Hippie Squared: Gracie and the Head Thing


a blogumn by Jeff Rogers
red-owns-elise-jeff rogers

Red owns my wife Elise

Dogs have culture. Having a whole pack taught me that. Having a whole pack has taught me a lot of things, about dogs, and about people too. Pack and tribal dynamics are not that far apart in some ways.

A pack is too many to walk on leash around the block. So I take mine to a park. And they go off leash at the park, I have to harness and leash them for the trip out to the car and back; and in case I see the rangers at the park.

The sweetest of the lot is Red—with the rarest of exceptions, like the time he bit part of Gracie’s ear off. He’s a pit-golden mix, with short hair that when you touch him you discover is softer than you could have imagined. Many is the time that a stranger has reached down to pet him and a look of spontaneous peace drains the tension from her face, and she says, “He’s so soft.”

Red started a habit that has become a lovely secret ritual and has spread to all the other dogs, though no one does it like Red. When I kneel or sit on the floor and call him over to be harnessed, he buries his head in my lap. I hug him, coo over him, scratch his head, and ruffle his scruff. I can feel him open his mouth and hear him huff and snort quietly in dog laughter.

After having watched dogs so closely for so many years now, I’m settled in my conviction that dogs not only have emotions but self-consciousness. Dogs, after all, clearly have jealousy and envy. Doesn’t jealousy rest on the knowledge that an “other” is like you? That the other has emotions like you; feels pleasures you’re not feeling? And how can you be conscious of another as a feeling creature and be jealous if you’re not conscious of yourself that way

Well this much is clear. Once the other dogs saw what Red had started, they wanted some of that good thing too. Susan, the old cocker mutt mix with the lame leg, started doing it—and she doesn’t even get harnessed. Since she hobbles and hops, a leash just cramps hers style. So when Susan does the head thing, I tease her about getting her “love harness.”

Molly, the big insecure black lab, took it up—as she does so many things, wearing her desparate heart on her sleeve. The variations in how Red and Molly do the head thing taught me something about seeking affection in the proper measure. Molly can’t get enough of it. She doesn’t know when to pull away. She’s too needy, a bottomless pit of need.

Red, on the other hand, gives himself over to it gently, he soaks it up. In the Goldilocks story, he’s Little Bear’s porridge. Not too much, not too little. When he’s had the just right amount of sweet talk and stroking he sits, a happy, contented smile on his face, ready for the next thing. It’s a joyous and perfect transaction. If we could all learn to give love and accept it in that sweet spot amount like Red, I believe there’d be a lot less fretting about boundary issues and agonizing over mysterious rejections.
When it came to the head thing, only Gracie held back. I feel I’ve done Gracie a bit of a disservice. I’ve written about her as bossy and snarky. But mostly that was with the other dogs. She liked people and wanted them to like her, especially guests in the house, and especially women. She’d get up on the couch next to our friends, Melanie or Kimberley or Stephanie, and look up at them with big eyes, wanting them to notice and pay attention.

But mostly, with us, she wouldn’t accept too much overt affection, afraid that it would undermine her authority. Still, I tried to figure a way to give Gracie her fair complement of morning harness lovin’ just like everybody else, and eventually I hit on it. Gracie stood for her harnessing, she did not sit. So as I slipped it over her head I would rub her back. When I started scratching lower back, the top of her ass, just around her tail, she loved that. She’d make a little guttural noise of appreciation—too low for the other dogs to quite hear. Then she would thrust her snout up under my armpit. Burying her head in her own covert way. Since I was already arching over her, extending my arm along her back, it could seem almost accidental. She had plausible deniability with the other dogs, her subordinates, before whom she could not show weakness or need.

Now in the last year or so, Gracie had been slowing down. She had some problems with her back legs that we thought were arthritis but which may actually have been a neurological problem, perhaps a legacy of the distemper that Elise cured her of twelve years ago. Dogs are lives in microcosm. They go from puppy to adolescent to young adult in about two years.

You gradually become aware that they’re middle-aged as they settle into themselves, mellow out, get looked up to by younger dogs, come alive around puppies and give the hyper younger generation the benefit of their calm wisdom. And then at some point, even though not that much time has passed, you start to look at those cute friends of yours and there’s a little more white around the muzzle, a little bit of a hitch in their git-along; maybe they start to run flat out on the trail like they used to love so much to do, but then stop up short and look up at you with a sort of quizzical look on their face, and you realize, this isn’t just a dog, it’s an old man or an old lady. And you know that within a few years death will pull them off the trail completely. And you will have seen a whole life pass before your eyes. Not yours, but enough like yours to give it that little extra bit of haunting.

As Gracie aged, as she lost a step, she started to lose her grip on the queenship of the pack. Yucky, the little street dog, started to give her shit—growl at her, get into her space. She even picked fights that led to dog pileups on Gracie. And Gracie no longer tried to keep Red out of the living room at TV time.

So one of the ways that I knew Gracie was getting old and even scared about it, was when she started to do the pure head thing at harness time—actually bury her head in my lap. In fact, she’d do it sometimes at the door when I came home at night.

When we come home we always make a big fuss over greeting the dogs. Gracie always joined into that but she never surrendered to it utterly like the other dogs. In the last year or so, she seemed to crave it. She’d push right in to get her share, and linger for it longer than she ever had. And she started doing the head thing. Like it was easier for her to slip it in during that mass dog-pack love-attack, in the midst of the scrum, than in the morning, when it was one by one each dog up to the plate with all the other dogs watching. And I would hold her head and coo over her, with a little extra something in it because I could see that whole arc right there, I could see Gracie’s whole life passing before my eyes, and that the end was not really that very far away.

“Oh Gracie,” I’d coo, “That’s our Gracie girl. Love that old Gracie girl. Such a sweet old girl.”