Drew Snider is a writer, pastor and recovering broadcaster, living in Victoria.
I must confess, I’ve been a cat man all my life. Ever since a little basket arrived for my fourth birthday party, containing a Siamese kitten, I’ve been hooked on cats. There was a cartoon many years ago, in which a man is covered with cats and explains to a friend, “One day, someone handed me a cat – just a small one – and I tried it. It was nice – quite pleasant, really – so I had another, and another ...”
That could have been me.
My wife and I had five cats at one time in our two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver’s West End. When two of them died of old age, she started talking about getting a dog. One day, we were visiting friends on Vancouver Island who had a border terrier. Amelia remarked, “Jessie is such a nice dog, and great with kids and the cat. Maybe we should consider a border terrier.”
Before I could say anything, our friends said, “Well, one of our neighbors is a breeder, and she’s just had a litter.”
Over my protestations, we went to the breeder’s place “just to have a look.” After coffee, home-made strudel and a third-degree interrogation to see if we were suitable, four puppies were released to meet us. One ran straight to me and started chewing on my shoe. I picked her up and she burrowed into my neck, practically ignoring Amelia: Even at that tender age, she knew whom she had to work on. Twenty-four hours later, we were the proud owners of Millicent K. PupDog.
The American humourist Robert Benchley once wrote that “a dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance, and to turn around three times before lying down.” Millie has taught me about fidelity and unconditional love, and I had never before experienced a situation where an animal would step up to protect and care for me. She saw me crash on my bicycle one summer and was absolutely frantic. While Amelia and a kind passerby reset the chain and checked out the bike, Millie spent her time licking my road rash. Sometimes, if another dog (especially one bigger than she is) comes a little too close to me for Millie’s comfort, she will take a “repel boarders” stance, positioning herself at my feet and darting out to chase the other dog away.
But the biggest lesson Millie has been teaching me has been a refresher course in play. She loves to run: Seeing her race around the field at the dog-park, hair flowing in the breeze, reminds me of helmet-less Guy Lafleur, speeding down the ice. But if she races other dogs that are slower than she is, she’ll drop to three-quarters or half-speed, looking over her shoulder as she runs. She’d rather canter than out-run another dog, all for the sake of play.
It’s the same thing when she and I play. When I throw a ball, she’ll chase it, grab it and run back with it -- but not give it back. I have to chase her and try to get it away from her. She knows I’m not as fast as she is, so rather than out-run me, she’ll bounce sideways while I do the “basketball shuffle” to try to corral her. Indoors, she has a variety of toys (one day, some of our dog-park friends came over with their dogs for tea and Millie gradually brought out every one of her toys for the dogs to play with), and when she wants to play with me, she’ll bring one over and dare me to take it away.
The ensuing tug-o-war could go on for hours – although it ends when my arm gets tired. But I keep wondering, what is the purpose? She knows the stuffed teddy bear isn’t an actual animal. What is so important about a piece of knotted rope, that it becomes a life-or-death struggle to keep me from having it? To what end is all this?
For Millie, play is an end in itself. There is no competition, no desire to win. She and another “dog friend” would spend all their time wrestling -- not to harm each other, but because it’s fun to grapple. When she runs with other speed merchants, you can’t tell who’s chasing whom.
About a decade ago, ParticipACTION launched a campaign called “Bring Back Play.” Canadian Tire tells us, “We All Play For Canada.” Play for the sake of play is something humans seem to lose sight of, and at an earlier age than we used to. Little League ballplayers and peewee hockey players are looked at as potential major-league material, and the resulting favouritism and competitiveness is probably a big factor in driving less “gifted” kids away from play before their time.
But dogs don’t compete. Dogs don’t keep score. Dogs don’t trash-talk one another. Dogs play.
We can learn a lot from our dogs.
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