The famous American preacher Henry Ward Beecher called the dog “the god of frolic.” Gilda Radner, probably with Beecher’s happy canine in mind, said that a dog is a “role model for being alive,” while Czech novelist Milan Kundera saw in dogs a calmer spirituality:
Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring--it was peace.
Of course, anyone claiming to be “not a dog person” will dismiss these opinions. I see before my mind’s eye now this not-a-dog person. He or she recoils with a shuddering, fastidious and contemptuous expression at the very idea, let alone the presence, of a dog. “Your dog doesn’t love you,” one such person took great pains to explain to me, hoping to purge my thinking of ignorant delusions. “The dog is just using you.” Well, if we’re going to be that cynical, we might as well think the same thing about human beings--that the baby “loves” parents only for needed protection; that parents “love” children so they can think of themselves as existing past the grave; that brothers and sisters “love” one another because there is safety in numbers; and that romantic “love” is nothing but a guarantee of sexual availability and a hedge against existential dread. It’s so easy to be a cynic—why stop with dogs?
Not all not-a-dog people are cynics tout court, and I realize that many of them find joy in cats or birds or music or art or all of the foregoing. It’s just that, for some unfathomable reason, they draw the line at dogs. They begin sentences with, “The trouble with dogs is....” Well, you can find “trouble” anywhere, if that’s what you’re determined to find. I just don’t see why anyone would want to point out “trouble” in what is for me a source of joy. Cats are good, cats are beautiful, and I’m not out to find “the trouble with cats” or to heap scorn on tropical fish fanciers, either. If a pet snail can open up worlds, surely dogs are not the be-all and end-all of attachment to life. Oh, but my dog...!
She does so much more than getting me out of my head. She gets me outdoors, and she keeps pace with me in my rambles, however long we're out, no matter how far far we go, and that’s what I need to escape cynicism and depression and irony—not a retreat into my shell but a companion to take me out of it, physically and emotionally as well as mentally. Born to run, my dog is most alive outdoors, and seeing her happy is such a great pleasure to me that I can't help being happy, too. But whenever I change direction, she turns and follows swiftly, and if I lie down in the grass and close my eyes, a few moments later I will feel her breath on my face. We can, as Kundera notes, sit and do nothing for long stretches of happy time, or we can hike and hike and hike until we come home exhausted. She’s up for it either way.
As long as there are dogs in the world, the species with whom ours co-evolved, who can despair of life? Whenever those messages of despair begin coming in too thickly, that’s when I need to get outdoors with my dog, my personal ode to joy. We are both alive, right now, with health and mobility to make the most of life. This won't last forever, for either one of us, and that's all the more reason to celebrate it now.