I recently got a taste of an alternate life, a glimpse of the road not taken, of endless frolicking and warm companionship, but also lots and lots of drool. For a fleeting 48 hours, ours was a two-canine household.
Double the pleasure, double the poop.
The extra dog was a mutt named Hendrix. She was brown of fur to our Charlie’s black, about 50 pounds to his 75 and, most tellingly, 5 years old to his nearly 14. Charlie spent a lot of the weekend looking at her and thinking, “What’s the hurry? Settle down.”
Hendrix, a female Labrador-Vizsla mix, belongs to friends Mariah and Brad, who went away the weekend before last. We were happy to dogsit, curious how Charlie would react to another dog in the house. At first, each pooch was unsure what was going on. Hendrix spent the first two hours sitting by the front door, whimpering, apparently missing her owners. Charlie would give me a look that said, “And what is this all about, exactly? Is this a temporary thing? Permanent?”
Soon there was détente. The two dogs never fought, but they didn’t cuddle up together like bosom kin, either. Perhaps they felt more like cellmates, resigned to their condition: “Okay, to make this work, that’s gonna be your side and this is gonna be my side.”
And yet they were sufficiently comfortable together that twice they did what I like to call “crazy dog.” That’s when I rile Charlie up so much — rubbing his back, slapping my knees, running figure 8’s in the backyard — that some switch is tripped in his brain and he tears off like he was shot from a cannon. It’s an example of pure dog id.
Though it bothers my family, I pride myself on being able to reliably cultivate this condition. “Don’t do crazy dog in the house,” My Lovely Wife will say when she sees me eyeing Charlie in a certain way. But the great thing about crazy dog is that you can start it in the house and then rush to the back door and throw it open. Charlie streaks out and pinballs around the yard.
I was afraid Charlie was getting too old for crazy dog, but there he was — his ears back, his eyes wide, his tongue hanging from his mouth like a pink streamer — panting and gamboling with a similarly insane Hendrix.
The difference was that after about five minutes of this, Charlie trotted over to where I was sitting and plopped down, while Hendrix kept going.
She’s a younger, more energetic dog, but it wasn’t just the age difference that set them apart. Having two dogs reminded me that animals have distinct personalities. They see the world and react to it in different ways. Charlie gets excited about his walks, but not in the same way as Hendrix.
When she caught sight of us pulling out her leash she would pogo up and down, so gleeful at the prospect of going out. Hendrix walked with a remarkable intensity, too, head flicking to and fro, laser beam eyes locking onto every suspicious movement within her field of vision. Occasionally she would stop and lift a front leg and crook it at the elbow (do dogs have elbows?), a textbook “point.” She was like that dog in “Up”: Squirrel!
Charlie, on the other hand, is a smeller, not a watcher. He agonizes over every blade of grass, every pile of leaves. Hendrix would pull us along like a sled dog. Charlie was behind us like a sledge.
Even when we sat in the back yard, their differences were on display: Charlie snoozing, Hendrix sitting erect, as if made of porcelain, tensed in case any squirrel might suddenly need dealing with.
People who’ve never had pets might wonder what the point is. Sure, a lot of the benefit has to do with the animal itself: the tactile, blood-pressure-lowering pleasure of having something to stroke. But dogs teach us about humans, too. Taking the time to read the moods of a dog — to recognize the pieces of its personality, to see how it’s different from the nearly identical dog it’s standing next to — is good training for understanding people.
“Once you have two dogs, you may as well get three,” someone told us. “And an air purifier.”
I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that, but there are worse places to be than surrounded by your warm and furry pack.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.