Friday, October 19, 2012

Meet the Runner: The Runner Runs With a Dog

I am the runner, and I run with a dog.

Like any couple without kids, but with a dog, Rachel and I have placed our dog, Auggie, as the nucleus of our world. Auggie is part Chocolate Lab, and part Pit Bull. He has very few boundaries. He sleeps where he wants. He snores, he farts, he is entirely motivated by food, and he has learned that, if he whines, he’ll get pretty much anything he wants. Although we like to think we don’t, we feed him food scraps, especially carrots and the green ends of Strawberries. From time to time, we’ll add some leftover chicken noodle soup or chicken broth to his kibble. When we do, he is practically inconsolable with excitement, snorting and breathing heavy, pushing his bowl around with his nose.

Auggie also loves to run. He knows few words, but his ears and eyebrows spring up when he hears the words: “run,” “park” and “let’s go.” When I got Auggie from the SPCA in San Francisco, I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now. I was recently divorced and generally self-loathing and cynical toward people. Regardless of my angst-ridden attitude, I still had to walk the dog. This turned into hiking with the dog, then running with the dog. Having run with Auggie for 6 years, I have experienced the good, the bad and the painful with him. I have met interesting people because of Auggie, and I have witnessed a large range of emotions from complete strangers. As a result, I feel that I have come to understand people, dogs, the world, and where I belong in relation to all of these things.

It is easy to spend the day isolated from other people. As a teacher, I try to have personal moments every day with my students, however, given the size of classes, and the limited amount of time to get through my curriculum, it is often only the large group or smaller groups of students that I interact with. I take the bus with many people, but I generally have my nose in a book the whole time. While running, I wear my headphones and while waiting in lines, I am thumbing through nonsense on my phone. The two most intimate interactions I have on a daily basis are between Rachel, my wife, and Auggie, my dog.

When people are in public, they generally keep a rather neutral emotional tone about them.  It is not terribly often that strangers show one another heightened emotion, such as great excitement, fear or anger. Even the physical manifestation of frustration is limited to fake smiles, rolled eyes or tightened lips.  Emotions are reserved for close friends, husbands, wives and family. Dogs break those barriers down. While Auggie and I do not intend to strike fear in somebody, when we do, it usually leads to some kind of interaction where Auggie and I are left either soothing the person by allowing Auggie to lick their hands, or the person will walk briskly away from me in what appears to be a “huff.” When a person is a dog person, they show unbridled excitement, yelling cooing, often high pitched and nonsensical phrases at him as if he is their hard-of-hearing, infant-best-friend.

Auggie is a great “onramp” to a conversation with strangers, and I love talking to strangers. As a result, Auggie and I stop from time to time to chat. I’ve learned that people who look like former (or current) drug addicts tend to love dogs and are unbridled in their love for him. Children want to open-handed pound Auggie’s back. People who want to see Auggie as a pit-bull assign him a certain amount of masculine reverence or they walk away from him in fear, as if he is a loaded pistol. On the other hand, people who want to see Auggie as a Labrador, assign him an angelic personality that fulfills some kind of childhood fantasy. If people don’t have a dog, they will comment on Auggie’s coat. If people do have a dog, they will ask questions about his poo. When I was single, I had hoped that Auggie would be a good wingman, but I soon found out that Auggie will sniff and be adorable around homeless men, but pretty women, he ignores.

People on the street will comment on a dog in the most honest of ways. Like, “Oh, what a beautiful dog, so regal.” or, “oh, he’s a chunky little guy isn’t he?” Even though it’s narcissistic and neurotic, I treat all comments as a direct comment on myself as a person and as a dog parent. If somebody says that Auggie “is so shiny and healthy,” I translate that commentary to say, “Ryan, you are so shiny and healthy.” When somebody comments on his “adorable fat little belly,” I feel emasculated, undignified and an immediate need to continue on my run. I worried for days when an old man said to me, in a matter-of-fact tone, while touching Auggie’s love handles: “You know, the number one killer of dogs is obesity.” I was defeated and scared as he listed off all of the terrible things that could kill a dog: hip problems, heart attack and something called “The Bloat.” Auggie and I both immediately went on a diet.

Talking to other dog owners, often times they use empathy as a justification to gain their own goals, or to avoid certain hardships. Like blaming a fart on a dog, it’s also easy to blame dogs for your own laziness or reluctance. I find that when people say things like, “My dog isn’t good on a leash,” what they are actually saying is, “I am not good with a leash.” The more you control the dog, and the more you use the leash, the more the dog will understand the language of the leash. That language varies between dogs. I do not agree with this idea that dogs must be militarized into submissive soldiers; they are dogs after all. I have seen owners along my run who control their dogs wonderfully on a leash, even though the dog is barking and lunging at Auggie in a hypnotized rage. But at least they have developed a leash-language with their dog.

I run Auggie with a leash. Some people run without leashes, and I admire this. It’s probably better for the dog’s neck, but more admirably, it shows a large tolerance toward neurotic thinking and anxiety. I run with a leash because I don’t have that tolerance. More importantly, a large unleashed dog running toward somebody usually strikes an intense amount of fear. If that dog is even an ounce Pit Bull (it doesn’t matter if the other half is Labrador, Retriever, Teddy Bear or marshmallow), all people see is the Pit Bull. And they freak out. Rightfully so. If I didn’t have a dog, and I read about Pit Bulls eating babies, I’d be a little gun shy too. Not everybody has the same relationships and experiences with dogs that I do, and this is something to pay attention to. That piece of leash-fabric-buckled around Auggie’s neck gives people the type of security and suspension of disbelief that they need to feel safe. I feel that people should come to peace with their fear of dogs on their own time. I don’t want to force people’s epiphany, especially if I’m trying to finish a run.

Running with a 70 pound, excitable dog on a leash takes a certain type of concentration and can be dangerous, as there can be a lot of sudden movements.  There is a lot of easing Auggie’s anxiety as he splays flat on his belly on the sidewalk out of submission, because a toy poodle raised its hackles at him. Once, in full stride in the park, Auggie abruptly stopped to pick up a half eaten piece of pizza. His head got under my feet, and I went flying through the air, landing on top of him. He let out a horrible yelp that both accused me and apologized to me.

Aside from the occasional lapse, I am very good at running with Auggie on his leash. Auggie and I have become a single moving organism. I steer him like a ship, letting more slack when it’s needed, pulling it in to adjust him so he runs closer to me when there is less road or somebody on the road needs more space. The simple twitch of my finger on the loose gripped hand, to Auggie, means that he should slow down. Together, we have become a six-legged beast, humming and weaving through the crowds like some kind of brisk angel, walking between the raindrops.

Running with a dog has to be an empathetic endeavor. My vet said it perfectly when he said, “A tired dog is a happy dog.” Dogs require very little maintenance, for the most part. Feeding and exhausting a dog is easy, and a very meaningful thing to do. Having Auggie is what turned me into a runner.

Auggie will sit when I tell him to. He will shake my hand in order to get a treat. He will protect me if I show fear. He will allow my three-year-old niece to tug on his ears and yell in his face. Auggie will wake up at 6:00 AM and follow me through the rain on a run. He has moved up and down the state of California with me, and has witnessed my expression of every color of the human pallet of emotions. He greets me at the door every day as if I’ve been gone for a year. For all of that, I owe him kindness. Through exhaustion, kindness is achieved.  Sometimes it’s a chore, but in the end, it has connected me to the world.


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