Don't Hug the Dog
Updated: Nov 27, 2019
Our golden retriever was growling at me again.
He didn’t like to be hugged, and I had moved in such a way that it looked as if a hug were imminent.
“Don’t hug the dog,” my mom would warn me.
He didn’t even like when I would pretend to hug him. Basically, anything related to hugs – that would set him off. He could be in an otherwise fantastic mood, smiling and beaming – slobbering in a good-natured way, but if you approached for a hug, his mood immediately soured, and all bets were off.
“Grrrrrrrr…..” It started as a low murmur, and it got louder and more menacing as you got closer to actually hugging.
But he needed a hug, didn’t he? Aren’t the growling people the ones who most need hugs? One would think, but not with Max. He was a nice dog – well-adjusted, a fine member of the community – he would absolutely never bite anybody – he even did well in his obedience class (partly because nobody tried to hug him in class), but he just wasn’t the touchy-feely type. He was a dog of few words: stoic, silent and proud. And no, there was no puppy trauma in Max’s background – no bad experience of being hugged by a mountain lion or an Alaskan brown bear to account for his distaste of the hug – it just wasn’t in his nature. Like the way cats don’t like to be tossed in the air from the sofa.
Why was I so intent on hugging Max? These were the 90’s – the Clinton years, and this was back when Americans were still hugging each other. “Friends,” “Frasier,” and “Seinfeld” were all on TV and Jerry Maguire was getting hugged on the big screen (by Dorothy Boyd’s son, and by Rod Tidwell too, at the end of the movie when Jerry was revealed as the Ambassador of Quan: all that is good and decent in the world), and people were still laughing and smiling and basically everybody was embracing each other during those raucous, booming years, and I was a normal American with a normal American dog, and so I wanted to hug my dog too. Because, by God, Bill Clinton was president.
Our other dog, Duncan – also a golden retriever – was more introverted and artistic – a poetic, finely tuned dog. And he was all about the hugging. He lived for the hugs – he even expected them, upon waking up. “Go hug the dog – he just woke up.” And he never growled at me, with the one exception of that afternoon when he was taking a nap on the sofa, and I tried to move him, so that I could sit on the sofa and watch Seinfeld, and that’s when he growled. But looking back on that day in October 1993, I probably would’ve growled too, had I been in his situation. Here I am, deeply sound asleep, dreaming of squirrels and bacon, and here this presumptuous human teenager comes and tries to move me to a different spot on the sofa, all because of Jerry Seinfeld. I see the injustice now, with perfect hindsight.
Looking back at my childhood, I didn’t relate well to dogs. My etiquette was off. There was the golden retriever down the street – Alex – and he was apparently the great uncle of our dogs (they were descended from the same line of golden retrievers that came across on the Mayflower), and Alex was like a larger, more energetic and destructive version of the dog from Marley and Me. Seriously, I think he might’ve been descended from the Tyrannosaurus-retrievers. Or worse, he might’ve even been part Beagle. He had chewed through his owners’ kitchen table and had bitten off the hubcaps on their mini-van out back. Also, their shed and a couple of trees in their backyard had mysteriously disappeared one night, and we all suspected that the dog had something to do with it, because tornadoes weren’t common in upstate New York. He would bark at me whenever I came over to hang out with my childhood friend, and sometimes I would bark back – because this was the 1980’s and it was the Cold War, and Reagan was president, and so when a dog barked at you, you had to bark back, because of deterrence, and so I did. And his human owner didn’t like this at all. She didn’t like a lot of things I did, in fact, but this one thing really set her off, because she really loved and admired that dog, Alex. She loved him so much that she didn’t care that he had eaten her kitchen table, and part of her car.
“Stop patronizing the dog,” she shouted at me, from the backyard. I didn’t know what the word “patronize” meant, since I was 11 and my vocabulary came primarily from Donkey Kong video games and GI Joe cartoons, so I took it to mean: “barking back at a dog.” I went to see “Turner and Hooch” later that decade, and my mom asked me how the movie was. “It was so patronizing,” I replied. “All these people barking at dogs.”
I don’t bark at dogs anymore, because I’m not a patronizing person. And I don’t own a dog right now, so it’s been a long time since I’ve hugged one. There’s this one dog in our neighborhood who really needs a hug. I think he’s a Dachshund or a Corgi. He’s a small-style dog: agile and quick, but he can really project with his bark when something sets him off. It’s like he’s tapped into the collective zeitgeist, and every evening – just about the time that the evening news comes on – he absolutely loses it, and has a total canine meltdown right out there on the corner of our street. And I would go out and hug him, but my wife told me that’s not the correct etiquette, now that I’m all grown up and mature, so we just listen, and we try and stay present as he unloads on the neighborhood, shattering the peace. And then, all the other dogs start patronizing him, and now you’ve got half a dozen dogs all barking – condescending to each other. And it’s one fine mess, and it a gives you a certain nostalgia for the nineties – when there was more hugging, and less patronizing. And “Friends” was still on TV.
But until “Friends” makes a comeback, and until the Ambassador of Quan returns to the big screen, I guess we’ll have to just muddle through with the shattered peace: a time and place where we openly patronize each other, and where everybody just really needs a hug, despite their growling disposition to the contrary.
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