Year of the Dog

A year ago, I stood amid a mosh pit of puppies and faced a no-win decision.

The rambunctious runt of the litter, a big-eyed black-and-tan, nuzzled our daughter’s sneaker while a golden-furred sibling lolled beside my wife. Our son was away at a music lesson, so I held the deciding vote.

My daughter and wife stared at me: “Which one do YOU like better?” I hoped we were still talking about puppies. And so I did what any smart dad would do. I abstained and bolted to buy some kibble.

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Our daughter eventually won out. You can’t stand between a 12-year-old girl and the puppy who picked her.

On the ride home, we agreed on a name for our rescue mutt: Cedar. Then 2020 hit and…well, you know the rest. Our lives suddenly shrank to the radius of a dog walk. At least we beat the rush to get a pandemic pet.

I soon learned that raising a puppy, like parenting, is an exercise in humility. We read how-to books. We Zoomed with a trainer. We disciplined Cedar with treats and timeouts. But she only learns what she wants to learn.

We taught her to nose a jingle bell on our front door whenever she needs to do her business in the front yard. Genius! But now she also rings the bell to interrupt our dinner or demand attention. We abandoned kennel training after sleepless nights of angry yodelling and let her choose her favourite spots on our bed and sofa.

Cedar understands an expanding vocabulary of things she loves: frisbee, ice cream, Grandpa, trampoline. She will sit solemnly until I announce “Bon appetit!” and only then rush her food dish. But key phrases like “Come back!” or “Stop shoving that damn tennis ball in my face while I’m trying to watch TV!” remain a foreign language to her.

Still, she’s a gentle soul at heart. At the sight of another dog, no matter what size, Cedar drops to her belly to show she’s no alpha…except in our house. Sometimes, she even rolls onto her back in total submission and pees madly in the air. And haven’t we all felt like doing that at least once over the past year?

In our family, we each devise our own ways to communicate with her. “Who’s my beautiful baby girl?” coos our daughter, as though our “fur baby” is her little sister. Our son treats Cedar like a new high-school buddy, giving her high fives and random nicknames: Bougie, Belbin, Cheemington, Mrs. Wigglebottom.

Together we speculate about what our puppy is thinking when she cocks her head, or darts down a trail, or meets another dog. We invent inner monologues and fill in thought bubbles above her pointy ears.

Perhaps that’s just evidence we’ve been shut in for too long. But our pandemic pooch has filled in for one recent shortage that’s often overlooked: the need for stories. For months, our collective capacity to make stories about our lives has become depleted. We can’t have new adventures or experiences, or even swap tall tales with our friends face to face.

We’ve all craved the taste of new stories as a tonic to that one Big Story that has hung over every news cycle and dinner conversation like a shadow…one that hopefully will be lifting with the dawn of 2021.

An appetite for stories is why our kids have gravitated to social media and co-op video games, like Fortnite and Among Us. It’s why we’ve all Netflixed our way through the seasons, even if we didn’t feel exactly chill.

Adding a dog has been like adopting an in-house story machine—one that needs no screen. We simply spin tales from Cedar’s ever-spinning tail. We retell the encounters she has on her walks. We imagine a rich inner life for her…even if she’s just, uh, “cleaning” herself on the couch.

She has added hijinks and distraction, whether she knows it or not, and become a central new cast member in our collectively authored family drama.

One day, when our family looks back, I hope we will all remember 2020 as the Year of the Dog. We’ll mean that in the best of all possible ways.

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David Leachhttp://davidleach.ca/
David Leach is a professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria and author of Chasing Utopia.