Good Neighbors

In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” He’s not wrong: some neighbors, you want a minefield and electrified barbed wire. And a moat. My current neighbors would only please me if they were encapsulated in a soundproof dome, so I wouldn’t have to listen to them play beer pong at 3am. Nothing like a drunken coed caterwauling “WOOOO!” after a good bounce to rock you to sleep.

But the thing that has made me a better neighbor, apart from my aversion to early-morning alcohol-fueled yodeling, is not my fences, not the separation between us and mutual respect for privacy. It is my dog.

In fact, my dog has made me a better person in a number of ways. I am cleaner, especially now that I have a dog who will eat things that aren’t food if I leave them lying around within his reach. I am braver, because while I will avoid confrontation for my own sake, I do not hesitate to get between him and any danger that threatens him. I have more patience, because losing your temper at a dog doesn’t do anything but break your own heart when he cowers away from your yelling, the toy falling from his mouth, his tail tucked between his legs, his wide eyes seeming to say, “But . . . but . . . I just want to play with you!” I laugh more, because there’s nothing better than watching a dog run towards you – unless it’s watching a dog dream about chasing things, his feet a-twitch and his throat squeaking out sub-vocalized barks. And I have far more tender moments when he curls up next to me, or turns on his back so I can rub his tummy.

But my most stubborn and problematic trait is probably this: I am an introvert. Being around large groups of people, especially talking to them and interacting with them, exhausts me. Therefore, I avoid it, as much as humanly possible. I like people; I just don’t want them around me. Given the choice between going out to a crowded, lively bar, and sitting home alone, drinking bitter, rum-laced coffee in a dark, empty room – maybe with Tom Waits playing in the background and cold rain sheeting down the windows – I’ll take the depressing solitude, every time. Actually, it sounds nice. Peaceful. Given the choice between, on the one hand, calling an electrician, describing the problem, making an appointment, greeting them when they arrive, making small talk while they work, smiling the whole time; and, on the other hand, learning how to change a broken light fixture myself – complete with slight electrocution when I brush the bare wires – I will grab my pliers and hope I don’t burn down the house. The only reason I haven’t burned down the house is that my wife won’t let me do the serious wiring myself. Sometimes my fondest wish is for the ability to cut my own hair and clean my own teeth.

And all of this anti-socializing is exacerbated, of course, by the fact that most people kinda suck.

But you see, I have a dog. My dog needs to be walked. (I have to break in to mention this: he is, at this very moment, curled up on his back by my left side, as I type this on the laptop sitting on my couch. I’m typing one-handed, because he has wormed in close enough that his foreleg has curled around my left wrist, as if he’s asking me to hold his hand, or maybe to escort him to the Governor’s ball; and so of course I’m petting him with my left hand while I hunt and peck with my right. Because writing is important to me – but I know what my real priorities are.) And there is a rather amazing thing that happens when you walk a dog: you make friends.

I don’t know most of my neighbors; in most cases, most places that I’ve lived, I’ve never even learned their names. I don’t throw nor attend block parties; despite my genuinely good intentions, I don’t go to neighborhood cleanup days. I’ll wave and nod when I see my neighbors outside – and then I turn away, and hope they’re gone by the time I look again. Normally when I walk down the street, I look away from anyone coming the other way, at most giving an awkward nod if I glance at them while they’re glancing at me. But when I have a leash in my hand, with a dog on the other end – suddenly, I’m chatting, I’m smiling, I’m making eye contact. I’m meeting my neighbors, and introducing myself and my four-footed furry companion. Suddenly, I’m friendly.

It’s him, of course. My dog is an extrovert. He loves meeting people, especially other four-footed furry people; as soon as he spots someone coming towards him, while I’m looking down at the ground to avoid their gaze, he starts wagging his tail and pulling towards them, hoping to get some petting and maybe a nice compliment on how soft his fur is; at the very least he’s hoping for a chance to sniff some new people-smells (And he thinks furry-people smells are the best.).

And while he’s standing there, wagging his big fluffy tail, nose squiggling inquisitively towards them from under his bright button eyes and pointed fox ears? I have to talk to them, if they’re human people, or to the people that walk with them, if they’re furry. I have to introduce my friend Sammy, and tell them he is friendly and not dangerous, though sometimes he gets rambunctious and jumps up on people. If it’s a human person alone, that’s all I have to say; they generally give him some pets, and they always say how soft he is, usually how pretty he is (I also have to tell them he’s a boy; if they make any comment that has a feminine twist – “Oh, she’s lovely!” – then I shorten his name to Sam, or lengthen it to Samwise, and I usually say “Good boy!” at some point. I’ve been mistaken for a girl, back when I had long, pretty hair; I didn’t care for it much.), and then they head off on their way, with a smile on their face and a wish for a good day for me. They often thank me. These encounters are, without question, the easiest, most positive interactions I have ever had with strangers.

If there is a furry person involved, the conversation is a little different: he generally ignores the human person, going straight to sniffing the furry one and being sniffed simultaneously. I still tell the human person that Sammy is friendly and will not bite, though occasionally he gets rambunctious; but I never have to say this to the furry person. It doesn’t matter if they’re twice his size, or one-quarter of it: there is never any fear when Sammy meets another dog. He will sometimes shy away from a dog barking from behind a fence if it seems angry; I use his response as a litmus test to tell me if the barking dog should be avoided or can safely be ignored. Sammy seems to know best. But if it’s a dog on a leash on the street, then it’s nothing but tail-wagging and nose-stretching, and it’s up to the human people to keep them from tangling their leashes.

And for the human persons, there is always more to say: they ask what breed Sammy is, generally with a compliment on how handsome he is – sometimes they say he looks like a fox, which he does. I tell them we don’t know: he’s a mutt we got from PACC, the county animal shelter here in Tucson. Then they often guess: and they always say Chow-Chow. Well, he is the right color, almost, and he does have thickish fur and a curled-up tail; but our last dog Charlie was at least half Chow, and Sammy looks very little like him, and acts nothing at all like him. The conversations Charlie had, whether with furry people or with human people, always started with him saying, through his attitude and body language, “I’m the Alpha. I’m in charge.” His body language was very clear: We took Charlie to an obedience class once, and he made a puppy pee itself in fear only by staring at it. The other dogs we met on the street either bristled at him, or, far more often, submitted to him, usually looking down and backing away. He didn’t allow human people to put their hands on top of his head, pulling back from their stroking fingers with offended dignity – though he would allow them to scratch his chest. And if it was a child, or the young woman with Downs’ syndrome whom Charlie met a few times at the library, Charlie would be completely calm and passive, would allow them to pet him anywhere they wished, would lick their hands and take food from them. But generally speaking, Charlie’s conversations were more formal, more dignified; based on what we’ve read about Chow-Chows, which are one of the “Ancient breeds” and were used for centuries as guard dogs in Buddhist temples in China, this had much to do with his heritage.

There’s nothing formal or dignified about Sammy. And as he’s hopping about, trying to shove his nose either into the face or under the rear of the other dog he’s greeting, the human person and I will talk about dogs, and about being dog-owners. I compliment their furry friend as they complimented mine – because all dogs are beautiful. We’ll chat about the weather, and about the neighborhood. We’ll let each other know if there is anything to watch out for or that needs to be avoided – a dog that has been spotted roaming loose, or a patch of sidewalk littered with broken glass. Eventually we’ll break off the sniff-fest and pull away, with several goodbyes.

Then, if we meet again, we recognize each other: I tell Sammy, “Look, it’s your friend!” And he acts like it: by the third time or so meeting the same dog, Sammy graduates from sniffing to trying to play, batting at them with his paws, rearing up or play-bowing as dogs do. The other human persons greet him by name – they still don’t know mine – and give him a little skritch about the ears or shoulders. Now the humans’ conversations also get more friendly, and we start getting to know each other. I have never spoken to two of the people living in the house next door to me; but I know the woman down the street, who walks her Dachshund twice as day as I do Sammy. She’s 87 years old, from Germany (I don’t comment on the amusing stereotype of a German woman with a Dachshund, but I think of it and smile), and she’s a badass: she walks that dog for miles, takes aerobics classes, and carries a wooden cane not to walk with, but to smack the heads of dogs that come after her little friend, because a loose dog once got into her yard and picked her dog up and shook it violently. Whenever I pass the two of them – which is frequently, as her walking schedule coincides with ours – we wave and greet each other with fond smiles, even yelling across the busy street. I like her. Her dog is also the sweetest, calmest Dachshund I’ve ever known; I have never heard him bark, and when he and Sammy met after he had had some teeth pulled and a growth removed from his snout (non-cancerous, his person told us – and expensive to have removed, but “Vat can you do? Zey are our children.”), Sammy sniffed carefully all around the wound, gave it a little lick, and the Dachshund let him.

That’s how it is, when you walk a dog: you get to know the other dog-walkers in the neighborhood, and their dogs. You smile and wave to each other; if your dogs get along, you cross the street to greet each other and have a little sniff-fest. If your dogs don’t get along, there isn’t any judgment, no grudges held; you simply cross the street away from each other, or pull one dog off the sidewalk to allow the other to pass without incident. (This was much more common with Charlie, but Sammy still does get nervous around some dogs; we simply stand aside, and there’s no issue.) I’ve shared poop-bags and treats with dog-walking friends who forgot one, and many a piece of advice or encouragement about training or health or food or general pet care; I’ve recommended vets and groomers and the obedience classes we took Charlie to. We’ve never actually been invited to a doggy birthday party, but they have been discussed, as have Christmas presents and special treats and favorite toys and games. We’ve told fond and interesting stories, and sometimes poignant ones: now that our family has been through the grief of losing Charlie, we have some more somber stories to talk about – but we can always lighten the mood by discussing Sammy, who is an absolute bundle of joy.

I’ve made friends, several of them, but not through any effort of my own: simply because I have a dog, I walk my dog, and I love my dog. Good fences don’t make good neighbors: good dogs do.

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