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I should make it clear at the outset that I don’t approve of sleeping with a dog: It undermines good housekeeping and probably your authority as a dog trainer as well; it encumbers your sex life, and it’s not hygienic.
Nonetheless, sleeping with my dog has become one of the great pleasures of my life. With the enthusiasm of a recent convert, I report that I’ve found a direct path to human happiness.
For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, our rescue dog Drummer (a Labrador crossed with heaven-knows-what) spent his nights alone as a pup, in an armchair on the covered porch. Then, one spring morning just before sunrise, he came to the bedroom door and scratched tentatively. I opened the door and Drummer launched himself over the foot board, landing like a cannon ball in the spot I’d just vacated next to my wife.
Eventually, the three of us went back to sleep, but not before I felt my heart expand with the sudden knowledge that I had always longed for just this kind of mammalian comfort.
A pattern is now well established: Just after sunrise, Drummer scratches politely at the bedroom door and, as soon as I open it, vaults onto the middle of the bed. I try to line him up longitudinally between us and he resists these adjustments. He weighs 50 pounds, equivalent to a sack of cement. He might lick his crotch or chew his paws for a while before settling down. Then we fall back to sleep together, swept out to sea on the same raft.
Sometimes he’ll whimper in his sleep, his legs twitching as he runs along imaginary paths. Then I’ll massage the surprisingly dense mass of his shoulders until he wakes up; he’ll look around for a while, smack his lips, then lay his head back down with a guttural sigh.
From this description, you might wonder why I find sleeping with my dog so deeply satisfying. I wonder about that, too.
In our efforts to train Drummer, my wife and I have watched any number of episodes of The Dog Whisperer. The Whisperer is always pointing out to his beleaguered clients that dogs are pack animals and that they, the owners, must demonstrate that they are the leaders of the pack.
What never gets said is that humans are pack animals, too. Anthropological studies have established that early hunter-gatherer societies, based on the extended family, moved in packs roughly equivalent in size to the wolf pack (the wolf precursor, of course, to the dog).
I think this shared social structure, or rather the genetic memory of it, underlies the human-dog relationship and allows us to communicate at a depth that often feels telepathic.
My own biography is typical. I was born into a litter, the second of four brothers spaced according to Dr. Spock’s recommended interval of 18 months. This litter soon blended naturally into a pack on the postwar streets of London, Ont., and the pack I ran with liked to “play guns” and wrestle.
What we called “wrestling,” our improvised moves and holds, was a pretext for establishing friendship and dominance within the pack; that is to say, a thinly veiled excuse for rolling around together like pups.
It might be that sleeping with the dog allows me access to a sense of belonging that I took for granted as a child.
During adolescence, this feeling of attachment was replaced by a sense of myself as an isolated individual. With this new sense of selfhood, existential anxiety became the background music to my life. I doubt I’m the only one who experiences a chronic, low-level anxiety attached to the very fact that I’m alive – coupled with the knowledge that I will die, that I have a limited time before me, that I must not waste this time, that I continue to waste this time, etc.
This is the anxiety that falls away as soon as Drummer comes into the bed. Self-consciousness recedes; there is nothing I need to do but acknowledge the mutual comfort we take in physical closeness. My anxiety gives way to one simple feeling, fully expressed in these words: “It’s all right right now.”
When I was a journeyman stained-glass apprentice in England, I visited Fairford Cathedral to study its rich collection of medieval windows. What impressed me most, though, were the life-sized brass engravings on tombstones inside the cathedral.
I still recall one of them with particular clarity. It depicted a knight in armour with his visor open to reveal an impassive, pious countenance; his hands, folded in prayer, forming a tepee on his breastplate. The striking detail was his feet, joined heel to heel and splayed out Charlie Chaplin-style, creating a curved arch resting on the back of a sleeping dog. The dog (a beagle, probably, but definitely a hound), with her nose tucked into her tail and a smile on her muzzle, is gracefully nested under her master’s feet.
I’ve carried this image with me for 40 years, reflecting on its symbolism as if it were a code I might crack to discover a hidden meaning.
Now I think its meaning is transparent, an open secret to the initiated: The knight is presented in effigy as a man prepared to meet his Maker; but even a man of faith might have anxiety about the afterlife. And so he is supplied, like an Egyptian pharaoh, with a simulacrum of the reliable pleasures of his earthly life. This is a man at peace, sleeping with his dog.
Ted Goodden lives on Hornby Island, B.C.