One of my favorite photos of all time hangs in our living room above the mantelpiece. It’s from the days when our family of five (dog included) was crammed into a one-bedroom apartment, where my daughter took over the bedroom with her tyrannically bad sleeping habits and my wife and I ended up moving into the living room. Dog and baby boy slept in whatever corner we could find for them.
The photo was taken on our little deck, and it’s of my daughter Alice – maybe two and a half at the time – sitting next to our dog Wynette, hugging the pup’s head with a look of pure love on her face. Wynette is peaceful, content, and the tip of her tongue is just barely visible. She was licking Alice’s face at the time, but it wasn’t the high-velocity “I’m doing this instead of biting you” frantic slobber she sometimes engages in when Alice is doing what toddlers do to dogs. No, this was a calm, sweet gesture, and Alice was giggling. They were both about as placid as they get, which is the only reason I cautiously backed away long enough to take the photo.
But here’s the thing about that shot: It’s kind of a lie.
They don’t interact like that, except on very rare occasions when the stars have aligned just right, and both of them have achieved a certain inner peace. For a toddler, peace of any kind can be hard to come by, and for a toddler’s dog, true serenity is a commodity in shorter supply than the cat poop and chicken bones they crave so intensely.
Alice, being a charming but volatile and authoritarian three-year-old, hasn’t made life easy for her dog since her dramatic arrival more than three years ago. She’s grabbed Wynette’s tail, squeezed her ears and paws, pushed her, even licked and bitten her. Her favorite move for awhile was the sudden, drive-by slap she’d inflict with no clear motive. The dog is, accordingly, somewhat afraid, or at the very least deeply wary. She skulks away when Alice plops down next to her on the couch and retreats to safety when her three-foot-tall overlord gets an Africanized bee in her bonnet.
Deep down, though, they do love each other (or, as Alice would say, “we love our chuthers”). It’s a complicated love, but then again, when is love easy? If you peel away some surface-level differences – they’re different species, for one – they actually have a surprising number of similarities.
They have both sneezed so hard that they’ve hit their head on the ground. They both love cheese and bread. They both express their lunatic side by running wildly around a room, destroying everything in their path. They love routines, comforts, and predictability. They both love being outside and getting filthy dirty. They make me and my wife laugh deep, tear-producing belly laughs. They are kind, sweet, and they are completely genuine at all times. They play hard, they work hard, and they love hardest of all.
Perhaps most unifying of their personality traits is that they share a complex relationship with affection, and although they seem totally at odds they’re both rooted in the same imperfect yearning for connection. Alice hugs and touches almost entirely on her own terms; usually when I (her own papa) ask if I can hug her, she’ll say sweetly, “Um, no thanks, maybe tomorrow, mkay?” Affection is vitally important to her, but it isn’t what propels her, feeds her soul, or typically what centers her when she’s off-kilter. She gets a lot of joy and nurture out of intimacy, but other driving forces are just as important to her nascent exploration of attachment and connection. We highly encourage this body autonomy and defend it, hard, with anyone who tries to force a hug or a tickle on her – it’s her body and she gets to set the rules.
Wynette, on the other hand, leaves it entirely up to us. She never asks for a scratch, a hug, or even loving attention. She’s not one of those dogs who backs up into you for a booty scratch, or paws at you to get a good rubbing behind the ears. She doesn’t come to us even when she has an itch so intense she’s flopping on the floor like a dying fish, or when she’s depressed that my wife left for work and could really use a cuddle. No, she demands nothing, which is why my wife and I have to seek it out. When the time is right, when we offer, she’ll lean into a scratch, a hug, a calm caress. It’s not that she doesn’t love affection – she wants nothing more than to sleep on our bed with us, after all. It’s that for whatever reason, she’s put it in our hands, a potentially lonely strategy when your human companions are busy caring for two small children.
I used to dream of Alice running wild with Wynette, spending her summers exploring creeks and chasing squirrels and all kinds of adventures that kids have with dogs in movies. I still dream of it, even now, or at least of Wynette sleeping curled up at the foot of Alice’s bed, the two of them going on walks together, taking life on as a team. If anything like that happens, we’re still years away from it, and that kind of parental patience can be tough. But I still believe that Wynette can truly be Alice’s dog.
Being an inconsistent, emergent human being, Alice constantly tries to hug Wynette. She usually runs away, the toddler gets upset and pouts, and we point out to her that she doesn’t like random hugs like that either. She sort of gets it, in the way a child in the throes of the egotistical phase gets anything like that, but she torments the dog anyway. She chases behind and “plays” with her, completely unaware of the warning signs Wynette is giving off: tail tucked between her legs, head low, doe-eyed pleas for help.
And yet, the love runs deep. Alice speaks to her dog as though she were an equal conversational participant, asks her how her day was, and tells the dog about her adventures at preschool. Alice proudly shows every new outfit, hairdo, toenail polish, and pair of shoes to Wynette: “I’m gonna go show my dog!” Among her first words were “Wyna” (Wynette) and “Doo-too!” (good girl!). When Wynette rides along in the back of our little hatchback, Alice speaks to her the whole trip, and whenever we drop the dog off at the local doggy daycare, Alice tells her all about the fun she’s going to have playing with her furry friends.
And against all odds, Wynette loves Alice right back. It’s not as fierce and intense a love, but Alice is part of the pack, and the pack is sacred to a pup. Wynette just wants to love the humans in her life, and only wants to be loved back – it really is that simple for her. I never would have believed Wynette would emerge as a bastion of wisdom, but it’s almost exactly what’s happened: our formerly hyperactive dog – an animal that once had so much energy we had to walk her for two hours a day – has slowly morphed into a gentle, caring, and yes, wise old soul. She tolerates Alice because she’s part of the family, but she loves her because – and I do believe this – she sees the best in everyone, Alice included. Call it naiveté or call it sagacity, Wynette wants everyone who approaches her to be good. Alice is still working on earning her dog’s trust, and slowly but surely, my little girl is chipping away. The elegant simplicity of Wynette’s needs is beautiful, and Alice knows she has a dog with a beautiful soul.
The photo in our living room, a deceptively simple instance of affection, is the best of them both, most certainly the best of Alice’s treatment of her dog. I treasure it because it’s one of only a handful of occasions where their particular needs for affection aligned so perfectly that I could bask in the connection they were forging. They were both lost in love for one another, two complicated souls stealing a peaceful moment together before the insanity of life resumed.
It’s a beautiful love, it really is.