Other people’s dogs

by Brian Clarey

You have got to love dogs. They’re cute and loyal. They’re better than a gun for home protection. They eat all the food that falls to the floor from your kitchen table.

I don’t have one myself — we have a rule about dogs in my house, and that rule is: No dogs. Because besides their well-documented good qualities, dogs are also a major pain in the ass. They tear things up in the house when they’re puppies and shed on the furniture when they’re grown. You have to walk them every day, no matter the weather, and when you do, you have to pick up their poop. And if you want to leave town for a few days, you’ve got to bring the dogs or sustain a considerable expense for a kennel or a sitter.

Dog owners will tell you that these inconveniences are small in comparison to the things that a dog will bring to your life. And I do not doubt them — 77 million US dog owners can’t be wrong. But still, no dogs in my house. For now.

We didn’t have a dog in our house when I grew up, for lots of reasons. My younger sister was deathly allergic. My mother was deathly afraid. We traveled — not a lot, but often enough that the dog would spend a lot of time unsupervised. And even the sight of a pooperscooper was enough to send my dad into a fit of the dry heaves.

So I guess it was natural for my older sister, just about as soon as she moved out of my parents’ house, to get a dog. And then another. And then another. At one point, she had five dogs living with her in her one-bedroom house in Riverside, Calif. Eventually she realized that was too many, and she scaled down to three.

I once had a dog. She wasn’t really mine, but she lived with a roommate and me after a friend of ours found out the dog violated his lease. She was a ridgeback named Shocka — were she my dog, I would have given her a people name, like Lisa or Joyce, because I think that’s funny. She was a good dog, barking like a sentry from our fenced-in yard anytime someone approached in our sketchy neighborhood. She licked our plates clean before we washed them, handy because we didn’t have a garbage disposal. I was a college student then, and when I came home from class she would go absolutely nuts when she heard me coming up the steps, totally losing it in a frenzy of adoration when I came through the apartment door.

But what I think I liked best about Shocka was that she was someone else’s dog, absolving me of all financial and caregiving responsibilities. Her owner brought us huge bags of food, came by daily to take her for walks and clean up her crap in the yard, made sure she bathed once a week. All we did was bring her out for walks at night when it would otherwise have been unsafe. We also taught her to eat carrots.

I like other people’s dogs just fine. I’ll approach slowly, let them smell the back of my hand, scratch their flanks and tell them what good dogs they are. I might even take them for a walk or throw a stick or feed them a treat of there’s one handy. Then I leave them to their owners, because they’re not my dogs.

I saw a mad dog on the street once, at dusk in Uptown New Orleans. A friend and I were walking to a bar, and we saw the mutt from about a hundred yards off, straggling in the middle of the road, unafraid of passing cars. As it got closer, we could see a beard of foam on its muzzle, a disturbing lurch to its pace. We laughed at the absurdity of it because we were young and stupid. Still, we slowly changed course so as not to confront it. We weren’t that stupid.

I drove cross-country with a dog once — not actually coast to coast, but from New Jersey to North Carolina, which is a pretty good chunk of the Eastern Seaboard. Again, not my dog — she belonged to my cousin who didn’t want to bring the pup on a plane. She was great, sat on my wife’s lap the whole trip and eagerly jumped from the car at rest stops to get some fresh air and do her business. Good dog. Oddly enough, when we got back to our house in NC, there was another puppy hanging out unattended by our house. He kept running inside while I unpacked the car, wiggling like a salted slug. He was a good dog, too, but I had to run him off. We have a rule about dogs in my house. For now.