I have never been a dog person. Quite the opposite as a matter of fact. Not that I am a particularly social animal, but I have consciously avoided going to homes with dogs, where I face the prospect of feigning acquiescence through clenched teeth, when I am barked at or licked and pawed, afraid of being bitten, but even more afraid of being judged by the host. The fear of a dog bite is not purely paranoia in the theoretical. I was inside the main door of the apartment complex in College Park, I saw an elderly lady struggling to walk outside, and I opened the door to help her, when from behind the door, her miniature poodle jumped up and dug her teeth into my leg. And this was not, by any stretch, my only unpleasant canine experience. I have been chased by a posse of Indian street dogs once when I used to jog and they were the reason I gave up the exercise, and last time I was in India, late at night, I found myself surrounded by a pack of snarling street dogs, snapping at me outside the main gate of my house. I never quite understood the obsession with dogs as pets, slotting it as yet another delusion like believing there are men and women in the sky who can propitiated by your worship. It was to me what Bengalis call “adhikhyeta” loosely translated as “excessive indulgence”, why people seemed to care more about dogs than they do for human beings, and why urban Kolkata families would spend so much time feeding already well-fed dogs while human children lay hungry, ten feet away outside the gate.
Over the years my active disinterest in dogs was the way it has stayed. Last year, though it changed. I began reading about dogs. Not so much about dog breeds, though I did do that later once my interest had deepened, but about individual dogs, dogs and their stories.
Dogs at shelters. Dogs rescued from puppy mills, factories where dogs are kept in small coops, made to produce litters and then killed once no more able to produce puppies for sale. Dogs bred for dog fighting. Dogs used as bait for dog fighting. Dogs thrown out of moving cars by their owners. Dogs abandoned on the road. Dogs shot at by arrows, their ears cut off, dunked in tar, gratuitously mutilated for the pleasure of someone.
Stories. Many stories.
And yet despite the random cruelty of existence, dogs do not lose faith in the good. Brutalized dogs wag their tail and lick the hands of their rescuers. Subject to abandonment and physical abuse, they forget what they have endured and learn to trust humans again. It’s not though that they do it easy, dogs aren’t plants, they have memory. They suffer from post-traumatic-stress-disorder, they wake up at night yelping and shaking from nightmares, they die from heartbreak, and yet they trust. They might be staying years in a shelter, if they had been lucky not to have been euthanized, but every time a prospective adopter comes to the front of their cage, they rush out, ears flopping, tails wagging, with a smile on their face, and then the man moves past his cage, and they come back again and sit down and hope again.
After watching so many of these videos and reading their stories, I have come to the conclusion that a vast majority of dogs seem to realize something we humans cannot, that every new interaction with the world brings up new possibilities, that just because things have gone bad before does not necessarily mean they will go bad again, and that the very purpose of life, if such a thing exists, is to be able to reset one’s expectations and start off again, to mimic the randomness of the universe in our own perception of it.
Note my use of “a vast majority of dogs”. What’s fascinating is that not all dogs can forget. Or forgive. Some never totally trust people with a certain characteristic or of a certain gender. Some sit back in their shelter cages bereft of hope, staring sadly at humans walking by. Some violently turn on their masters and children, yes that happens despite what you may have read to the contrary, and often without any trigger. Which makes them all the more fascinating. Unlike trees, whose non-reactive behavior is independent of its “self”, the behavior of dogs is a matter of conscious choice. They are not all pre-programmed to behave the way they do, but overwhelmingly, they choose the path to forgiveness, they choose the path of hope, they choose the path of being grateful for whatever it is they can get, a little biscuit or a pat on the head or a romp in the yard.
Of course I know I can never be like that. I am human after all, I cannot but parse the future with the grammar of the past, I cannot but expect the comforting causality of good following from good, and bad from bad, of having expectations of fairness and justice from the universe, while knowing all along that is not the way things work, and yet choosing not to believe, and all that I can change, in my forties, is to become a huge dog-person, which I now am.
I may not able to change but that does not prevent me from marveling at the stories of shelter and rescue dogs, illuminating and uplifting and finally transformative, of dogs that find happy homes and those that do not, those that lie down on plush rugs and doze away to the rainbow land and those that go yelping and twisting away, peeing on themselves in terror, to the death chamber of a shelter. While we can never control where we end or the blows we receive on the way, or figure out what we did to deserve them, we do have the choice to not ask those questions whose answers we do not know, and instead accept unflinchingly the little random belly rubs of life.