Monday, July 9, 2012

Why the dog?

I prefer to run with a dog than to run on my own. Although I enjoy solitude there's something about the company of a dog in the mountains that makes me feel more sharing a sense of beauty, isolation and challenge without actually having to talk about it (or invent a supernatural sky daddy for me to "spiritually connect" with). The instant "sharing" through a dog's presence seems to make me more appreciative of my environment, more reflective. As I look back on the many times I've been in the mountains, the best days have been with a dog.

To be specific, I mean Otto and Olivia. I'm not one of those indiscriminate dog lovers who sees pleasure in all canines - you now, the type of person who "dog sits" when owners are on vacation and seems to be able to heap love and affection on every dog they encounter. I'm generally indifferent about dogs...other peoples' dogs. They hold no interest. Yes, I can recognize a great dog...a healthy specimen...a definitive example of a breed...but there is no emotion, no connection, no...interest. I'll go through the motions of stroking a dog and feigning interest when I meet one with their owner, but really...I'm thinking...let's move on, I'm done, it's just another dog. On my worse days I probably don't do a good enough job of concealing my disinterest, although I've managed to control my more direct comments..."Wow, that's a fat little dog!" "It's a Lab! I've never seen one of those before, how special" "Oh, it's a pug - did you know that over time owners come to resemble their dogs?" But I still think them.

And it's not just that Borzoi are more elegant and graceful...even aristocratic. I like an animal that seems to make choices. Many years ago in the UK we used to have cats. I liked cats for that reason - they would do things on their terms. But then I realized that all cats were indifferent to human demands and this, over time, devalued the independent streak. They were instinctively indifferent. They weren't making "choices". It's always puzzled me why many people seem to like the waggy-tailed dog who sees and seeks pleasure in every interaction. It's not even as though this behavior is driven by demanding food and reward. Some dogs...many dogs...just seem to lick everyone. Everyone is a friend. That annoys me. It isn't even about being trusting. What virtue a dog greeting a compete stranger no differently than they greet their owner?

Perhaps Lilah (Otto's older sister) is the epitome of the discerning canine. She is truly an anti-dog. The customary rattling of the dog leash - sufficient to send most dogs into paroxysms of bouncey delight and anticipation - are a signal to Lilah to hide. A good ten minutes of "cat and mouse" ensue as Lilah goes one way around the sofa and I go the other in a frustrating attempt to leash her for a walk. Eventually, she gets cornered and submits. And it is a submission. It's not as though this is a game and she's glad to be caught. This becomes apparent when, on warmer days, Lilah displays her displeasure by prostrating herself on the roadside under the shade of a bush. It's not that she lies down to sniff and poke around. This is a protest. No amount of encouragement in an excited sounding voice can motivate her to get up. She makes forward progress impossible...have you tried dragging a prostrate dog? The occasional passer-by will look curiously at the event - "She's just having a rest" is really a euphemism for "I didn't want to walk in the first place, but now we are here I'm doing it on my terms and I couldn't care less what you think". I like that in a dog. She gets up when she's ready and we progress at her pace and we turn around when she wants to turn around. This isn't exactly disobedience. After all, she sits and lies down perfectly to order. She's just making a point. And the point is that she'll chose what to do and when to do it. What a great attribute.

Harvey has "issues". It's really too complex to explain. Although some of his issues are health and arthritis...he's always had issues. He's a really BIG dog and isn't built for mountain trail running. He can run for short bursts about the yard, but he's clumsy and has poor coordination. He is a lovable hound who lives in a constant state of apprehension...not the happy kind that creates an eager buzz...but the "someone might stab me in the back" kind, underscored by a suspicious glance and an averting of the eyes. His very best kind of day would involve 23hrs of sleep somewhere in the house, safe on his own, with the balance of 60 minutes eating, taking care of the body's functions and barking through the fence at a cyclist. He knows how to have a good time. He does go for walks, but they are short.

So back to the mountain trails. Otto is so eager. Always in front, sometimes straining at the flexi-leash, he just wants to get ahead and keep going. He likes to point the way. Olivia sometimes likes to be ahead, but she is an endurance hound and when the pace picks up she slots in at my heels and takes a breather. Whereas Otto will run for 15 miles, Olivia seems able to go forever. The pleasure to me is being in the company of these distinct and selective characters in such a fantastic environment. I only wish I could emulate their graceful and powerful running style.

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