I used to think of myself as a cat person. In fact, cats dominated the proverbial landscape of my childhood. There was Bridget, a green-eyed brindle I loved to torture, usually by slamming her tail into one of the low kitchen drawers. Bridget and I would get into face-offs where I’d be holding her at eye level and she’d be writhing and hissing and she’d clamp her claws into my temples. It’s amazing I still have both eyes, really. Then there was Alan, a slender tortoiseshell who loved to climb up on my bed between the quilt and the blankets and sleep there in a curled warm lump. Dave was a gray shorthair and the closest to neurotic I ever saw in a cat. His head was smaller than his body, way out of proportion; he used to squeak instead of meow, even when he was full-grown; he locked himself into our neighbors’ garage one time when they were on vacation and we couldn’t get him out for days. (Once I caught him skulking through the living room with my parakeet, Oliver, sticking out of his mouth. That ended badly for all involved.) Finally, the pièce de résistance: Emily, a Persian the dog-breeding grandmother gave us. Emily’s face was flat, as if she’d been smacked with a coal shovel. Her nose was so short she had trouble breathing, and if she deigned to let you pet her it was only when she was passing by anyway. What a bitch.
So I always assumed I’d have cats when I was an adult and living on my own, and it surprises me that I’ve ended up with dogs. And not cool dogs. I have poodles. And not cool poodles like those buff, kick-ass standards, but miniature ones. Stuart and Jack. Together, they only weigh about 20 pounds. How precious. Only chihuahuas get more foofy than poodles but still, I love them. And at least I don’t dye them weird colors or carry them in handbags.
Both dogs came from a rescue organization, so they arrived a tad traumatized. Stu was saved from an old lady who liked to hoard poodles. She had 19 when they airlifted him out. As for Jack…we just don’t know. Something happened and now he has his very own special tics, like French-kissing Stu whenever he’s feeling nervous.
They’re weird. For years, Stuart never drank water, so we put it in his food instead. Once when we boarded him for the weekend with a friend, she told us he spent the whole time curled up on the couch with her cat. Stuart tends to be cringingly shy and crazy defensive, even with neighbors he sees almost every day. (One time the boy next door lunged for Stu in an attempt to pet him and Stuart jumped off the back of the couch and over an end table, dislocating his hip. He was in a hobble for three weeks.) Stu’s boundaries are inconsistent: He doesn’t resist when Jack dry-humps him but will snarl if Jack sits a little too close on the cushion in my office. Stuart has made progress toward manly dog-ness, however, as he’s taken to chewing out the crotch of my underwear whenever he can find a pair and will, on occasion, jump on the table in search of pancakes.
As for Jack, he’s a one-eyed wonder, a nine-pound dynamo. We joke that his brain fluid seeps out of the empty eye socket, because he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But for pure joie de vivre, no one beats Jack. One eye notwithstanding, when that dog runs all out he bounds and soars like Tigger on steroids. And his erratic bravery amuses me: he’ll bark ferociously at a bigger dog, dancing on his toes as if he’s Muhammad Ali, but a few blocks later will jump back in alarm when faced with a garden statue.
There’s been much talk lately on how dogs have adapted like no other animal to be in relationship with people; they watch our body language keenly and anticipate our movements. Last fall, Nova broadcast a program called “Dogs Decoded” that claimed that not only do dogs have an uncanny ability to read and respond to human emotions, but also that humans respond to dogs with the same hormone that bonds mothers to their babies. Rupert Sheldrake, in his (mysteriously titled) tome, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, writes that dogs will go wait by the door for their humans as soon as the person forms the intention to return. And Jon Katz writes in his book, The New Work of Dogs, that the role of our canine friends has expanded so much that now dogs “attend to the emotional lives of Americans, many of whom feel increasingly disconnected from one another.”
This symbiosis fascinates me, especially as an urban dweller with a fairly tenuous connection to the natural world. I work at home, on my computer; whole days can pass without any contact with the outside world and yet Jack and Stu are my constant companions. And I have to admit I like their utter attentiveness: how Stuart’s eyes never leave my face as he waits to see what I do next, or how Jack flings himself on the couch once I’ve settled there, fitting the curve of his back perfectly into the curve of my neck.
No, the poodlums are definitely not the lesser creatures. In fact, they could be the real givers – God knows I feel calmer whenever I bury my fingers in their deliciously soft poodle curls. Recently I took them to Mr. John’s Dog Grooming – they start to look like Peter Frampton if we don’t watch it – and when I arrived to pick them up, even though they couldn’t see me they started keening from the crates when they heard my voice. Mr. John brought them out, their pompadours poofed and their legs clipped close, skinny jean style. We’d been separated for only a few hours, but when Mr. John put Jack and Stu into my arms, all three of us breathed a big sigh of relief.