The first time I walked my dog, a pug-dachshund mix, a woman with a well-heeled black terrier cooed, “So cute.” I’m not responsible for the genetic alchemy that resulted in my dog, who’s slightly bigger than a football, but on reflex, I said, “Thank you.” I then paid a compliment to the woman’s dog, and she said, “Thank you.”
We stood quietly while the dogs sniffed each other in lewd places. Then, by some unspoken etiquette about the duration of such encounters, the woman pulled her dog away and walked off. Our dogs parted with knowledge of each other’s last meal, mating mojo, health and social status. I never learned the woman’s name.
My dog, Chula, is five months old. This makes me a newcomer to the nuanced fraternity of American dog walkers. I still haven’t mastered its fundamental codes.
Your role is to be a cautious enabler of your dog’s pheromone-fueled greetings, meetings and platonic trysts on the street. You don’t hit up another dog’s owner for personal information, ego validation, or even a simple, meaningful human exchange. (Or even a banal one.) Small talk, if it happens, is confined to dog affairs, and only canine names are exchanged. This is true even now, in my Democratic city. I suspect many of us are walking our dogs in various states of trauma, seeking safe spaces and trigger-free zones.
I walk Chula along a lake near my home. I’m new to my neighborhood and never know what the fraught dogscape will bring: the walker who avoids eye contact and whisks his dog to the opposite sidewalk; the walker who is towed by her dog toward your dog before you both chaperone, tensely, a brief session of mutual canine huffing; the walker who stops in her tracks, eyes lit with kindness, and asks about your dog’s breed and age.
When I do the same, I learn that her cottony mutt is “a rescue.” By now I understand that, among urban canophiles, rescuing abandoned dogs is the ultimate mitzvah, and these owners walk their charges with redemptive pride. I watch the unsourced dogs greet their pedigreed neighbors without shame, owners permitting.
My education in this particular code among human strangers has progressed awkwardly, with missteps. On one occasion, Chula lunged toward a couple with a 2-month-old golden doodle. The dogs frisked each other and then played tag, snaring the woman in a leash tangle. With enough Twister moves, she freed herself. She shared that she’d just bought her dog and asked if I had any tips. I offered that I knew a great vet. She replied with silence. Chula then squirmed out of her harness and ran circles around the ecstatic doodle. The husband looked perturbed at this wanton play. He picked up his puppy, and we all parted ways, the dogs unhappily.
Our run-ins with unattached, dogless humans are especially instructive. I often look up from Chula’s knee-high sphere when I hear “Hi!” The greeter is invariably addressing her. Variations of this bonhomie include, “Hey, little guy!” and “Hi there, buddy!” If my eyes meet those of the greeter, I’ll disabuse him of the mansumption that Chula, headstrong and confident, is male. But most of the time, I’m not involved.
Occasionally, I attempt a normal human greeting with a fellow dog walker. “Sylvia, right?” I asked on a recent walk, stopping a real estate agent I recognized. “So cute,” she said, looking at Chula. She looked at me quizzically. “Corner house, right?” Before I could answer, she introduced her two dogs, a Yorkshire terrier and a poodle mix. “This is Max and this is Chloe.” She asked what Chula’s name was, and kept on walking.
I’ve noticed that dogs confer a certain degree of rational thinking and civic consciousness on their owners. Chula once dragged me toward a woman with an English lab and a bright-eyed stray. The woman pulled both dogs back. “Sorry, she’s not vaccinated yet,” she said of the stray. “Until she is, I don’t want her near any other dogs.” Refreshingly, anti-vaxxers have no place in the dogsphere.
Also, walkers go about the scatological duties of dog care without a flinch. I’ve grown accustomed to bending down with my little blue bag as other dog walkers look on approvingly. To facilitate our caretaking, my city — Hollywood, Fla. — has erected poop-bag dispensers in a plea for good citizenship.
These are woke, propitious times in which to own a dog. For most of us, they’re not mere hunting assistants waiting for scraps of whatever animal we've just skinned. Today's dog has health insurance, therapists, and accessories. He is the perpetual toddler for anyone who needs a child surrogate — anyone who needs to be grounded in the selfless care of another living being. That would be all of us.
I almost shared these thoughts with another dog walker recently as I walked Chula by the lake. But his Yorkies hauled him onward. Chula, who normalizes nothing, then barked in a panic at a hoverboard rider speeding by. She pulled me toward a young man casting a fishing line. Nearby, a woman on a bench restrained her giddy Afghan hound.
Chula approached, unfazed by the outsize dog. The woman and I looked on as they strained to reach each other, fear and doubt in our eyes. Was it safe? Trigger-free? It was. We gave our dogs some slack, and they met with rapturous joy.
Tal Abbady is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
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