Monday, August 20, 2007

This neighborhood is going to the dogs--and that's a good thing

He was a gash an' faithfu' tyke,
As ever lap a sheugh or dyke.
His honest, sonsie, baws'nt face
Ay gat him friends in ilka place;

Robert Burns, "The Twa Dogs"

TYKE (n): 1. A small child, especially a boy.
2. A mongrel or cur.
3. Chiefly British A man considered uncouth or mean; a boor.
[Middle English, mongrel, from Old Norse tk, bitch.]

It also once referred to Yorkshiremen, for some reason. No mention of Yorkshire Terriers. Best as I can tell, it started out as a not entirely complimentary name for a dog, that could also be employed affectionately, as Burns employs it in the poem quoted above. It worked its way up (or down) to being a downright insulting name for a man. But in fact, the word is used nowadays mainly as a colorful (and somewhat dated) way to refer to kids or dogs. Or kids and dogs. Whichever. It's the name of this blog. Which is about dogs. Specifically dogs in Washington Heights, and Northern Manhattan generally. Most specifically dogs that frequent The Rocky Run. Don't bother to look for it on any online dog run lists for New York City, because it isn't there yet. But do look for it at 165th St. and Riverside Drive, because it is there. Last I checked.

When I came to this neighborhood, I came with a dog. Her name was Peggy. Someone who loved the both of us invited us to come live with her, and leave an increasingly dodgy roommate situation in the Bronx behind us. I've long suspected the invitation was more for Peggy than it was for me, but she knew Peggy and I were a package deal. In fact, it was Peggy who introduced us.

Peggy--well, Peggy was quite the tyke. In fact, they should have her picture next to the word tyke in the dictionary. One of those little black and white engravings. A purebred mutt, if ever there was one. An adventurer, a runner, a climber, a hunter, a fighter, and a lover--of people. ONLY people. Other animals were to be chased after or run from. Possibly both. Dogs particularly. Peggy had no use for her own kind. She viewed them with a mixture of fear, distrust, and contempt. I kept trying to tell her, "Peggy, dogs are great--it's people who are no damn good", but her command of the English language was limited to words like "Walk", "Park", "Milkbone" and "Cat", and even if she could understand what I was saying, she wouldn't have believed me anyway.

So even though she lived her last few years in Washington Heights, and we walked her all over the place, we never came into contact with the dogs of the neighborhood, or their people. Or if we did, it had to be extremely brief contact, punctuated with a lot of growling and barking, and phrases like "Peggy, NO!" and "I'm so sorry, she doesn't like dogs." Not conducive to smalltalk.

There was no dog run in the area at the time, nor was there in the Bronx neighborhood I'd raised Peggy in. I couldn't afford a dog trainer back then, and hadn't even planned on having a dog--my Irish immigrant roommate just offhandedly requisitioned her from a litter born in our building's basement--but I ended up taking care of her most of the time, and he ended up getting married and moving to a building that didn't allow dogs--and by that time, I wouldn't have parted with her. For any reason. She'd wormed her way into my life. Plans be damned.

By the time I realized she wasn't just shy with her own kind, but was downright aggressive towards most of them, her behavior seemed to be a firmly established part of her personality. Nowadays I watch The Dog Whisperer on cable and wonder if I just did a lousy job socializing her. But Peggy had us, she had adventures in Van Cortlandt Park and points beyond, she had no end of human admirers, and her ten and a half years of life were otherwise pretty great, for all concerned.

But then she died--very suddenly. And we cried--very soddenly. And for quite a long time after that, it was hard for either of us to even look at a dog.

But all around us, people in our little corner of the world, just above Harlem, just below the George Washington Bridge, were going right on getting dogs, dogs of every size and shape, of all breeds and no breed, dogs to make them feel safer, make them feel needed, make them get some exercise, make them feel alive and joyous, in a way only dogs can make people feel--no offense meant to cats, ferrets, pigs, parrots, etc--they can likewise bring joy into the lives of people, each in their own special way. But dogs are different.

Because, you see, you don't generally engage the outside world with cats, ferrets, pigs, parrots, etc. You don't have to walk a cat--it's certainly possible to do so, but name the last time you saw someone doing it. My first sighting was about ten years ago, in Van Cortlandt. His name was Romeo, and he followed his people around in the park like a dog--they'd sing out "Oh Romeo!", and he'd come running. That was one crazy cat, man. A few months ago, we saw a woman who was walking her cat on a harness, in Ft. Tryon Park. Twice in ten years doesn't amount to much of a trend. Cats may be let out, but they are rarely taken out. Pity. It's an option that should be tried more often.

With dogs, it generally isn't an option at all. With rare exceptions, dogs must be allowed to go outside several times a day, for exercise, for recreation, and most notoriously for the relief of their bodily wastes. In a city or suburb, this generally necessitates one or several humans accompanying them. Which means the humans also going outside. Which means meeting other people with dogs, doing the same thing. Which means stopping while your dogs sniff each other's behinds. Which means you have to say something to fill the awkward silence that ensues, sniffing of posteriors being frowned upon in human society, for some reason. Which ultimately means conversing, briefly or at length, with other people who feel much the same way you do about dogs--never precisely the same way, but close enough. Some may become friends, most will not, but in a short time, in a neighborhood like mine, you've met and talked with a whole lot of people, of every possible age group and background and ethnicity, for the simple reason that dogs don't care about any of that stuff. They just care about getting outside, and smelling things, and making connections. Maybe not every single dog is this way, but most of them are, given half a chance to realize their genetic potential as social animals. And since they typically can't go out and mingle by themselves, they have to persuade us to help them. And this they do. People may often do a bad job socializing their dogs, but dogs do a remarkably good job socializing their people. All part of the master plan. As are dog runs, parks with offleash hours, and dog-friendly outdoor cafes. Now if they could just do something about subway access......

If your dog is very friendly and appealing, you may even make the acquaintance of people in your neighborhood who don't have dogs, but rather wish that they did. There's always a lot of those people around. I would know. 9 months ago, I was one of them--my life partner was another. We thought about getting another dog, but there were no end of reasons not to. Once one has been without a dog for a while, one grows accustomed to the empty space on the sofa, the flagrant excess of spare time to do whatever you want, without thinking of walks, feedings, or vet appointments. One may need a gentle push back into the fold.

A friend emailed me. Her aunt was in the hospital. Her aunt's dog was in a kennel, and miserable. My friend's apartment building wouldn't allow dogs, even as visitors. Did I know anybody who could foster him? His name was Max. I didn't know anyone who could take him, and we were leaving on a trip shortly--but I looked at the picture she sent, snapped in a hurry. A good-sized tan-colored German Shepherd Mix with a plaintively bewildered expression on his face. And a handsome face it was, I thought to myself. And I remembered recently walking by a newly established dog run, less than ten blocks away. And that was as far as it went, for the time being.

A very kind person responded to my friend's craigslist ad, and agreed to take Max temporarily. Max's owner recovered, but her family persuaded her that she couldn't take care of a big active dog anymore--she'd been walking him once a day on average, before she went into the hospital. He was four and a half, and still going on newspapers in the house, along with several cats, who he got along with very well, and who were probably very influential on his general worldview. He'd had very little experience with other dogs, little chance to be offleash, except for a small yard. In short, he'd never really had much of a chance to be a dog.

It hadn't originally been her idea to get such a big active dog at her age, but having taken him on, she lavished care and attention on him--as was evidenced by the fact that two separate veterinarians we took him to thought he was no more than two years old--when he was over twice that age. She loved him unstintingly and well, and was loved in return. She loved him too much to ever want to give him up. She also loved him enough to do precisely that. So now Max needed a permanent home. And we felt like maybe there was something we were needing as well. So we went to see him......

And thus begins our tail--


alice said...

Hi, Chris,
Great blog! Can't wait to see the pictures you took the other day!
Alice (Hannah's mom)

Chris said...

Congratulations on being the first person to ever post to the blog, Alice. I did actually do a test post, but I erased it. That doesn't count.

I'll try to get some photos up this weekend. It's a bit time-consuming, and this is a new thing for me. I just got a new computer, which will hopefully mean I can upload images faster. I haven't managed to import my iPhoto library from the old Mac yet, though. So it'll definitely be photos from the other day, because that's all I've got on this computer so far.