I walk my 70-lb golden retriever, Huck, every day at 6 am and 6 pm. Late nights, not till 8 pm. I try to hold him on a 30-ft spring-loaded retractable leash.
Huck is fired up, rarin’ to go, nearly yanking me off my feet. He is eager to roam for as long as I can keep up, and he shows me the way to go home—I mean truly home—in more than one sense of the term.
As a card-carrying shrink, I work all day in a hushed office and discipline myself to listen, be reasonable, circumspect, and consider all the facts. I pay attention to as many of the rules of business and society as I can remember, and fill out my treatment plans with solid good sense. Catalog, classify, check the algorithm—that’s me. Compassion fatigue and hard-headed science do take their toll. For 10 hours, the lines of text race by and I forget all sense of smell, touch, the heft of bodies. Impulse, play, and intuition—all go hungry.
Huck knows nothing of that and will never learn. He tugs and humps from tree to tree, ecstatic over each new scent. Every tree he comes to he circles intently, on a search, and buries his nose in the crotch, a crevice of snow or dirt. How sensitively his nostrils quiver, alert to wisps of odor I know nothing of! He follows a trail of scent as solid as a rope and races to gulp it down. Watching him for a minute, my attention quickly shifts to a different realm.
I pull to move on. He hunches his shoulders, digs in, anchors, won’t go the way I pull him. Histrionic type, but not a disorder.
“That’s it, that’s it! That’s the mother lode!” his whole body shouts. His posture shouts it, without a word, a whole new language to me—I who am lost in words all day.
He is a scholar of hieroglyphics, deep in his text, finger locked on the Rosetta Stone. Smell that reference! Check that date! Catch the allusion! He points a delicate paw in demonstration. Then he carefully pivots, raises his hind leg at a thoughtful angle, and adds a footnote. His satisfaction in this job is no less than mine in signing off at the bottom of a long report.
There is the way he puts his head down, close to the ground and stretching forward, haunches rolling, putting power into each step, which can only be called “tractoring”—any other term is too feeble. He tractors down the sidewalk, stick-figure Houghton with his big brainy head dangling behind.
His most brilliant feat, of course, is his shifting instantly from goal to goal. Only the most dazzling conversationalist can jump so easily from one topic to another. (Brainy Houghton gets stuck for decades on one complex formulation.) Attention deficit disorder? No, attention maximus.
Once he picked up a dead squirrel. I tried to take it out of his mouth and he snarled and snapped at me. With a trick of distraction, I got him to drop it, and 10 seconds later he forgot the whole thing. I was frightened by his anger as it flashed by, but he immediately tore off on another scent, and his brief anger only made him seem more human. My battles with people should come and go so quickly! Huck flares up but lets bygones be bygones in seconds. Short memory has its advantages.
And what do I gain from these daily walks with Huck, my chance to connect with another race and culture? He is an important part of my expanding view of the world, a neighborly form of consciousness-raising—a “mind-altering dog,” safe and perfectly legal.
When I wake in the morning, I search my memory for night thoughts and listen to my body for several minutes. My back may ache or my stomach feel bloated. These are the ways, on first awakening, I am as close to my body as Huck is to his, and as I am to him on our walks. From this perspective, it is clear my body is another Huck I take out on a leash, follow around, put in the kennel and forget for the day. My soul may be lofty—I keep hoping—but I dwell in this mortal coil. My urges to sniff, tractor, lust, and snatch are no less than his.
We both have the brilliant everlasting dumb luck to be fueled with oxytocin, the urge to eat and to bond. St Francis called his body “brother ass.” I call mine “brother dog.”