Ralph Gardner Jr: The Presence Of Pets

Feb 16, 2019

Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.

There are words in other languages that nail aspects of the human experience and for which there are no English equivalents.

For example, “Shouganai” in Japanese, apologies for my pronunciation to any Japanese speakers. It roughly means something that can’t be helped so why worry about it.

Or “Komorebi,” another Japanese word. This one means the interplay of light and leaves when sunlight shines through trees.

Or “Mangata,” the Swedish word for the shimmering reflection of the moon on water.

Another experience for which I’ve yet to stumble across a one-word description in English or any other language, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, is the subliminal presence of pets.

Last week I happened to be in city alone, without my wife or our dog Wallie.

I don’t mean to suggest I missed Wallie more. But her absence is felt more viscerally. Part of the explanation probably has something to do with the predictability of pets, the familiarity of their cadences. For example, the fuss they make when you walk through the front door.

That doesn’t mean my wife is unhappy to see me. However, I haven’t known her to drop whatever she’s doing to rush over and greet me.

But it’s not just the welcoming experience.

There’s a certain profundity about the presence of a pet even when they’re not doing anything. Sleeping, for instance.

It’s the companionship, the reassurance of another breathing soul in one’s life.

Maybe it has something to do with the essence of the relationship between a human and an animal since it’s largely non-verbal. It’s as much felt in silence as in sound.

It’s the realization that they’re going about their own lives as you go about yours in a shared space.

I suppose that applies equally to a human roommate. Perhaps the difference is that a pet is dependent on you in a way that a person, who can fend for himself or herself more or less, isn’t.

You know you’re responsible for their wellbeing so that even when you’re not engaged with them they’re subconsciously on your mind. 

Yet that dependency, though to describe it as such denigrates the mutuality of the experience, that connection, goes both ways.

Wallie is never freer or seemingly more ebullient than when we’re taking walks in the woods. To travel the woods without her is a less joyous experience. Perhaps because she’s a hound, a so-called working dog, who feels she’s finally getting to exercise not just her body but also her destiny when she’s out there tracking down animal scents.

Her canter is a joy to behold. She can also accelerate approximately as fast as a deer and frequently does. It would be fun to pin a pedometer to her because I suspect that on our average hour-long walk she travels fifty times my distance coming and going, coming and going.

Her breed and breeding also likely has something to do with the peculiar mark she leaves on our lives.

She’s a Bracco Italiano, a gun dog, with the long floppy ears and folds of flesh reminiscent of a blood hound, but more delicate. She’s described on the American Kennel Club website as one of the oldest pointing breeds, developed in Northern Italy. Her mission in life is to identify prey and then retrieve it.

I don’t know how many other breeds do this: when you return home she greets you not just with a wagging tail but also with a gift in her mouth. A toy, a bone, a stolen sock. Accompanied by a low guttural sound that could be mistaken for a growl if you didn’t know her better.

She’s seeking acknowledgement for her offering. Perhaps because she’s a frustrated hunter.

I might have attributed Wallie’s peculiar behavior to her and her alone until we visited another Bracco and saw that dog behaved in precisely the same way.

But whatever the nature of that companionship Wallie provides, it’s felt as profoundly in the woods as in our apartment in the city or house upstate.

As I said, a walk through the forest is lonelier without her, even though she’s absent much of the time, off doing her own thing – sniffing, running, barking if she thinks she’s cornered a chipmunk in a hollowed out tree or the crevice of a stone fence, and most aromatically of all, shoulder diving into a pile of deer droppings.

I carry a leash to corral her when we’re crossing into the woods from one side of the town road to the other. But you can tell it’s a crushing blow to her ego. The compensation comes when you successfully navigate that passage, release her, and watch her bounding off into the woods again.

The word for that is freedom.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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