The Danger of Doggie Delusions

City dogs: A tough-looking   bunch.

City dogs: A tough-looking

We don’t have a dog in New York, at least not as of this writing. We did have a dog, once, a golden retriever named Molly. In our collective mind’s eye, she was the perfect dog. Gentle, sweet-tempered, obedient, and kind of a chicken, though she could sound very ferocious if there was a door between her and the outside world. I would be surprised if most people who have lost a dog don’t feel pretty much the same way—that the last dog was the most perfect four-legged creature ever to have peed on a carpet. It is a dangerous delusion when contemplating a future dog, which I am in fact contemplating (and not just one dog, but two), because there are many elements missing from our recollection, and once we work those into the equation the prospect of another dog becomes more problematic. At least you would think that would be the case.

As I write this, for example, I am watching people out on the street below, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, walking their dogs in a summer rainstorm. The people wear raincoats and carry umbrellas, but get drenched anyway. At least one dog is wearing a clear plastic poncho, like the kind that the operators of double-deck tourist buses give to people who insist on riding on the upper deck even on rainy days. In winter, I have watched as people walked their dogs through slush and snow with temperatures in the teens and twenties. One icy but sunny morning last winter I saw people walking their dogs when the temperature was 1 degree F, with a windchill of minus 16. The dogs, I should note, looked happy. The men and women walking the dogs looked like people I’ve seen in photographs of failed Arctic expeditions just before ice crushed their ship and polar bears began trotting off with stray limbs. Always in these photographs there are dogs seated and curled nearby in happy clumps, waiting for their masters to throw a tennis ball or a frozen whale steak.

What is it about dogs? Honestly, why do we love them so, when for a good portion of their lives they make our own lives miserable. They demand to be walked through downpours and hurricanes, and when they come back into our homes and apartments the first thing they do is shake themselves at such high velocity that water speckles the flat-screen TV two rooms away. They jump up on guests, even though you instruct these guests to knee them in the chest if they do, and then the kneeing thing becomes for the dog a new game to add to the fast expanding list of other games, like the No Game, the Leave It Game, and the Let’s Pretend We’re Beavers Game.

Dogs can find openings in fences that are invisible to the naked eye, and wander off, thereby forcing us to make Lost Dog posters and put them on telephone poles for miles around, only to return and find the dog asleep in the back yard with some neighbor kid’s pull toy. I speak from experience. We installed a fence at a beach house we once owned on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. It ringed the property, but I decided that where the ends of the fence met at a beautiful spruce, there would have to be a gap, because I did not want to harm the tree with the kind of pruning the fence installers wanted to do to bring the ends of the fence together. I reasoned that the spruce foliage was so dense that Molly would never know the gap was there. But I was thinking like a human, not a dog. I gauged the density of the foliage from my own point of view, which is that of a man who is six feet two inches tall.

The first day after the fence was finished I let Molly out into the yard, threw her a couple of toys, and then went back inside to have a glass of wine and read a book in front of the fire, easy in my soul for the first time since acquiring the property, because I knew Molly would be safe and could not wander off onto the highway that ran down the center of the island. Since it was a new fence, I decided to get up and check, just to make sure. I saw Molly moving along the fence line. I smiled. The fence was good. Molly was good. My heart expanded with love for the dog, the fence, the grass, the distant view, the quail that I knew lived in the blackberry brambles at the end of the property, the coyotes we heard almost every night, and of course the eagles that soared past each day. And then I realized that while Molly was indeed moving along the fence line, she was in fact moving along the outside of the fence.

I stared for a few moments, willing myself to alter my perception, which is something dog owners become very skilled at. I did not want to believe that this fence had failed to keep my dog in. I checked the gates. There were two conventional gates and two gates big enough to allow a lawn tractor inside the back yard. The gates were closed. I looked for evidence of a tunnel, and found none. The idea that Molly had found the gap in the fence still had not occurred to me. I coaxed her back into the yard, through a gate, and then used the treat bell to try luring her into the house. The treat bell was made of iron and sounded just like a harbor buoy. We banged it with a Barbie hammer with a pink handle. Usually Molly came running, even if there were rabbits in the yard, but this time there was no response. I walked back out. She was outside the fence again. This was our new game. Again I lured her back into the yard.

I walked to the spruce. This time I got down on my hands and knees, which of course drew Molly to my side, because she wanted to see whatever it was that had caught my attention. She looked at me, I looked at her, then we both resumed looking under the tree. From this new perspective, at dog height, all my illusions as to the integrity of my fence dissipated. I might as well have installed a lighted steel culvert with dog biscuits dangling at the outer end. The path Molly took was clear and unobstructed.

I bought chicken wire and threaded it under the spruce, which I had now begun to think of as that damn spruce. I secured the chicken wire with those little plastic ties that, once locked, are impossible to get off without cutting them with a knife, and which I suspect are a staple of sadomasochistic love affairs, though I stress here that I am only guessing, because personally I prefer the metal handcuffs with the key.

I went back into the house, poured another glass of wine, put another log on the fire, and once again settled on my couch. About ten minutes later, I went out to check on Molly again. This time she was not only outside the fence, but in a neighbor’s yard with her nose to the ground, following a scent at high speed. I called out. She stopped. She watched me. This was one of her other games. I walked to the nearest gate. She stood in her alert position, fur ruffled, ears cocked. We had played this game before. I opened the gate. She looked at me and, I swear, laughed. She bolted down the little service road to the beach, where, as I soon found—as I always found—she had danced across the barnacle-encrusted rocks and jumped into the bay. We worried when Molly jumped into the bay. I had spotted Killer Whales in our bay on a couple of occasions, for whom she would have made a delightful if somewhat hairy hors d’oeuvre. Okay, so maybe for one moment I hoped a whale would now arrive but it was just a moment, and it passed quickly.

The idea occurred to me then that a roll of razor wire around the entire spruce might be just the ticket, but then I realized this might be interpreted as an inhumane action that would draw animal rights activists to my yard. I did nothing more to the fence. Molly died before we had the chance.

But let us go back to the matter of self-delusion. One of the things I loved about Molly was the way she would commandeer the sofa in our living room and somehow manage to stretch out along its full length. She was the picture of repose, so pleasantly at rest that whenever I looked at her I felt my blood pressure tick down a couple of points. She could also curl herself into such a tight ball that she could fit on the seat of an armchair. Invariably this brought an assault from my daughters who found these resting positions so adorable that they had to run over and join her, and lift her up and roll her over and manipulate her ears so that she looked as though she could fly, a position that earned her the nickname Bat Dog. But we forget that Molly also was the first occupant of a brand new sofa that was upholstered with a cloth comprised partly of silk. When we came home from running an errand we found, by following a trail of droplets of water, that she had managed to transfer water from her bowl to the cushions of the couch, forever discoloring the silk. This led me to order her from the couch in my fiercest master voice, but the look she gave me was so sad and hurt that I covered the cushions with a blanket and invited her back up, and made a mental note never again to buy furniture upholstered in silk and for that matter never again to have a dog.

Molly also loved being in the back yard of our Seattle house, and would lunge at any hapless bird that opted to land within her view. She also liked to dig holes. These were not small holes. Big holes, framed with piles of black earth. And when we covered them up, she dug them again, always in the same place, until I sealed the holes with large flat pieces of rock. She also liked to dig up the various dead rodents buried in our yard, including Joey and Chandler, a pair of dwarf hamsters. Merely unearthing them would have been one thing, but what Molly also felt compelled to do was to roll in the remains, a behavior apparently exhibited by most dogs when given the chance. She also liked to roll on top of dead crabs and other sea creatures at the beach on Whidbey, after which she would climb up on that silk-upholstered couch and sleep. Occasionally in her deepest sleep she would whimper and her legs would move as if she were fleeing some threat, like maybe a mastiff or, given Molly’s nature, a toy poodle.

I will tell you the point at which dog delusions arise. It is when you are driving your dog to the vet on the last day of her life.

Molly was the sweetest dog, because in the end, after watching her head droop into my wife’s lap after our vet injected the lethal cocktail into her thigh, as we hugged her and watched through eyes blurred with tears, all the bad things disappeared in an instant and what remained was a shimmering trail of fine moments, of Molly running free through the auburn light of an autumn day, Molly stretched full length on the blanket that covered our ruined couch, Molly chasing rabbits and birds, and yes, Molly mocking me from the far side of that fence.

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Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, most recently The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which examines how Winston Churchill and his “Secret Circle” went about surviving the German air campaign of 1940-41. Erik’s The Devil in the White City is set to be a Hulu limited series; his In the Garden of Beasts is under option by Tom Hanks, for a feature film. He recently published an audio-original ghost story, No One Goes Alone, which has been optioned by Netflix. Erik lives in Manhattan with his wife, who is a writer and retired neonatologist; they have three grown daughters.

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