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It's Nelly's World

Guardian

alec vanderboom

When I reach for the door knob, I see Nelly get up, expectation on her face. She pauses, calculating: Is my person just going out onto the porch for a minute--she makes this inscrutable action an awful lot [undoggy things like taking out the recycling, getting shoes, shaking out the rug]--or is she about to disappear forever? The first one isn't so bad, you know, but the latter one . . . So which is it this time? I mean, do I have to do that quick slip-through-the-legs thing I've lately mastered?

The other day Melissa did something she regrets. Actually, she does things she regrets on a fairly regular basis. But this time it was both shameful and dangerous. I gave in to road rage. Just like an idiot. I was on our neighborhood fancy road, the slow and winding one with the houses that remind me of the Hamptons. I daydream on this road, having at long last selected the gray shingle-style manse as the one I will be redecorating in my next life. The speed limit here is 30 mph, and I was going 40. Suddenly in my rearview mirror I see, rather too largely, three young, male laughing faces. Underneath them is a Porsche convertible.

They are seconds from my bumper. Not much makes me as mad as this. People who own the world, including your right to live. This is the country, for chrissakes. What do they think I'm going to do when a rabbit, fox, deer leaps out in front of me? Blithely run through them? No, that's what they would do, apparently. But then, on a blind corner, these Masters of the Universe pull out to pass. This action causes a beautiful blood red, saturated and blinding, to drop before my eyes. So first came my finger--I think you know which one--out the window. Then the blast on the horn. But wait. That had no effect, and I want an effect, goldarnit. My foot hit the accelerator. Hmmm, for a four-cylinder, this car has a little pickup! Just when I was on their tail, they hit the brakes. My own brakes smoked. Not entirely in time, though, so I had to swing wide. And when I was abreast of them, the driver (hey, cute straw hat, mate!) was out and leaping across the hood of my car. His posse scrambled out, too, all of them surrounding the car and screaming obscenities. Gender slurs, don't you know. I was one hormone away from being dragged out of my car and beaten to a pulp on the bucolic pavement. I still managed to yell, "You're going to kill someone that way!" I might have added a few brief epithets myself. Umm. Yeah. I did.

And while they were spraying their spittle on my windshield, I was aware of a sound that surprised me greatly. Nelly. Nelly was growling. She has never in her life growled at a human being. Other dogs, yes. Yes, oh yes. But never a person. She read their intent. And she responded in kind. My brave, great, twenty-pound protector!

But let me interrupt this beautiful yet self-serving moment. She was protecting herself, not me.

This knowledge does not make me love her any less, mind you. Nor does it break the bond. Only a myth.

They are the quiet watchers. We are such stumblers and narcissists we cannot even see how closely they are watching. But they are. And no one will ever watch you like your dog. When you were a baby, your mother gazed for hours at your fingers, the side of your nose. But your dog knows every subcutaneous muscle in your face better than that. There was a study I would like to cite (were I not so exhausted and lazy now that I can't search for it) that revealed how dogs could detect subtle intentional movement in human faces far more closely than either wild canids or our close ape relatives. It's as if, subconsciously, we needed to create an animal that would pay as much attention to us as our mommies. Being paid attention is the survivalist equivalent of being paid gold. How secure, therefore important, it makes us feel to be watched!

From the dog's point of view, however, the ability to minutely discern our intentions is all about them: What is this human about to do, and how will it affect me? Jean Donaldson's greatest formulation is the notion that dogs do what works for them. Period. No moral striving, no attempt to "please" us (but certainly, an attempt to avoid the manifestations of the more unpleasant side of our nature--oh, lord, de trouble I seen . . . ). The dog trainers who insist that you shouldn't give food rewards, you should ask the dog to do things because a dog should want to please you, should themselves work for no pay. A deal's a deal.

Right now, at this time in my life, going through a great trial and crisis, I think about this intelligence of dogs. They look intently at us, and see what we are really all about. This seems to me a way of living in truthfulness--not a metaphor, but literally a sticking to facts, not wishes, projections, desires, or self-protective embroideries. These now have a way of repulsing me when I see them; perhaps it is the price for having unwittingly embraced them in the past. Now, I get close to someone who is fooling himself, and I feel nauseated. Truthfulness, to self and others, is the only place worth going. Even if it makes you take a steep, hard road to get there.

When, out of necessity these days, I put a smile on my lips when inside I am feeling something quite different, I fancy myself a decent actress. My human audience seems unable to tell. But no dog would be fooled, for even one second
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