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Personal Essays


What Is It, Boy?

When a beloved companion dies, existential crises loom. Tracing the history of Neptune, a mixed Australian Shepherd, all the way back to the dawn of mammals.

On Labor Day weekend, 1994, my wife and I decided it was time to get a dog. It was a first for both of us, but we were determined our daughters—then ages 7 and 11—would grow up with one. It was, after all, the American way. We went to the closest animal shelter—in Brookline, Mass.—and walked up and down the cold cement aisles, gazing through the chain-link doors at the nervous, barking inhabitants in their sad little cement-walled pens. Then there he was, sitting quiet and alert, with yearning eyes. Like he had been waiting for us. Maybe he sensed the unpleasant consequence in store if we hadn’t come along.

Neptune, a year old when we adopted him, was a mixed Australian Shepherd. He was nearly the dark golden brown of an Irish Setter and had the bushy curved tail of a Husky. The face was unmistakably Shepherd—long, pointed nose and emotive eyes. But unlike Shepherds, the ears were floppy. His best feature was a big, lit-up grin. In short order, we hopelessly fell for this charismatic mixed breed and signed Neptune’s adoption papers—just as he planned it—and our dog years began.

There were over a dozen of those years, eventful ones, and Neptune kept each of us saner and happier than we would have been otherwise. When I lost a job and the house was full of worry and doubt, Neptune kept me company as I sent out résumés, and let me blow off steam by throwing sticks that were tirelessly retrieved. When one of our daughters ran crying to her room because she couldn’t go to sleep-away camp with her best friend, Neptune followed and licked the tears off her cheeks, staying with her until she calmed down. He remained positive as we lived through one child’s life-threatening illness and a disruptive move from one state to another. And he stayed the same as we put one kid through college and saw the other off to freshman year. Neptune was our homebound Peter Pan. The seasons turned, the children grew, wars came and went, as did presidents, but the dog was constant. For as long as Neptune remained unchanged, time stopped, and we could romp on the floor together. Unlike rebellious children, Neptune never rejected, never acted slighted, and patiently endured boredom. Long after my kids stopped running to the door to greet Dad after a day’s work Neptune still came bounding through the house to say hello. Year after year, he shepherded us and licked our wounds.

Then, he suddenly became ill, yet hung in gamely for nearly a year as my wife and I adjusted to a nest that wasn’t empty, because he was there.

Last winter, at age 14—going on 90, in canine years—Neptune developed an inoperable tumor. Fluid collected in his chest cavity, making it difficult for him to breathe. Our vet discussed the options. She had gotten to know Neptune well. We’d seen her a number of times to treat his myasthenia gravis, a degenerative neuromuscular disease. When it came to talk of whether or not to put him down, she hesitated a moment and looked at Neptune who was staring up in his usual searching, optimistic way. She swallowed hard, and couldn’t talk. Tears welled in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “This never happens to me. It’s just that he’s…” She couldn’t finish the thought. I think she wanted to say, “he’s such a good boy.” She swallowed hard and left the antiseptic exam room to compose herself.

We decided to drain the fluid from Neptune’s chest and hope for the best, but this procedure only gave a few days of relief. On a bitter cold day, he refused breakfast for the first time. His every breath was a wheeze and, as we went together for the morning paper, his legs collapsed under him. When my wife and I went to the veterinary office to put a merciful end to his troubles, I was only glad his usual vet wasn’t on duty to inject sodium pentobarbital into the dog who’d pierced that cool, professional veil and made her weep. That would have made three of us.


* * *

Like all dogs, Neptune’s story begins at the dawn of the age of mammals, when a carnivorous creature emerged that was small and weasel-like—the Miacid. Miacids turned out to be highly successful, and over the millennia adapted to life in multiple environments, both at sea (seals, sea lions, walruses) and on land, in seven families—raccoons, bears, weasels, genets, hyenas, canids (dogs) and cats. It may irk those who love dogs but not cats, or vice versa, but these two species are actually cousins, with one common ancestor.

Miacids evolved to become more and more intelligent, which makes sense: Miacids could not always outrun prey—so the ones who survived had to outsmart them. For instance, over time they learned that teams hunt more effectively than individuals by splitting up tasks such as chasing, lying in wait, and so on. The result was longer development time for a pup to grow its brain bigger, as well as learn complex pack and hunting behaviors.

Fierce dogs of war were one form of domestication. Other forms were, typically, more pastoral.The Miacid family tree branched into an ancient canid about 35 million years ago with a creature that was bear-, cat-, and hyena-like. Eventually, this animal diverged into the ancestors of our foxes, wolves, and jackals. The first clear fossil record of a distinct wolf was 5 million years ago—not terribly far back, from the standpoint of evolution.

The first year or so with Neptune, I’d remark how unfair it was that this descendent of wolves and sheepherders, this barrel-chested, fleet-footed, 60-pound dynamo was cooped up all day. “We ought to go live on a farm with him,” I joked a few times. Soon, the joke got stale and I forgot my own little admonition, but somehow I don’t think Neptune did. He would amble over, day after day, one year after the next, put a paw in my lap and search my face. “What is it, boy?” I’d ask, rhetorically…comically. But now, I wonder, what were those wolf eyes asking me?

Textbooks and popular non-fiction from the last century claimed that 100,000 or more years ago our ancestors likely adopted wolf pups, tamed them, and raised them to help in the hunt. And presto, wolves became dogs. The problem is, there’s never been hard evidence to support this. The earliest known fossil remains that show dogs cohabiting with humans are only 15,000 years old. In addition, researchers have made strenuous efforts to tame wolves, to little avail. The idea that early humans would spend inordinate amounts of time and energy to succeed at this thankless task seems unlikely.

A more convincing theory of dog evolution has emerged recently, proposed by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, prominent biologists and champion dog breeders. Their book, Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution (University of Chicago Press, 2001) asserts that 15,000 years ago, as the last ice age waned, Neolithic hunters and gatherers began to create more permanent settlements. These early villages produced what can be called the world’s first garbage dumps. Dumps are, naturally, an attractive food source for scavengers. And, as the theory goes, a certain set of wolves looking for an easy meal began to forage nearby. The more successful dump-scavenging wolves were less prone to being scared off by human proximity and begat generations of other, progressively tamer wolves. Indeed, genetic selection for relative tameness is how evolution may have naturally turned wolves into dogs. If this is the case, dogs have only been around for an evolutionary eye-blink.

As the Coppingers also point out, the majority of dogs in the world today still do not live in subdivisions or condos. Ethologists call them “village dogs.” They live on every continent in great numbers, skimming off people’s leavings the way they probably have for thousands of years. They hang around people but don’t “belong” to them, the way we tend to think of it, nor are they mutts or half-breeds. In every area where these dogs are well established, they’re a remarkably consistent size and shape, and weigh about 25-30 pounds. They are, in a real sense, their own breed—and may hold the clue to what the first dogs quickly evolved to be: the smaller, more docile, more dependent and therefore less intelligent descendants of the wolf. Of course, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know with complete certainty how and when people and dogs first got together. But even among those who disagree about the timing and method of dog origins, the fossil record is pretty definitive: dogs were the first domesticated animals.


* * *

Picture this: warriors on horseback gather for a pre-dawn raid on a princely state in northern India, thousands of years ago. They send a first wave of horsemen through the dark toward the town’s walled fortress. Suddenly, a gate opens and out charge a pack of huge mastiffs, each outfitted with a flaming torch attached to their body armor. The dogs’ fiery apparatus spook the horses and turn the assault to chaos.

Fierce dogs of war were one form of domestication. Other forms were, typically, more pastoral. It must have astonished our Neolithic ancestors how these animals could be trained for immensely useful work—herding and guarding livestock, hunting and retrieving game, and pulling sleds. It has been argued that our transition to an agrarian civilization was accelerated, or even enabled, by the ability of dogs to help us command large herds of animals. No wonder, then, why people developed an abiding passion for dogs.

Too, there is something ineffable about dogs that have led us to attribute mystical qualities to them. Buddhists believe dogs are emanations of Maitreya, the future Buddha-to-come. In ancient China, the Pekingese was bred in order to resemble a miniature lion—an animal sacred to Buddhism—and could only be owned by the royal family. Anyone caught stealing one would be put to death. There are dozens of myths and legends that celebrate dogs; from Cerberus in Greek myth guarding the gates of Hell to Shishi in Japanese legend guarding the earthly household. Not to mention the entire Call of the Wild genre of literature and film devoted to these soulful creatures.

Dogs are marvelously plastic. Canis familiaris has an astounding ability to be bred into a riot of diversity.Dogs have talents that science still can’t explain. Minutes before an earthquake, some dogs yowl in anticipation. One guess is that they may sense a change in the earth’s magnetic field. Other dogs exhibit remarkable homing abilities. A few years ago, a man from Ohio adopted a mixed breed named Rocky. He took Rocky with him when he relocated to Arkansas, then went back to Ohio for a visit, leaving his dog with friends. It took Rocky six months, but he traveled over 800 miles and found his way back to Ohio. Nobody has been able to figure out how such a feat is possible: one theory is that dogs may be tuned into some kind of celestial navigation.

There’s little question these steadfast animals have the power to make us healthier. Simple tests have shown that just petting a dog lowers your blood pressure. A more elaborate experiment tracked heart attack victims—those who had dogs survived far longer, on average, than those without. Then there’s the story of a prison in Ohio for the criminally insane: a shocking 85 percent of inmates had tried to commit suicide. A bright administrator said, why don’t we bring shelter dogs into some of the wards and see if we can calm people down. Seven years later, in the wards that had dogs, the total number of suicide attempts was zero.

Which brings me back to that one soulful descendant of earth’s first carnivore who I knew best, putting his paw in my lap—after his dinner, after his walk.

“What is it, boy? What is it?”

“He could be so happy with so little,” one of my girls recalled. A bowl of kibble. Fleeting moments of love and affection. Indeed, so little it’s enough to make me look back with more than a pang of guilt.


* * *

The definition of what a good life is for a dog has evolved in awfully strange ways, conditioned by our way of life, and by our conception of the dog-human relationship, which changed in Victorian times. In mid-1800s England, there was a growing middle class with time for leisure and a desire for status. A catalyzing event occurred: in April 1861, Queen Victoria received two exotic Pekingese from a Captain Hart Dunne, who rescued them from the royal palace in Beijing (then known as Peking). The Chinese attempted to kill the sacred dogs to avoid their being captured by foreigners. The Queen’s adoption and breeding of these survivors accelerated the paradigm shift toward status-oriented dog ownership, one that reverberates to this day: the dog as a valued aesthetic object, rather than a practical work animal. Fast-forward 150 years and you see the spawn of this historical backdrop: the rage for odd-looking, unhealthy “designer dogs” serving as arm candy for the rich, the famous, and the wannabes.

A Victorian-era writer in Harper’s magazine, back in 1867, asserted that we hold toward dogs “the same position that God does toward man.” This strikes me as both a true and unsettling thought. We do, after all, enjoy mastery over a fellow creature in a world we largely cannot control—dependent as we are on political, economic, and social forces, on accidents of birth and history, on acts of Nature or God. Maybe that’s why we’ve bred dogs into any number of strange forms, giving us the illusion of power and omnipotence.

I can’t regret how much he gave us, how he helped us keep our sanity. Neptune played his symbiotic part with grace. Better, it turned out, than we played ours.Dogs are marvelously plastic. Canis familiaris has an astounding ability to be bred into a riot of diversity. Over millennia, we’ve taken mutations—large or dwarfish or just odd-shaped or colored dogs—and bred them into everything from the 150-pound Newfoundland to the 2-pound Chihuahua. Another reason for this variety is that canids can all interbreed—a wild jackal could have his way with a domestic schnauzer—and they are relatively easy to hybridize. Take the Doberman Pinscher, a breed created in the early 20th century by German tax collector Ludwig Dobermann. He wanted a large, powerful, intelligent dog for guard and police work. So he mated various breeds—the short-haired Pinscher, plus Rottweilers, Shepherds and Terriers—until he got the imposing mix he wanted. But in the past century, this human mania for breeding dogs has gone way over the top. There are over 400 distinct dog breeds today—a majority of them a result of less than 150 years of breeding. And new mixes are created all the time. You’ve doubtless heard of the “designer dog” Labradoodle and Puggle craze, in which Poodles are crossed with Labradors or Pugs with Beagles. But playing god with dogs has its perils.

Adopting a dog for its style quotient and a price tag bigger than thy neighbor’s pooch can backlash. Consider: Pugs whose faces are so flat they have trouble breathing; dogs so unnaturally large they live only a few years; bulldogs bred into a shape that prohibits natural conception (they’re artificially inseminated and give birth by C-section); numerous breeds with such limited gene pools, hip disease, and other debilitating conditions are on the increase. Not all dogs take their benighted lives lying down. There are 5 million reported dog bites a year in the U.S. It’s been estimated that up to 70 percent of all dogs brought to shelters are there due to behavior issues. According to PETA, roughly half of the six to eight million dogs and cats brought to shelters each year are euthanized. As the Coppingers conclude in their book, “of the four hundred million dogs in the world, only a tiny percentage have a truly mutual relationship with people.”


* * *

Even when we scientifically understand a dog’s abilities, we have to marvel at them. Dogs have a sensory area inside the nose that is 14 times larger than ours, packed with 220 million smell-sensitive cells, compared to our paltry five million. And when they use this sense on one another, they compile a load of data: mutual sniffing identifies each dog’s sexual status, age, and even mood. Medical researchers are using the dog’s exceptional sense of smell to detect the presence of cancer—if these experiments pan out, trained dogs could let you know if you’re going to get sick, perhaps sooner and with greater accuracy than lab tests.

A dog’s hearing is remarkable as well, of course. Not only can they hear at much higher and lower frequencies then we can, dogs can also hear sounds up to four times further away. Eighteen muscles in a dog’s ear position it for optimum listening. Neptune’s floppy ears would often spring to attention, much to our amusement. He would sit up sharply as a sound we couldn’t hear from the woods behind the house made him alert, ears tilted sideways and nose twitching because through the walls, he detected the faint sound and smell of a scurrying creature in the dark.

Neptune’s life, I’ve come to realize, was lived in an all-too-shadowy, marginal way. Not tragic, exactly, but far removed from the shepherding life he was built to live. I can’t regret how much he gave us, how he helped us keep our sanity. Neptune played his symbiotic part with grace. Better, it turned out, than we played ours. What I do regret is that, given the life we lead, all we could give him was a lonely suburban pen, three walks a day, pats on the head, and dog chow. But we couldn’t offer him anything that truly resembled authenticity. All told, it was an unsuitable life, one he nonetheless managed to live with dignity.

Ten years ago, I took Neptune on a weekend trip to western Massachusetts. We met up with my two brothers in Sheffield and rented a dog-friendly cabin. The first day, we took a hike up Mount Race. Neptune followed the way dogs do: by shepherding us, racing back and forth, up and back. If we walked five miles, he ran 15. He’d go crashing off the trail, into the woods, following a scent, only to come charging back, full of mischief and with burrs in his coat. When the path grew steep and we slowed up, he’d look down from above, barking with encouragement. As though he was telling us to stick together and to hurry, because there was so much to see, to smell, and to hear. At the top of the mountain he lapped water from my hand and was ready, eager to go again. Go. Go. Let’s go.

“What is it, boy?”

Perhaps that was it. That day on the mountain. The most soulful, authentic, happiest day in good Neptune’s choke-collared, loving life.

Michael Solow’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Review of Books, and The Morning News. Married, father of two girls, corporate dropout, and now going back into teaching English after a short, 30-year hiatus. He lives in northern Virginia and can be reached at More by Michael Solow