Savvy begins to bark before I even have my tennis shoes all the way on. She’s excited! We’re going to the dog park! Hurry up! Time for a walk! It drives my husband crazy, but usually I laugh at her. She barks when I call her to get her harness on, asking her to lift first one front leg and then the other so I can fasten it. She barks when I check to see if I have clean-up bags, and when I fasten her leash, and when I open the front door.
Then she stands on the small front porch, the wind lifting her ears, and just waits for a moment. She’s taking in the day, readying herself. It’s a rare moment of calm.
Savvy is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a long royal name for a 20-pound dog who’s cuter than she is smart. She’s a lapdog with long, fine fur that collects every dead leaf, weed seed, and cocklebur within a mile.
I inherited her from my mother. My mother had three dogs when she died, and my sister took two of them—the Cocker Spaniel and the Bichon Frise, both senior dogs. I took Savvy, who was three. My sister and I both had dogs of our own, but we managed, for years, with multi-dog households. Now I just have Savvy, over thirteen years old but still happy.
Before we even get into the dog park, Savvy has to smell all the places the other dogs marked on their way in. One of my friends joked that it’s like dog social media, with each new lift of the leg being a “like” on some busy post (often literal) filled with information only the dogs can read.
Inside the gates and let off her leash, she continues checking old news, even when other dogs are right in front of her. Meanwhile I gauge the other dogs for the likelihood of them coming over to be patted. Most adult dogs are too busy with their own smell duties, or investigating other dogs, or watching the ball in their owner’s hand. But young ones—oh, the puppies will come to you in all their goofy clumsiness, wagging their tails and doling out kisses. That’s the biggest payoff at the dog park, the one I tell my sister about on the phone. “A Golden Retriever puppy?” she’ll say. “Did you get a picture?”
My husband—my 2nd husband, who I’ve known for 4 years—has a cat. When we first got married, I had two dogs and he had two cats. They managed together surprisingly well, my oldest dog too old to chase, and his oldest cat too old to run. Now Savvy and the remaining cat are the only two pets, and though they are both spoiled enough to want my undivided attention, they mostly like each other. My husband would say that the cat tolerates the dog, but I have seen them lying next to each other, seemingly comfortable in proximity.
If you’re not a pet person, you might ask, “Why does all this matter? Details about dogs and cats—their breeds, their ages, who you had when, their personalities, how you got them. Who cares?”
If you’re a pet person, no reason is necessary. Any opportunity to talk about pets, to think about pets, is something to grasp onto. You know what pets give you: the perfect example of mindfulness, of living in the moment. The unconditional, unfettered love. The daily teachings in how to be both hopeful and grateful.
But here’s the real reason all these details matter: when you have pets, your life is measured by them. Savvy belonged to my mother. Savvy loves everyone, and expects everyone to love her, but she prefers her One Special Person. My mother was Savvy’s person, and now I am. In this way, among others, I have become my mother. In this way, my mother’s love is still with me, daily, physically, on my lap and in muddy paw prints on my clothes.
But our losses and griefs are also measured by our pets. I had Savvy when I was still married to my first husband, someone who is, luckily, still my good friend, but also still a loss. My current husband had this cat when he was still married to his first wife. These shorter, furry lives overlap our other milestones. They’re woven through the other connections and disconnections, the other timelines marked by apartments or schools or jobs or presidents.
I recite a litany of the dogs in my life, telling my husband about them, in order from the first one I remember: Sergeant, Hawk, Amber, Briar, Andrew, Bonny, Mick, Ginger, Charlie, Savvy. And that doesn’t count the dogs owned by my family members, dogs I also loved. They come up in conversation—old friends who knew my old self. Sometimes I dream one is still alive, but only I can see him. Sometimes I dream they are all out in the back yard, waiting for me to come outside.
My husband considered himself a cat person, his last dog a German Shepherd that his family had when he was a kid. His mother was a veterinarian, so they had dogs and cats and even the occasional bird—rook or hawk—in and around their house. She tucked the needy puppies into bed with his brother; the sick kittens in with him. So when I showed up with my two spaniels, he thought he would be nice but distant; as he cleans the litter box, so I would do everything dog-related.
But he finds himself holding spaniel ears while Savvy licks a plate on which cooked lamb was placed, because otherwise her ears would drag in the juice. When there’s a thunderstorm, Savvy makes her way across the bed to his pillow, lying across the top of his head. And at the dog park, when she insists on getting in the muddy, stinky pond—channeling her inner Golden Retriever, I always say—he remarks on her cheekiness, saying she’s a different dog from the overly sensitive, fearful little thing he remembers. He doesn’t know that it’s he who has changed, seeing her differently as he becomes fond of her.
Sometimes we talk about what sort of pets to get in the future, after these two are gone. It used to be him persuading me of the virtues of cats, and me insisting we needed one consistent pet in the house, one that wanted attention when I wanted to give it. But now he picks out his favorites of the dogs we meet. One day it’s a huge gentle Rottweiler, holding back his strength as he play-wrestles with another dog; another it’s a bouncy mutt who would need multiple daily trips to the dog park to release her energy. It’s the walks that have convinced him, the need to exercise the Funny Little Red Dog meaning we have no excuse to stay on our butts in front of the tv.
I know what year it is. I know that I am living in an America perilously close to the kind of authoritarianism that has caused oppression and death in other countries within the modern era. I feel that fear and dread and anger—equality no longer even the stated goal of those in charge, civil rights curtailed, bigots and bullies emboldened, climate change hanging over us all like a bowling ball dangling from fishing line.
It is precisely because of this that I must go to the dog park, explaining to every person I meet that Savvy barks because she’s happy. She barks a lot in the dog park, especially when she’s about to meet another dog. I’m a little embarrassed about her barking, when almost none of the other dogs bark, but going to the dog park is worth it. She’s so happy! Everything’s exciting! She has to tell everyone about it! And I have the power to make her this happy, just by bringing her here!
And on every dog’s face there, in their movements as they form loose playgroups and swirl around owners with tennis balls or sticks thrown into the ponds, is joy. We humans cannot help but be infected. So much doggy joy! I cannot live without it.