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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

"We're all looking for security," Janet says to me on the phone, a truism that would otherwise be like a brick wall to the progress of the ear. In other words, unhearable because heard too much. But for some reason (some reason? ha! there is only over-determination, kids. Remember that) this time it opened sheaves of understandings to me, the kind that are nestled inside each other like paragraphs within pages inside of chapters between covers. The more you go on, the more there is to go on to. Yes, security is the great goal for most of us. And for the rest, the aim is an insecurity that feels secure because it's familiar: those are the people you know who court chaos and disaster and always have. The drive for security is as hard-wired as the drive for nourishment--and directly related to it.

A couple of days ago I said to my son, "Oh my god. If we get another Republican president, I'm afraid we'll have to leave the country." [Barack, OK; Hillary, please please no.] I was not sure if I was joking or not. He went suddenly quiet, and I looked closer at him: his lower lip trembled, and the water level quickly rose behind the locks of his eyelids. "But I'll miss my friends!" Leaving the people among whom he is learning, at eight, to be a social member of his species, the tools and mirrors with which he is forging the character that he will come to know as "self," would feel as devastating to him as, well, some of the losses he's already sustained. Big.

How we go about attaining security--ah, that is another matter. The routes are many, and sometimes we go west in order to get east, like Columbus. The map is handed to us early on by the particular collection of experiences we have, duplicated for none. One man's security is another man's prison.

Although perhaps in the end it's all a chimera--don't look to another for security, you bloomin' idyot!--putting in the time, and time alone, with someone builds what can sure feel like security. (As I wrote that last word, sitting in the armchair with Nelly next to me, punctuation came in the form of Nelly resting her head on my thigh. A sweeter, warmer, heavier, richer period never ended a sentence. So let me revise that: you may look to a dog for security; it's just the humans you need to watch out for.)

I think with dogs, you need between three and four years to really know them. Bonnie says, of Malcolm and Nora (flat-coated retriever and Leonberger, respectively), who have been with her for many years, "I've finally got them where I want them!" That means she knows them, in minute detail, and what they will do at any given turn; no surprises. Security. Comfort out of security. Water, food, play, sleep, repeated over and over. It will always be like this. Security feels like immortality.

Finally, at four, Nelly, in her unpredictability, is becoming predictable. I know where on a particular trail she is going to do her disappearing act; sometimes I even know where she is likely to reappear, though she is wont to push the envelope a little farther each time. In this, even, I now know her well. There are still surprises left to come--my life lately has been defined by nothing so much as the kind of surprise that knocks you back so far you hear the crack of skull on sidewalk: never think you know someone. Never. But dogs, as I say, are a little different. And now the process of watching Nelly for all these years has revealed a useful secret: she can't bear for me to go into someone's house and leave her outside. So that's where I have to go if I need to get her back and on-leash, something I can't do otherwise even if I give her raw steak every time she performs a recall. That's because to her, in this situation, steak is not the ultimate reward it would be in, say, the kitchen after doing her cutest trick (I think "High Five" qualifies here). Hunting freely is. Nothing I have in my pocket on a walk trumps that.

(And I know what the respectable trainers say is the solution to that--control the resources. If the environment is reinforcing her behavior, then I am not. A reinforcer is what she determines it is, not me. Out loose, she is in thrall to her little rodent-addled brain. So if I persist in allowing her behavior of running around madly an uncomfortable distance from me to be reinforced, how can I not expect it to continue? God, sometimes I hate the logic of behavior.)

Why does the action of going in a house freak Nelly to the point that she will emerge from the brier patch (though not necessarily the rabbit warren, because when only her butt and her tail are underground, she misses seeing the door close) to stand, waf-waf-waffing outside, demanding entrance? And it's quite a demand--akin to having a bamboo skewer poked incessantly into your eardrum, I'd say.

The anthropocentric school of interpreting dog behavior, alas the prevalent one--"He knew I was in danger and was trying to protect me!"--would say she didn't want to be apart from me. Flattering, I admit. I am so highly attractive, aren't I? I'm guessing it has something to do with her belief that there's a good chance there are bowls of cat food inside most unknown houses. And where there's cat food (Hey, this stuff isn't half bad!) there's going to be a cat. (Cue the theme from Bonanza.)

And I hope I'm not going to jinx my ace in the hole by mentioning this, in the same way I did last week by proudly telling people how great I suddenly felt, after months in the various rings of hell. I suddenly had a new perspective, powerful, positive, happy outlook, the antidote to feeling worthless. It lasted four days. I talked about it, and then, splash, into the soup again. Next time I start feeling good, I'm keeping my mouth shut.

But I've lately learned that it almost always works, absent a house I can disappear into, to go sit in the car. After five or ten minutes, I'll see Nelly through the windshield, a white mote in the distance, gradually getting bigger (though never that big, wee doggie that she is), running her little heart out. Through experimentation, I have discovered that it does not work to merely stand next to the car. She'll stay away all day. I must get in and shut the door, and the windows too.

What goes on in her little Nelly head? I cannot presume to know. Only that, possibly, she is looking for security. And inasmuch as she gives it to me, I am only too pleased to be considered a source of it for her. Even if it really means primarily that she can rely on me for chicken backs with pureed fresh veg. It doesn't do, in this world, to hope for more than that.