Big Dogs, Big City
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big dog person. This is to be taken in the most literal sense. I’m a big dog person. I like a dog that weighs in at at least 100 pounds. My first (and best ever) dog, Rex, was a modest eighty pounds, but my dogs since then have been gigantosaurs. Goose the Newfoundland (currently in the custody of my ex-husband) is about 140 pounds. Phoebe the Saint Bernard(ish), who passed away last year, was 110 pounds and built like a brick house.
Now I have another Newfoundland, Hugo. He’s ten-months-old and has probably just edged past one hundred pounds. What’s really impressive about him is his length. He’s thirty inches withers to rump, a boat of dog. When he stretches out on the bed, head on pillow, his tail hangs off the bottom. His paws are only slightly smaller than my hands.
Did I mention that Hugo and I live in New York City? Specifically Manhattan? Specifically in an apartment that you might call a studio pretending to be a one-bedroom? Are you calling the ASPCA yet?
What most people don’t realize is that big dogs are actually better for the city than small dogs. Small dogs yap and zip around. Big dogs, especially the kind of lazy, lumpy, dopey dogs I prefer, like just lie around and read the Times. Not that Hugo is lazy or lumpy or can read yet (he’s definitely dopey). But he’ll get there soon enough. At ten months old, his sleep/wake cycle is a tale of two extremes.
When he’s asleep, he’s a zonked-out interfusion of snoring, twitching, yelping and occasionally howling. At times, not even the alarming sounds of his own ululations can rouse him. When he’s awake, he’s usually outside. He’s prancing around the neighborhood with me or bounding about at the trail camp I send him to in the mornings, where he runs around in the woods with a pack of other dogs until they all pass out in the van back to the city. When we’re not walking, we’re sitting on park benches or in the outdoor seating of coffee shops, where Hugo gets more pets and hugs in ten minutes than he’d get in ten days living in the country.
I know this for a fact because I lived in the country with Hugo for the first six months that I had him. When he first came into my life in March, the city was teetering on the edge of catastrophe from COVID 19. In an incredible confluence of luck and timing, I was able to take baby Hugo to a farm in the mountains many, miles south, where we stayed, in almost completely isolation, for nearly six months. That’s five months and two weeks longer than I’d imagined we would be there.
It was an almost unfathomably gorgeous place, with hills of wildflowers and surrealist sunsets and ten head of cattle — one with a ghostly white face — that grazed on the other side of the fence and became Hugo’s first neighbors. I had very little contact with other humans during much of this time. Hugo was my roommate, best friend and troublemaking toddler rolled into one. I watched him grow from 20 pounds, when I could carry him around in my arms, to 40 pounds, when I could barely pick him up, to 60 pounds, when he could knock me over when we wrestled. Everyday we romped in the fields. At night, we sat on the porch and watched the fireflies flash signals at us like alien visitors. Who are you?, they seemed to ask us. What are you doing here?
What are you going do with that dog up in the city?
I heard those words from just about everyone I heard any words from. That wasn’t a lot of people, but it was enough to compound the guilt I already had. When I finally packed us both up and drove back to the city, I was near tears as the highway traffic became denser with every state we passed through. What am I going to do with him in the city? What is he going to do with me?
The answer, it turned out, is everything. We do everything together. Or at least something approximating everything. Since COVID keeps me home just about all the time, Hugo is rarely alone. Plus, I returned this fall to a city that was brimming with puppies. The surge of people adopting pets amid the pandemic has brought bubbly new life to sidewalks. You can’t get twenty feet without a new greeting. Hello! Hello! Hello! Unlike humans, dogs can greet each other the old fashioned way; nose to butt, maskless, oblivious to ways in which their owners have become touchless screens, pantomiming our affection for one another, not even bothering to ask “how are you?” because there’s something almost insulting about that question by now.
This, I now see, is what dogs are doing in the city. They are acting as our interpersonal proxies. They are going about their usual business in all the ways that we cannot. They are touching things, rubbing their noses in things, licking the ground with their tongues. They are walking reminders of normalcy. Touch them and you can feel the sandy particles of the life you had before. That’s why everyone needs the biggest one they can find.