Welcome Back to the Dog House

Field Notices

Luther College Chips
May 8, 2008

Admit it, some of you are relieved that in a matter of days you’ll be back to the dog or cat house: that’s to say, your home, where your dog or cat has been going about his or her dog or cat life while you’ve been away at school.

For a few of you, one difficulty in this week of Spanish 102 has been keeping your mind on lists of irregular verbs when you know that in the kitchen at home your cat has been watching the sink drip when you can’t be there to watch the cat watch the sink drip. And, face it — that hurts.

Save for goldfish and a few illegal stowaways, Luther is a pet-free zone. Since pets lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol, triglycerides and stress in the people who live with them, your health has been in danger since last summer. It’s time to get home to recuperate.

For those of you who live with dogs, going home means getting an excited welcome.

My canine pal, a little lion dog named Willoughby, welcomes me home with a lot of jumping up and down, a bit of prancing in circles as he pumps his front legs in the air, wheeling around the kitchen a couple of times yipping and cutting capers, and looking for the nearest throwing toy so we can get some serious playtime going.

My human pals, at least those older than three, are less demonstrative.

My dog’s unconditional joy in my company, in walks and in trips to Grandma’s (where he is treated like dog king for a day) makes up for plenty of bad behavior on his part. (Believe me, the word “plenty” would sometimes scarcely touch it.) But the second reason I love living with a dog is the window he opens for me into a doggy world.

Willoughby’s world is first and foremost a world of smells. He knows when another dog, out for a walk with its owner, gets within half a block of our house. When he runs to the window barking, it’s to let that other dog know that his nose is not on vacation.

When we go for a morning walk up the path through the woods behind our house, I casually take in the view. Willoughby, on the pulling end of his long leash, is racing from one sniffing point to another, terribly serious about his duty of adding a squirt of pee to the daily message post. With only a few breaks to raise his nose up to catch the wind, he runs nose to the ground, where he is reading the morning news post of the previous 12 hours’ comings and goings of other dogs, deer, rabbits, weasels, skunks and squirrels.

After smell, Willoughby’s world is a world of sound. He knows, for example, from a certain engine noise and the barking of dogs in some distant quarter of our neighborhood that the mailman is about to trespass again across the family porch.

My dog’s ears also help me listen to myself more knowingly. He knows the sound of opening the drawer where I keep his leash, the sound of the scoop in his dog food, the sound of the door where I keep my coat and the sound of me picking up my car keys. When I see him looking anxious, I sometimes realize it is because my pace has picked up around the house as I get ready to leave the house for work, a sign to him that he’s about to be left alone for the day.

Even without smell and sound, dogs tune into a world far different than our own. Before Willoughby came along, my family shared the house with a tightly wired little Papillon named Tippy, who by his 13th year was hard of sight and hearing.

For all of that, Tippy would scratch at the door so he could be waiting outside when I arrived home. That only begins to seem strange when I tell you that it happened any time of day or night, whether I was driving, walking or biking and that I am a creature of somewhat irregular getting-home habits.

Smell and some additional sense, unsensible to humans, gave my aging Papillon his clue.

With this column, this year, I’ve attempted to enlarge the window on the more-than-human world around you. As you leave for the year or maybe for your adult wage-earning life beyond the Luther bubble, keep the window open by watching that dog or cat.

Having done that, look to some of the other winged or furry company around you. And then to the green growing things in your neighborhood. That accomplished, welcome back to the big natural household we are all meant to call home.