Monday, January 04, 2010

Dogs are Poetry

(reflections on A BIG LITTLE LIFE by Dean Koontz, and on writings published by the Monks of New Skete, whose ministry involves training dogs. Photos are my own dogs: Luis, born in 2000, and Bo, born in 1998.)

The main difference between poetry and prose is compression: A good poem compresses a great deal of content into a succinct form. In its brevity is its power to affect us.

A good dog shows us the elements of good life, simplified and all too brief. In this is part of the joy and pain of loving a dog, and, as the country song says, the two feelings are intertwined like the bramble and the rose.

Dad has joked that, if he's to be reincarnated, he wants to come back as a Smoot dog. Certainly the dogs I've adopted in my adulthood have been blessed by me, but not so much as I have been blessed by them.

That same sentiment is echoed in two books I've read recently. One is by Monks in "New Skete," a community in upstate New York ( where the monks train German Shepherds. Their books of photos and theological reflections on dogs include these thoughts:

"Nothing so captures the uninhibited, spontaneous nature of a dog as when it rolls on its back and becomes one with whatever scent has struck its fancy.... Dogs have no trouble seeing the best parts of ourselves; what would it be like if we actually believed them?"

Dean Koontz, famous for supernatural thrillers, memorialized Trixie, a Golden adopted as daughter by Koontz and his wife Gerda, who have had no other children. His memoir of the dog begins with a unique moment in his life with Trixie, when he said aloud, "I know your secret. You're not a dog; you're an angel." He tells how she became uneasy and left his company in a hurry -- as if, he thought, Trixie had been found out.

Among the best anecdotes in the book are ones that show a dog's character. Trixie, always friendly, responded with uncharacteristic hostility to an acquaintance of Koontz who, shortly, revealed himself to be some kind of psychopath / stalker. There's also the story of how Trixie called a Rottweiler's bluff and silenced the bully by facing him down.

Koontz, like the monks, also observes that dogs can bring out the best in us: Their greatest gift is the tenderness they evoke in us, he writes.

These comments by others bring to mind repeating but fleeting moments with Bo and Luis:

  • When I begin even the first syllable of the phrase, "Do you want to go for a walk?" they caper and jump and head for the exit; yet they're all seriousness and concentration when we walk, as if they were on patrol. I can't help but laugh when I see their rears sway in tandem, and their two noses often converge on the same shrub. Then Luis sprays, and Bo waits. Then he fusses to find the exact correct angle. He's an artist, I suppose, but Luis is already tugging to move on to the next shrub.
  • Bo scarfs down his meals in a hurry, and rushes in to grab his toy, a black tire with a rope protruding. He tosses it up, catches it, and then prances towards me, chest out, tail high, chin up, tire encircling his snout. We tug of war, and growl, and sometimes I let him win. Then I throw it, he chases. We do this three or four times, until I throw, and he suddenly seems unsure what's supposed to happen next. Luis, who hangs in the background while his bigger companion plays rough, immediately moves in for affection.
  • If I say, "Squirrel," Luis and Bo both jump up, wherever they are, and tear down to the patio, barking, giving the squirrels fair warning. Luis even does a victory lap around the sofa before heading out to the deck, and the squirrels usually wait until he arrives, just to tease him.
  • Bo warms my spot on the bed, and moves only at the last second ... guarding that spot from Luis.
  • When the two dogs are feeling affectionate, Bo always turns his rear to me, and looks forlornly over his back, hoping for a rub. Luis aims for my face: he wants to look in my eyes, and he licks my most ticklish spots, under the jawline and in the corner of my mouth, just every so often, whenever his tummy rub abates.

I could go on. I'm motivated by the same impulse that Koontz has, to preserve these personalities in their uniqueness. Inevitably, his book ends with a struggle to keep a dog alive, and a painful decision that most dog owners I know have had to make.

Those monks deal with that, too, in a moving and wise observation:
Dogs possess an indomitable spirit for life that teaches right up to their last day.
It is as if they stubbornly refuse to concede that life can be anything other than a gift to which they must respond. The wagging tail gives it away: Even an illness as serious as cancer has no effect on them when a favorite ball is involved…at least for a while.


Suzanne said...

Bravo! This made me happy.

Susan said...

Your dogs are very lucky to have you!
It's wonderful that we're in communion with other humans, but we're doubly blessed to be in communion with animals, too. (I grew up with dogs and agree about the special nature of dogs, but I'd add cats to the list, too--more a style difference or mode of expression between the two than something essential-- like the French language vs. the Italian, etc. )