I can’t stop thinking about something I heard on NPR. Apparently when dogs lick your face, they’re not saying that they’re happy to see you, that they’ve missed you or that they love you. It’s actually a trait ingrained from their wolf days when the pack would lick the face and mouth of the leader in hopes of getting him to regurgitate some of his last meal. They’re really just asking for food.
I was struck by that thought. Every day, people come home, their dogs lick them and they’re happy. So simple, and yet so false. Licks aren’t kisses at all. I love dogs but I’ve always hated when they lick me. The thing is, I never thought of licks as kisses. Maybe somewhere deep down I sensed that the lick-y dogs were in it for the wrong reasons. I’m pretty sure my now-deceased dog only ever licked me a couple of times. And those licks were very early on, before we really understood each other – and before I made an honest dog out of him.
We met years ago, late at night at the end of a Memorial Day weekend. I had just gotten home from the beach and right in front of my apartment was the most beautiful dog I had ever seen. He later became a super-model, for real, so I know of what I speak. (He was discovered because he had “a great butt.” It’s basically a version of the Lana Turner story, but for dogs, butts and without the drugstore.) This night, he was practicing his posing, I think, because he was standing perfectly still like a statue. I thought I knew all the dogs in my neighborhood, but I would have remembered him. And just like in a movie, our eyes met, locked and we were one. At that point, I noticed there was an owner attached to the leash.
It was a man, maybe in his 60s. I told him I would love to dog-sit one weekend and asked for his number. Surprisingly, he gave me his card, which I stared at for about 10 hours straight until at last it was the next morning. “Hi! I met you on the street last night!” Dead silence. “Um, you know, with Reepy?” He didn’t hang up, so I plowed ahead. “I was thinking I’d like to take him to the beach this weekend. Can I pick him up on Friday?”
He didn’t ask me a single question…not whether I had other pets or kids or what I did. For all he knew, I conducted medical experiments. We made plans.
About an hour later, he called me back. “So…I was just talking to my wife, and she says…” My heart dropped. “…she says that we have company coming this weekend. Can you pick him up this evening?”
They lived in a three-storey brownstone chock full of art. When I got there, the calm, still Reepy from the street was an out-of-control lunatic. I wasn’t quite sure what I had gotten myself into. But once we were in my apartment, Reepy was an angel. No more nutty shenanigans, no moping by the door. Just a big old love wanting some regurgitated food.
We spent an amazing week together. I had to call up his owners to tell them that he had an ear infection, which I couldn’t believe they hadn’t noticed, but that was the only time we spoke that week. The vet told me that the infection had been there for months, that there was probably significant hearing loss, and treated me like I was the worst owner in the world. Little did they know I was his best. At the end of the week, when I called his family to arrange a drop off time, they said I could keep him another week since I was enjoying him so much.
I jumped at the chance.
At the end of that second week, his owners surprised me by announcing they had “gotten used to life without Reepy” and were going to give him away. Wait. What? They had had him for four years. “You have first dibs if you want him, otherwise we’ll drop him at the ASPCA.”
When I caught my breath, I explained that I would definitely take him, but that I was about to leave for Australia for six weeks and I would have to do so when I returned. They wouldn’t wait. I had to scramble and find a place to keep the little guy for six weeks, which was three times longer than I had even had him.
When I went to pick up the rest of his stuff, I met the couple’s sons. They were hysterical. Of course. I asked the man if he was sure he wanted to do this and he just laughed. “Reepy is a one-person dog. We need a family dog.” I kept waiting for him to turn into Cujo or something, but he never did. Though he did make this one person very happy.
One afternoon, about a year after I adopted him, my dog walker Johanna called me at work. I live on a pretty quiet street but she said there had been a big commotion. A homeless man had commandeered a baby carriage away from the mother and all the people from the little coffee shop next door to me were trying to get it back. The guy was leaning into the stroller and screaming “THIS IS NO TIME TO SMOKE CIGARS” right into the baby’s face. It was the biggest news story my block had seen for years. In the midst of this, Reepy’s long flexi-leash had gotten caught up under the stroller and Johanna had to crawl around on the sidewalk to get him loose.
Their walk got weirder still. As soon as she managed to escape the fray, a woman threw herself on the ground, at dog eye level, and started crying. “Reepy! Can you ever forgive me? I was the only one who ever loved you.” It was the wife…the one who wanted me to take him immediately the year before. She asked Johanna to tell me that her husband had died. She wanted me to bring Reepy over to play with the boys.
Talk about an ethical problem. Mercifully when I called I got her answering machine. I left a message saying how sorry I was about her husband, but that it would be confusing for both the boys and the dog if I brought Reepy over to their house. Of course the boys were welcome to come to mine anytime. And if that made her uncomfortable, I’d gladly bring Reepy to a dog park where they could play with him. She never returned my call.
Reepy and I spent ten more years together, until he was nearly 16. We never walked by his old house. Someone once told me that while every other dog wants one of four things: to play, be petted, go out or be fed, Reepy was far more complex. He certainly was an oddly private dog. Cat owners are always proudly insistent that their cats are like dogs but I’m sadly aware that my dog was far more like a cat. Countless times I would go into a room where he was, he’d raise his head, look at me, then get up and walk inside. That’s actually pretty funny, even though I did always notice that our relationship had some sort of a unfortunate parallel to my love life.
But I’m cool with that. At least we had a straight-forward understanding. None of those licks that people so easily misinterpret. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a person projects human feelings onto their dog. It’s obviously nicer to hear “I love you” than “throw up some food.” And it’s probably human nature to want to believe that the object of your affection feels the same way you do. I’m not sure why this whole dog-lick story got to me. For someone who loves kissing and loves dogs and who is often guilty of projecting feelings onto others, dog licks should be one of my favorite things around instead of one of the most distasteful.
But maybe it makes sense; these days I’m aiming for transparency with those I love. I guarantee if you’re ever kissed by me when you walk through my door, I’m happy to see you, I’ve missed you and I love you. And, please, no regurgitated food.