Live from the dog’s house
I would rather train a striped zebra to balance an Indian club than induce a dachshund to heed my slightest command.
— E. B. White, November 1940
Without exception, it was the strangest — yet, upon reflection, the most heartwarming — introduction I had ever received in all my years of public speaking. A very dear friend had asked if I would do her a solid by talking to corporate communications people, who happened to be in the media business, about the challenges that journalists face in this multi-platform, multi-universe world of truth, half-truths, and blistering lies. In addition to delivering the boilerplate resumé of my various jobs, accomplishments, hopes, and desires, my friend wistfully added that I was “the owner of a bossy twenty-pound sausage dog.”
No one had ever considered the dog a vital part of my professional life. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt somewhat vulnerable, as though, even before I stood up, my audience had been pointed to my Achilles heel, the kryptonite of my rather hardened, cynical exterior, built up over decades in a cut-and-thrust world.
Besides, it was only a partially true statement.
The dog was bossy. Of that, there was no dispute. But to suggest that I was bossed around by her was pure fallacy, I remember thinking. There was also another matter: Lily, our clever-eyed dachshund, was, in reality, my wife’s dog. I was responsible only for the feeding (on most days), the walking (rain or shine), the discipline (at which I sucked), the playtime (at which I excelled), and the cleaning up (most of the time).
Any claim of ownership on my part would have been purely coincidental and hotly contested, especially by the dog herself.
As a rescue from a backyard breeder, Lily had bonded immediately and tightly with my wife, who referred to her affectionately and attentively as “Mummy’s pretty girl.” The two, both being mothers, understood each other from the outset in a way the rest of us cannot begin to fathom, let alone comprehend.
At first, both our son and I were considered chopped liver, but not the kind worthy of licking. It took a lot for us to be allowed into this tight little arrangement, their cabal of cuddles and affection. And when we were finally let in, it was only on the understanding that it was on the dog’s terms.
Don’t for a minute think that Lily was spoiled, foul tempered, or ill disciplined. She respected boundaries while we were around; accepted commands, albeit grudgingly; and happily performed with gusto her role as the tail-wagging, Walmart-style household greeter. There was, however, a sense — maybe even a steely glint in her eye — that she understood her role as long as we understood our place in her house.
It wasn’t until the pandemic thrust so many of us into each other’s intimate and never-ending company that I realized the extent to which sovereignty over our household had been ceded to a seemingly sweet-natured, iron-pawed creature.
Our family had a busy pre-pandemic life, and so the dog was given the run of the house during the day, an acceptable arrangement that was inadvertently framed and formalized by our daughter (who has lived on her own for many years). Also a dachshund lover and owner, she presented us with a sticker for the front window, the home-monitoring kind you see everywhere. Emblazoned on it was the silhouette of a wiener dog with this warning: “Caution. Area Patrolled by Dachshund Security Co.”
It was supposed to be a gag. The dog, however, took the sign as a serious employment offer. Soon afterwards, she established an observation post in a wingback chair in the front window, where she could scrutinize the various comings and goings of her human charges, as well as spot potential intruders and tiptoeing trespassers as they appeared. It became her chair. Anyone who attempted to occupy it was greeted with suspicion, which turned to outright hostility if they lingered too long.
This being pre-pandemic days, we treated the act lightheartedly, with an isn’t-that-cute gullibility. Extending the gag further, I would declare to the dog that she was our home security consultant, whose contract included room and board as well as a defined number of Milk‑Bone bonuses per shift. We would occasionally revisit the details depending on the time of year and the shifts she was expected to work.
We did, however, during those remarkably innocent days, have little hints here and there that the dog considered herself not the security detail but the true lord and master of our comfortable, rambling two-storey home. At times, she behaved as if it was her sandstone brick manor amid the leafy wilds of suburban Ottawa. Nothing was ever destroyed or broken during our absences. What we were left with was more a suspicion, a whiff of guile and mischief.
The boundaries of where she could and could not go, what furniture she could and could not sit on, were well defined and respected — in our presence. But once our backs were turned or our backsides buttoned into our vehicles for the morning commute, she displayed a degree of artfulness that was, I would come to find out, simply breathtaking.
We would find telltale signs of her cunning in the little bits of fur sprinkled in places where it shouldn’t be. It never occurred to her to wipe away the evidence of her misdeeds, we would often joke. It never dawned on us that she didn’t care if she got caught. Nor did we seem to get that she was, in fact, sending us a subtle but firm message.
Much has been written about how the pandemic and the ensuing prolonged confinement has upended the lives of people. Everyone has been struggling to adjust to our new, clubby reality, including our pets. When attention has been paid to our furry friends, it has typically been through the lens of the comfort they bring us during these lonely, uncertain times and the surge at rescue shelters of people looking for four-footed companionship.
Rarely, if ever, do we talk about those whose kingdoms and comfortable routines have come crashing down with our perpetual presence. As we mourn for the good old days, I get the distinct impression that so do some of our pets.
Declared essential, my wife and son have continued with their routines, however reshaped, throughout the crisis. So it’s just me and the dog most days. To say that Lily was annoyed by having me home almost all the time last spring would be a stretch. Mildly perturbed, alternating with gently tolerant, would be better.
Initially, it seemed, she didn’t quite know what to do with me, as though I were some sort of orphan dropped on her doorstep. There would be these long, perplexed staring contests in the morning, when her almond eyes would harden into an irritable gaze that questioned what I was still doing at the kitchen counter. Didn’t I have some place to be? After all, she had things to do: beds to muss, folded clothes to roll around in, end tables to traverse, face cloths to pull out of laundry baskets, and a plethora of stuffed toys to commune with and lecture.
Dachshunds, more than most breeds I’ve encountered, can communicate silently and effectively through a side-eye glance and a perfectly timed huff — or sigh — of indignation. I had noticed it before, but I had never felt its sting so acutely. And I’m here to report that it’s somewhat soul-destroying to realize your dog wants rid of you.
Lily left no doubt that I was cramping her style. So about two weeks in, I sat her down and explained in hushed tones that, with me confined for the foreseeable future, the need for home security had dwindled and perhaps we could renegotiate her contract. There were other things she could do to help in the midst of this national emergency, and in the event those things didn’t work out, I assured her, there would, in all likelihood, be some form of government assistance.
The chat didn’t go over so well. Not even a tail wag ensued. She wasn’t interested in the CERB.
Being made of stern stuff, Lily humoured me by becoming my editorial assistant as we settled into the daily routine of remotely monitoring events of national interest. My study, my sanctuary of leather-bound books, was converted into a wired, multi-screened, brightly lit, multi-purpose studio, where I could produce copy, radio reports, and sometimes grainy television clips. Day after day, my begrudging little apprentice would lie silently under the desk, at my feet, as I wrote, intoned, and performed. She was a comforting if somewhat crusty presence.
The dog would dutifully sit beside me as Justin Trudeau spoke each day in front of Rideau Cottage. She listened, at first with enthusiasm, to the prime minister’s soothing reassurances. Yet, whether it was his voice or his ever-increasing mane of hair, hypnotically whipped around by the wind despite the silly white tent, each media availability invariably ended with her yawning and falling asleep. And whenever Donald Trump appeared on the White House podium, she had an overwhelming desire to go outside. She would scratch at the patio door and grumble, as though her bladder was about to burst. It happened every time.
It slowly occurred to me that there was a whole side to this little creature that, amid the hustle and bustle of daily life, I had failed to comprehend. It was tantalizing. I began to speculate, through that long, unusually cold spring of last year, that she had a secret life. But these were the kind of thoughts that fuel Pixar movies, not sensible and sober journalists. Was I just suffering from cabin fever or pandemic-induced phantasms? I would soon have my answer.
Lily’s career as my editorial assistant came to an ignominious end one day when, after being cautioned to behave (I foolishly clung to the notion that I was in charge, if only in my office), she lost her mind in a blizzard of barking while I was live on the air. To make matters worse, she was under my desk, and the acoustics made her normally rich, baritone woof sound like the bellow of some great, slobbery beast.
Poor Suhana Meharchand, the host. I’m certain she believed I was about to be sucked away, mid-sentence, in a haze of gnashing teeth and glowing red eyes. But, like a trooper, I kept going, outwardly unfazed, giving a serious answer to a serious question about a serious topic, all the while affecting an unintended but dignified air of comedy. “I think there is someone at your door,” Suhana said charitably, letting me off the hook. I smiled, but wanted to cry. “Yes, I know.”
It was at that moment that all of us realized it was in the best interests of everyone for Lily to return to her first love: home security. It was further agreed that she would carry out her duties outside of the study and outside of microphone range. She was given a suitable severance for her time in the service of the public interest.
Once she was back in her front window observation post, other elements of Lily’s secret life began to reveal themselves, much to my surprise and even horror. The neighbourhood surrounding our home was teeming with wildlife and, as I began to discover, intrigue and drama.
There was a free-range cat, a mangy, unkempt beast with a large dense head and an even thicker empty stare. With the brutal, casual air of a mob hit man who had survived many scrapes, the cat wandered everyone’s yard, defecating where he felt like it and preying upon unsuspecting birds, whose bloodied carcasses he left on the road like some Cosa Nostra warning for the other winged creatures. I had long supposed he was fulfilling nature’s purpose, but there seemed to be such psychotic delight to his actions that a convincing case could be made that he had adapted Joker for a feline audience.
The local animal kingdom also included a light-fingered, undoubtedly nearsighted chipmunk who would steal from the bird feeder next door, break open and eat his ill-gotten sunflower seeds in the well of my barbecue tank, and caucus with a stone garden frog at the back of the house, as though it had something important to say. There was a slender rabbit with frequent bouts of dysentery that ended up in my garden.
In addition, there were twin squirrels, whom I had christened Frick and Frack. One was grey and one black — and both took extraordinary delight in mocking all the other creatures. Like stand‑up comedians with fur, they would perch high in a tree and amuse themselves as they looked down upon and cackled at the misguided lives of their audience.
It was a fine summer day when I realized something was amiss. With the front window open and a cool fresh breeze rustling curtains and lifting Lily’s nose into the air, I noticed with surprise that the maniacal cat had parked himself on our front porch. He sat with his back to us as he scanned the yard for his next victim. A pair of kingbirds hopped, tantalizingly close, on the walkway, pecking for insects. The cat, playing it cool, was stone-like, no doubt wanting to convince his prey that he was some kind of inoffensive gnome. In a moment of shame, I wondered if we were about to witness a murder.
And then it dawned on me. There was nothing but silence. Though back on duty, my security consultant had not moved nor barked. She hung over the arm of the chair casually and looked upon the scene kindly, almost benevolently.
With the air of a man possessed, I flung the door open and chased the savage fiend from the porch, breaking up the ambush and feeling quite satisfied in my heroism. But the dog felt no shame for her inaction. She simply glowered and padded away to confer with her stuffed toys. Perhaps, I considered, she had watched too many crime serials with my wife and therefore was somehow thrilled at the prospect of a reality show unfolding outside her window. But the truth was even deeper and more insidious than that. It turned out the other woodland creatures had also been given unmolested passage and carte blanche use of our property.
What became evident during those long, sweltering summer days was that the dog had, without any of us realizing, struck a non-aggression pact with these pests, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was powerless.
When the détente had been agreed upon was a mystery. The longer I thought it over, the more I realized it must have been a long-standing arrangement. At that moment, a cold awareness struck: the dog was truly in charge of things. I was crushed. Part of me simply wanted to hand over the keys and surrender. Had there been no pandemic, it is almost certain I would have continued along, blissfully unaware of my empty figurehead place within the hierarchy of my castle. Yet here I was, locked inside and forced to adjust to the new world order.
It was obvious, as summer turned into fall, that Lily was pleased: reality had finally set in for me, and we could have an honest master-servant relationship. If the morning virtual news meeting was too loud or boisterous, she would barge into the study with an annoyed glance, telling me to turn it down. If I spent too much time on the phone working sources, researching, or dealing with editors without a break, the dog, bred to ferret out recalcitrant badgers in times of yore, would grumble outside the door until she had extricated me from my lair.
She came to develop a series of these extraordinary “amuse me” moments, when, it seemed, I was the one expected to do tricks and perform to chase away her boredom. Two o’clock in the afternoon meant not tea time but treat time, or so I learned. In fact, I swear Lily was wearing a watch — or was a union steward in a previous existence — because every day, without exception, she insisted my work hours end at six o’clock precisely. And if I kept going, she knocked at the door with protests that were both loud and frequent.
A year into this arrangement, the arguments over when I can sit in her chair are the only form of rebellion left in my weary soul. Other than that, I have made peace with the once-surprising observation that I am, indeed, bossed around by a twenty-pound wiener dog.