Our dogs, ourselves


Photo: Picasa 2.7

On a Friday night in December, I noticed a missed call from my dad. I thought I would get back to him the next day, but he called again first. With a quietness I had rarely heard before, he described how our 6-year-old dog, Rico, had suddenly lost his appetite a few weeks before. How multiple vet appointments now pointed to the inevitable. How they were getting ready to take him home from the hospital for likely the last time. All I could manage was silence—it was the first I’d heard about any of this—and for minutes, a void accumulated on the line, mirroring the intensifying snowstorm outside. But internally, I already had my mind set. I knew I had to see him.

We’ve long known that humans and dogs share a special relationship. You can easily rattle off the facts: From the earliest contact with hunter-gatherers, when aloof, aggressive wolves transformed into friendly, floppy-eared dogs, our combined history is nothing short of a 20,000-year romance. Dogs can read our hand gestures better than chimpanzees, and follow our gaze as well as human infants. A study by psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University showed that they measurably increase our happiness. According to the American Pet Products Assocation, we spend $13 billion annually on dog food alone. Their link to lowered stress is enough for some colleges to bring therapy dogs to campus during finals, and a handful—like Massachusetts Institute of Technology—to even allow pets to reside in dorms.

For me, though, that bond came into sharp relief on that December day. Because beyond the studies and statistics lies a truth that can’t be explained by numbers alone. It is a truth forged through weeks of housetraining and years of long walks, through uncountable moments of frustration and even more of love. In this world where digital interactions increasingly overshadow physical ones, where attention spans are measured in ever-shorter units, and where sarcasm is safer than sincerity, the pure, uninhibited affection that dogs give us becomes ever more valuable.

Rico and I had our rituals. After playing in the muddy yard, he would wait by the door to have his paws cleaned. He would refuse to eat dinner until my grandmother dropped him some of our leftovers. He would so enthusiastically resist going on walks, then sprint maniacally once we got to Ahuimanu Park down the block. He cared deeply about us, and on a level more sincere than could ever be replicated online. Even when I would leave home, no matter how long I was gone—for a few hours, to high school; for a few weeks, on vacation; for a few months, at Emerson—every time I got back, Rico would run to the door with a frenzied smile and burst of tail-wagging joy, jumping up in his version of a hug.

His love was more than a Like, and all of his actions had no filter. I remember choosing the name Rico. It’s the Spanish word for “rich,” but as I explained to my family and friends, it was that he was wealthy not in money, but in spirit.

So that weekend in December, when I finally got back to Hawaii after 20 hours of snow-delayed flights, I put my luggage down and heard the familiar pattering of his nails on the floor. He emerged from the living room with an unsure gait, a gaunt frame, a deep tiredness—but the same happiness in his eyes and tail as always. My parents later told me that was the most energy he’d had in days. That he’d been waiting for me.

On his last night, he slept on my bed. Normally this was a privilege he would have to furtively acquire, waiting until everyone was sleeping so he could safely jump up. But instead, with his muscles weary and our hearts full, we placed him there ourselves. Swaddled in blankets, he lay using my body as a pillow. Morning came. The sun peeked through my windows. He breathed, shallowly. In those moments, our last alone before my parents and brother came home, we were at peace, together.