Dogs: A Personal History
If you know me, you know that I love dogs. I love dogs for all the reasons that most people love dogs: cuteness, companionship, humor, love. Yet, besides the obvious, dogs have played an instrumental role in shaping how I view partnership, dedication, and perseverance.
15 years ago
Though I likely came out of the womb begging for a dog, my dream was finally realized one Christmas when I was about seven or eight years old. The present under the tree was clearly shaped like a book (and despite my literary life now) was therefore the most uninteresting and saved for last. It was a book about Miniature Schnauzers. We went to the breeder soon after that to meet the new litter. My dog actually chose my older brother first by climbing into his lap. The biggest of the litter; she was the one.
I named her Bailey. In my nostalgic memory, she was perfect. An expressive face with long eyebrows and a messy beard. Athletic and tall for her breed. Smart. Spunky. Enthusiastic. In reality, she definitely barked too much. We didn’t socialize her very well and she was reactive around other dogs. She peed when she got too excited. Beyond this, perfection.
Bailey was smart and food-driven which made her a perfect dog to train. I taught her trick after trick: shake, speak, roll over, high-five, spin, and so many more. And then I found agility.
YouTube was still in its infancy, but it already had a small dog agility (obstacle courses for dogs) community. I watched videos of the elite competitions and home training videos. I was enthralled. I made my dad take me to the hardware store where we bought PVC piping and built jumps and weave poles and an A-frame. I somehow found a large cat tunnel and sewed my own sandbags to hold it in place.
Bailey excelled at agility. She was fast and keen when food was involved (which it was). I began filming our training sessions and uploading videos to YouTube. I can’t believe I’m announcing this, but if you want to watch my old videos, you can do so here. I remember spending hours downstairs on the old desktop tinkering on Windows Movie Maker.
As she got better and better, I became more and more invested. I wanted real equipment. An agility registration. A competition.
Our first competition was overwhelming. Dogs barking and running. Timers beeping. People wearing professional agility gear, warming up their Border Collies (the Olympians of the agility world). I was maybe thirteen at the time, toting along my Miniature Schnauzer on the leash I had made by hand.
Our first competition was, to put it lightly, a disaster. Because food isn’t allowed in the ring, Bailey no longer cared about listening to me and wanted to greet the judges and other dogs nearby. Can I blame her? This simple fact would be our agility downfall. We wouldn’t attend another competition after that, but I still broke out the training equipment now and again.
3 years ago
My parents divorced when I entered high school. I lived with my mom and Bailey lived with my dad. With AP classes and dance practices, I spent less and less time with her. She was getting older.
I went to college. In my sophomore year, I studied abroad in England. Before leaving, Bailey, now elderly, had medical difficulties. She was not acting with her usual attitude. She was slower and less interested in life, but with some new medication, it appeared she was on the upswing. I left for England.
The day before Thanksgiving, my dad Skyped me. Already emotional about being away on the holiday, I broke down when he said he would soon be putting Bailey down. Her old age had gotten to be too much. I was devastated. I never got to say goodbye, although I’m not entirely sure I could’ve handled it. I called my new boyfriend who immediately came over to comfort me.
Bailey’s death felt symbolic to me, as though her leaving marked the true end of my childhood. There I was, in another country, truly on my own for the first time. Drinking for the first time. Being intimate for the first time. She was gone. I was an adult now.
1 year ago
I met my first greyhound at Crufts, the largest dog show in the UK. My boyfriend and I had gone to celebrate our birthdays that fell around the same time. We loved it. Greyhounds were a mystery to me. Dog racing had been outlawed in Kansas many years ago, but it was still going strong in England. I had caught snippets about their poor treatment and overwhelming need for adoption. They were long and thin. Sleek. Many wore muzzles. They were, frankly, the opposite of most dogs I’d known.
At this point, I had been living in England for about 6 months. I had yet to make friends. Despite my wonderful boyfriend, I felt lonely and isolated. I wanted a dog, but because of our lifestyle (a small, rented apartment and little money) we couldn’t have one.
After Crufts, I sought out greyhound rescues nearby. I found one about 20 minutes away that let you sign up to walk their dogs. I signed us up.
The first day was wet and chilly as is typical in March. I walked Bowie, a calm, brindle male who would be adopted soon after. On walks, each dog wears three collars and two leads: a house collar, a martingale, and a slip lead. These collars baffled me at first. They told me to keep a strong grip at all times, just in case. The walk went nicely until we began up a paved hill. A smaller dog walked in the distance. Bowie didn’t react, but the others did. They barked, they whined, they tugged on the leads.
James and I kept going week after week. I learned about how some greyhounds are bad at stairs because they’d never seen them before. I learned about how they chatter when they’re happy. I saw how some are very shy and nervous, including a long-time kennel resident named Pat who has been there for years. He was afraid of new people, but I loved him. Some greyhounds are enthusiastic. Some are calm. Some rub against you for attention while others are more aloof. We see puppies. We see greyhounds over 9 years old. While we loved them all, we quickly developed favorites: Heston, Ricky, Polly, Duke.
Walking greyhounds gave me something wonderful to look forward to each week when I often felt anxious about the impending future. In good weather and in bad, they offered me a chance to focus on something else for an hour, something that I adored.
When I found out that I was moving back to America, I cried while telling the rescue owner that I was leaving. She said that I would be back and I truly hope that I will be. I’m happy to report that my partner, who still lives in England, still volunteers at the rescue. I pester him for updates.
I still don’t have a dog, but the prospect of getting a dog genuinely motivates me to work hard and save for the future. Luckily, my step-mother dog sits frequently which means I get to meet an array of doggie characters on a regular basis.
Yesterday, I met the Miniature Schnauzer that they are watching. She was so much like Bailey: small but not frail, little wagging nub tail, disheveled beard. And yet, unlike Bailey: more tan than grey, softer, slightly less assured. She sat delicately on my lap as we went to the pet store. They said she had been sad the past few days, but was obviously excited when I arrived. I like to think she sensed my energy. My good Schnauzer energy. They’ll always be special to me.
Dogs represent so much more to me than cuteness. Dogs sparked my creative journey as a kid. They taught me how to build, fail, and adapt. They taught me friendship and partnership. When I was at my loneliest, dogs were there for me. They will always be there for me. I imagine every day the moment that I finally bring one home.