On What It Means to Be a Dog

Last week we watched a friend’s dog. And while I’ve met many dogs over the span of my twenty-four years, this old guy made me think twice about what it means to have a dog, and in return, what it means to be one.

See, Sonny is all dog. He woke us up each morning with a thorough tongue bath, chased the cat, insisted on snuggling up in bed with us, and danced at the mention of a walk or car ride. I realized that I really liked most of those things about him (except maybe chasing the cat). They fulfilled my expectations about how he should act–like a dog.


This might sound obvious and rather pointless–yes Sarah, the dog you watched acted like a dog. But to me, it was an affirmation of something I had long suspected. I was seeing the manifestation of a dog who has lived with humans for a long time.

When we first brought Chara home, she acted nothing like a dog was supposed to act. She hated car rides, swimming, hiking (she would literally sit down and refuse to move), and walks. She didn’t get excited at the mere jingle of her leash or crinkle of a poop bag. She wasn’t interested in foods like peanut butter and cheese. And she wasn’t super affectionate–she never licked, and preferred to sleep on the cool, hard floor than in a bed with the humans.


I was disappointed. Why wasn’t she more like a dog?

It was then that it first dawned on me–I had spent my entire life shaping an idea of what a dog is. I grew up with dogs–first the shepherd mix Slick, then our exuberant golden Rosie, and finally Emma and Simmer. On top of that, I had read books, watched movies–even seen plays that clearly explained what a dog should be like.

This old girl taught me so much about what dogs are supposed to be like.

But Chara had never seen those movies, read those books. And she didn’t have any doggie role models in her new home. Everything she had learned about what it means to be a dog, she had learned during those first 8 weeks with her mom and siblings.

Even further, she had no idea what her role was among humans. Unlike us, she had no script to follow. In the narrative of crate training and potty training, she couldn’t search back through her memories to be like “Ah yes, in the novel ‘One in a Million’ the dog Joey is returned to the shelter because he is difficult to potty train. Henceforth, I should only go outside.” No, instead, she had to glean meaning from our unintelligible human words, our gestures, the repeated pattern of her doing something and us reacting.

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Jordan, sharing his knowledge about how good the big outside is. 

And somehow, she managed to do it. This little creature only had spent 8 weeks on the planet, and yet she still managed to understand us. Looking at it that way, I find myself blown away and incredibly proud that she potty trained so easily.

Over time, Chara became more like a dog. At a year and 9 months, she adores car rides, comes alive on hikes, snarfs down any food we present her with, swims even in the middle of winter, sleeps at the foot of our bed, and begs for belly rubs.

Car rides = the best.

I believe that these changes came in part because we reinforced her dog-like behavior. We invited her up on the bed and praised her when she complied. We gave her treats for exposing her belly. The game of fetch only continued when she brought the stick back to us.

She also grew long legs that needed to stretch and run, and an intense curiosity about the outdoors. Walks and hikes presented her with an outlet, and the car–which got her to those hikes–became associated with adventures.

And she learned about the world. She learned that beds are soft and warm (and couches too), and that strangers give their attention when you jump on them, and that there are squirrels in trees and deer in the woods, and that it is very fun to chase them. She learned that other dogs don’t like it when you rush up to them, and that the humans will shower you with treats for not pulling on the leash.

Beds: yes.

She knows that when we pack up our bags, it means that we’re leaving for a good long while (and she paces and whines until we load her up in the car, because she isn’t about to let herself get left behind).

She even knows that it’s part of her job, as a dog, to watch me walk out to the car when I leave the apartment. I always know that I can look up at the window and find those two white eyebrows shining out from behind the glass.


It makes me feel warm inside, realizing how beautifully we have all started to fit together. Because it isn’t like Chara just picked up a script and started following it. No, instead she slowly and painstakingly learned how to move in our world.

And she does so with such enthusiasm and confidence and joy that it makes me feel enthusiastic and confident and joyful too.

If that isn’t what having a dog is all about, then I don’t know what is.

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