I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts. — John Steinbeck
‘I’m going to ask you both to sit in the back, because Riley doesn’t like to sit anywhere else — this is his seat,” Robert said. I chuckled at my father-in-law’s jest and then smiled at David, as if to say, you go ahead and ride shotgun, I’m fine with the backseat. But rather than nodding and heading for the passenger side of the jeep, David opened the door behind the driver’s seat and shot me a glance before rolling his eyes, at which point I realized no joke had been intended — Robert, who had come to collect us from the ferry we take twice a year to the island on which my parents-in-law live, expected us to ride bitch so his new bichon frisé could sit beside him up front. David and I were happy, albeit a bit bamboozled, to oblige.
When I first met my man’s parents, they had a shepherd mutt named Murdoch, who, though a part of the family, was considered to be incontrovertibly canine. Everyone mourned the day Robert had to take Murdoch to the vet for the last time. David’s sister Michelle, Murdoch’s original proprietress, officiated a stirring burial ceremony in her parents’ backyard. As sorrowful as it was to lose the pooch, at no point in the dog’s life or death did anyone elevate Murdoch to the rank of personhood. My in-laws hadn't had Riley for six months, and, already, dog was Robert’s copilot.
Of my man’s Hungarian clan, it was only David’s aunt Judith who was known to have a penchant for extreme anthropomorphizing. Mikey, her Yorkshire terrier, was not a teacup toy accessory but a furry elfin child. I never met Mikey, but I remember the outpouring of support for Judith when her companion died unexpectedly. I also recall how quickly she sought her beloved boy’s successor, a puppy of the same make and model that she named Nicholas Alexander. Judith’s preoccupation with each of her hirsute “sons” (of which I believe there have been five) has engendered a fair amount of razzing from those around her. Even her sister, Ency, has been known to occasionally seize the opportunity to draw attention to a given Yorkshire’s evident dogginess. Which is one of the reasons I was so flummoxed to witness the way my in-laws were pampering their new pup.
Judith, with her perpetual escort scuttling at her feet, arrived later on the same afternoon as we did. An onslaught of summer rain had made the drive from her home in Philadelphia more arduous, but Judith assured us that Nikki — a lover of road trips — had helped pass the time. Once inside the door, Judith paused and used a towel hanging by the entrance to wipe down each of Nikki’s paws, which had been dampened by the ten-foot sprint through the saturated grass between her car and the house. Before I had a chance to speculate as to why the towel had been there in the first place, Ency rushed forth to crouch and give Riley a rubdown from head to paw. (To mark the occasion of Judith’s arrival, the shaggy white mop of an animal had run outside yapping, tainting his tootsies in the process.)
At the dinner table, Ency, Robert, and Judith spoke as many words to the pooches milling about under our chairs as they did to each other. At one point, while in the middle of answering a question posed by David, Judith suddenly turned her head to the floor at her side and said, in her Hungarian-accented drawl, “Listen, you little beggar, doesn’t your mother feed you?” In response to his monarch’s attention, Nikki pogo’d on his hind legs four or five times, his head appearing over the edge of the table, disappearing, appearing again, and so on, until he gained enough momentum to propel himself high enough to land on Judith’s lap. With the creature in plain view, the thread David had begun to weave into desirable discourse was dropped, and the table-talk turned dog, infusing David’s elders with a youthful exuberance.
To illustrate their assertion that Riley doesn’t care for playing, Robert and Ency explained how, at a neighbor’s party, Riley snubbed another pup’s attempts to engage him. This prompted Judith to expound upon Nikki’s enthusiasm for fetching toys. After the comparison of preferred puppy leisure activities came a chain of anecdotes featuring sleeping schedules and eating habits.
While the others were caught up in an especially ardent moment of dog-parent bonding, I turned to David and said, “Remind you of anything?” I was referring to a few select visits we’d had with my family that — in the course of our nightly musings — we’d concluded had been blighted by baby-centricity.
“Yeah,” David whispered back while everyone else at the table was preoccupied with the adorability Riley had achieved — his ear had flopped into an unnatural position over the top of his head after he’d gone to town scratching at what was likely some kind of insect infestation. “But at least babies actually are people.”
I thought of the dog owners I know and realized that most don’t discipline their pets so much as attempt to reason with them. My friend Skye once took 20 minutes (during a soiree she was hosting) to admonish her pups before lecturing them on the merits of good manners. Rosa and Josue use biscuits to bargain with their furry boy, Chucho, a mini schnauzer for whom they purchase clothes at Baby Gap. Ency and Robert actually seem to expect answers after querying Riley. And Judith, leading the pack, concentrated all her maternal instincts onto a son so small she can carry him in her purse.
As much fun as it is to mock, a part of me is envious of these puppy-parent relationships. I too would someday like to keep a hairy confidant, to have a devoted follower. I thought how wonderful it would be to have a living being whose sole purpose in life is to love me, without question.