Bookshops often lump nature writing together with books about gardening and pets and I’ve always balked at this grouping. Gardens and pets belong to the tamed world of humans, nature writing explores the wild beyond the doorstep. Of course, when I reflect on it, I don’t actually think that. But it’s still my immediate reaction. The implication is that books about gardens and pets are somehow lesser, not worthy of mingling with the likes of Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane.
I always thought that if I got a pet, I wouldn’t allow it to “taint” my online persona (whatever that is). But I recently adopted a puppy and screw it, I’m going to write a blog post about him.
His name is Flake and he was 9 months old when we picked him up from the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA). Actually, his name was Snow then, but we decided “Snow!” sounded too much like “No!” and that he didn’t really look like a Snow, despite his white fur. They told us he’d been named by the children on the reserve where he’d been living so we didn’t want to change his name too much. Flake, short for Snowflake, it was.
My husband had seen Snow/Flake on the OSPCA website, but we were actually there to see a different dog – Lucy, a 2-year-old female dog with long, floppy ears. We didn’t want a puppy. We both work and we didn’t think a puppy would fit well into our lives. But Lucy had already been taken, Flake was all they had. We decided to visit with him anyway and one of the OSPCA staff let us into his room. It was well-lit but mostly empty, with just a bed, a few toys and a large window looking out onto the reception. We crouched down and he came over to us. We started petting him and he lent into us, demanding more pets.
After we’d given him some scritches and taken him for a short walk outside, we spent some time deliberating. Do we really want a puppy that hasn’t been completely toilet trained? He’s a much bigger dog than we were looking for. As we deliberated he ran circles round his room, his tale wagging in the air. I laughed. He’s so sweet and affectionate. In the end, we decided to go for it.
In the three months since we bought Flake into our home (has it really only been three months?), we’ve been on quite the journey. It hasn’t been the journey I’d expected, though in many ways it’s been better. For starters, having a dog has been far more work than I imagined. I thought he’d mostly just sleep at my feet as I tap away at my various writing projects. It’s true that he does sleep an awful lot. But when he wants my attention he’s very good at getting it. This can range from picking up and chewing things he’s not supposed to (I still weep for my poor slippers), to planting his head on my lap and looking up at me with knitted brows.
I used to spend my mornings reading in a comfy chair, with a cup of tea. Now, I’m lucky if I manage to read one page (and I still try). Instead I have to spend my morning feeding and walking the dog. I say have to, but mornings walks are often one of my favourite parts of the day, especially if there’s a fresh dusting of snow. He gets another walk at lunch time and a final walk in the evening. Besides walks, there are manners classes, training, and tiring him out at the dog park.
When we first started training him I had visions of a perfectly trained dog that heeled on command and performed tricks. Three months in and he still zigzags from side to side as we walk – sometimes almost tripping me up – and his tricks extend to giving hi-fives and, if he’s in the mood, rolling over.
What I didn’t anticipate was how much I would love his animality. I know that he’s a dog, tamed by thousands of years of domestication, but he is still very much an animal. The more time he spends with us, the more he understands that the noises we make with our mouths mean something. His ears prick up when we say words he knows, like “Flake”, “sit”, and “find it”. But good luck trying to get him to listen when he sees a squirrel. When we first started taking him to the dog park, we gave him baths afterwards to wash off the mud and the dog slobber. But he hated it and we gave in. It doesn’t take long for the mud and dog slobber to disappear (probably on to our rugs and furniture), and besides, he probably enjoys having all those interesting smells on him. On garbage day he likes to roll around in the garbage juice that’s leaked from the trucks on to the snow.
As frustrating as his love of gross things is (the worst is when he eats raccoon poo), it reminds me again that he is an animal. I’m constantly interpreting his actions and moods, but I know I can only go half way. I believe he’s capable of feeling a range of emotions and many seem to overlap with human emotions – he’s happy to see me in the morning and his whining as my husband leaves for work suggests he’s unhappy about him leaving. But his experience of the world is so different that any comparison to my own emotions seems to fall short. When he comes to my side of the bed to greet me in the morning, besides pawing me and wagging his tale, he’ll often sniff me – my ears and armpits, in particular. My smells are probably more interesting than my warm words of greeting.
I love it when he listens to me, or when I sit down on the couch next to him and he places his head on my lap. I want us to have a connection. But I also love that he is a mucky, smelly animal. I love that he is still a little wild.