flushing out of the mind, the legs, and the lungs, an essential practice for the livelihood of both our bodies. A lot of my writing happens on these walks, and most of my decision making.
We’re a hive mind of two, tethered to each other, sniffing and squinting out the bright and blinding day, dancing in circles, joined by a slack orange leash. I let him make most of the decisions; which turns we make, how long we linger anywhere, or who we say hello to. It’s the least I can do. Our instincts usually line up, anyway, and he often anticipates my emotions. His hackles will usually go up before mine, but he’s rarely wrong. We’re both skeeved out by the same types of people, and by geese.
The other day, he walked straight into a rose bush. I watched, and felt it in my body, the thorns prodding into raw skin. I flinched before he did, and felt the hairs on my neck stand on end for moments after. Our different sensory strengths anticipate one another, his nose sniffing out that which I cannot see, me, seeing that which he’s already run straight into. Both of us, feeling it all.
I wish he could be the one to make decisions for our little ecosystem. I hate having to make decisions on his behalf without consulting him. I wish we could have asked him for permission before they cut his balls off. Haraway points out that being a pet seems to be incredibly difficult work for a dog, and I agree. I wonder, if he had his druthers, what would he do with them? Run, probably, faster than I can keep up with. Eat all the garbage he can get his grubby little paws on. Hump everything. Have his way with the world. I wish I could let him.
I do not know if Bean loves me, or how. To quote Haraway again, “’unconditional love’ is pernicious. If the idea that man makes himself by realizing his intentions in his tools, such as domestic animals (dogs) and computers (cyborgs), is evidence of a neurosis that I call humanist technophiliac narcissism, then the superficially opposed idea that dogs restore human beings' souls by their unconditional love might be the neurosis of caninophiliac narcissism. Because I find the love of and between historically situated dogs and humans precious, dissenting from the discourse of unconditional love matters.” To attempt to translate – it can be argued we bred dogs to love us unconditionally, because we wanted to be loved unconditionally. Is that fair, or true? I don’t know. Is it fair that, in pursuit of this unconditional love, we also took away dogs’ ability to live without us, and, with our strange and unyielding power, made... pugs? I don’t know, but I know we had a pug growing up, named Jackson, and I loved him, and he seemed to enjoy his life. But I don’t know if he could have told me otherwise, or if I would have understood him (because of, you know, the squished-up face). There’s not a lot of consent in these relationships on the part of the dogs, and I think about that often.
The terms and conditions of our relationship have been written by our predecessors, our language a deliberate selection of traits. His expressive eyebrows are one such trait,5 a muscular evolution that emerged during domestication, giving his ancestors a selective advantage over those who had not yet mastered the puppy dog eyes. He looks like a sweet lil guy because his ancestors figured out that looking a bit like a human resulted in more food from humans, and also because we selectively bred them to look more lovable. His adoration of people, his trusting exposure of his vulnerable belly to the world, his big baby browns – it's a survival strategy, a manipulation game played by his grandpawthers to glean a stray chicken wing from the table. It’s incredibly successful.
"Receiving unconditional love from another is a rarely excusable neurotic fantasy; striving to fulfill the messy conditions of being in love is quite another matter,” Haraway continues. It is the process, the unfolding, the iterative and nonlinear relationship that we are building – that I am interested in. The daily act of returning to one another. In our culture, it seems that one of the conditions of the human-dog relationship is that the dog shows some sort of love for the human (this isn’t the case with all pet relationships though – my sister and I co-parent a lizard named Stevie, and, while I love Steve, I doubt that she loves me, and I don’t really mind). I don’t want Bean to feel like he has to love me, as a condition of his getting fed. I want to show him that I’m someone worth loving, and that his being lovely has nothing to do with his right to food.
Luckily, love feels easy with Bean. Maybe because he’s been genetically selected for his cuddly temperament, or maybe because we’ve both evolved to learn how to love each other. I’ve known him for eight months, now, though, and he seems to love me differently now than when we first met. We communicate more subtly, and he trusts my judgment more. Similarly, I trust him more, and understand him better – his telling looks and strange sounds, the timing of his farts and his favorite type of trash to chew on. I have no doubt we’re only just getting started. That gives me confidence – that this love is a thing that can be built, not just genetically inherited from our ancestors.
Bill Callahan sings “true love is not magic, it’s certainty.” I like that one a lot. Love as the consistency of continuing to show up. The certainty that, every morning, I’ll be woken by the weight of his soft paws on my bed, the warm press of his body as he curls into me. His certainty that, every time the sun rises and sets, I’ll give him food. Our routine of sustenance and warmth.
When it comes down to it, I can philosophize and wuther in ontological angst all I want, but ultimately, it’s merely a matter of cohabitation, an entangled companionship of eating and walking, and mostly, sitting next to each other. "We also live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. Stories are much bigger than ideologies. In that is our hope,” Haraway writes. As I kneel daily, bending before the steaming alter of his shit, I think of how habitual it’s become, the easy entangling of our ecosystems, the sustaining and maintaining of both our bodies. Second-nature, or something.
When I talk to people who are considering getting a dog, there’s often some question of whether or not it’s “worth it”. The intense dependency, limiting social outings to a few hours so I can come home and check on him, the constant exercise, the barking, the vet bills, the cone of shame. I don’t know if that’s quite the right question, though. I love having an excuse to leave the party early. Our daily walks are often the only exercise I get, the only sun, the only time away from this damned screen. When he barks, I feel safe, knowing that if there’s something lurking in the shadows, he’s got me. I’ve lived alone for years, and ever since Bean moved in with me, I haven’t spent a night afraid. He saw me through my breakup, catching tears and snot in his fur, and is a warm body to curl around on cold nights. I couldn’t do any of this without him. In many ways, he’s been the one keeping me alive.
At the end of the day, after I’ve removed my rings, washed my face, and applied star-shaped pimple patches, I unclip Bean’s collar and wriggle under the duvet. He waits, sitting at the end of the bed, staring at me.
“You wanna come to bed, buddy?”
He hesitates, brown eyes locked onto mine, still and stoic. Within that pause, it feels like the first encounter once again, the wolf at the door, the hand outstretched. The air hangs between us for a breath. Then, he grins, and leaps up next to me.