Bonnie Ditlevsen is a parent to two boys and a dog. She studies Renaissance and Baroque vocal music and performs regularly as a soprano with the Bach Cantata Choir and the Trinity Choir in Portland, Oregon. In her free time she volunteers at an animal rescue organization.
Mindful, With Dog
All of nine weeks old, he sits cuddled on my friend Sarah's lap as we drive back from the breeder's house. What have I just done? I was only driving out there to take a look. He was too cute. So now I have to hurry to the pet supply store--I haven't had a dog in 32 years. And he just piddled in Sarah's lap. "Takin' one for the team!" she laughs. His little teeth are mini-razors on her knuckles.
Surprise! I say to my two sons, as they see baby Chewy for the first time in the dim light of our hallway. A yellow Labrador has been on my younger son's Christmas list for years, but I've only ever laughed off the request...until now. I'm calling his bluff because I don't want my two kids growing up never having had a cat or dog. I imagine that a new puppy will bond all of us in ways we haven't bonded thus far.
Christmas does take on a much more sentimental air. We all sleep, by necessity and by choice, in the living room where the lighted tree and Chewy's puppy pee pads are. He explores the entire downstairs of our home. Six days later, our tree goes dark, the wires chewed through. He's insatiable, a furry four-legged Edward Scissorhands, gnawing on the wainscoting, on the edges of rugs, on whatever shoe or slipper hasn't been placed up high on a shelf. Our cold, constantly rainy winters make for difficult housebreaking training.
The knees of my younger son's denim jeans become a favorite target--of course only with my son in them, running around the living room, laughing.
According to my books on puppy parenting, dogs are unlike humans in that they only live in the present. But has baby Chewy rubbed off on me? It seems I, too, have been living more in the present these past months, caring for a zany, exuberant, easily bored puppy whom I classify as a Set of Teeth With Feet. On leashed walks, he's quite easy, but at home, his needs overwhelm the three of us. Unless he's completely tired out, he's nothing but a scheming little delinquent. I never know which item will be damaged or destroyed next. One week it's a pair of expensive fuchsia heels that I need for a wedding; the next, it's the footboard of my son's wooden bed frame, gnawed down like a pet parrot's cuttlebone. We can't be awake 24 hours to watch him, so we wind up closing doors to rooms instead. There is tension.
I decide to try taking him to a community dog park, even though he's not quite the six months of age that their rules require.
There, I readily find other frazzled human parents of puppies who are in the same boat. One couple chats with me about our shared trials and tribulations while Chewy tangles joyfully with their five-month-old white pit bull. All is well for over an hour of nonstop play until we see the pit bull puppy approaching us, bleeding from her head. "I'm so sorry!" I offer, but the couple laughs: the source of the bleeding is nothing more than Chewy's loose front baby tooth embedded in the middle of her forehead. The couple loves this innocent red-on-white gore, and post pictures of the dog's face, tooth puncture hole, blood and all, on Facebook with the caption Our Missy--such a bruiser! It seems to make their day, this event, though I would have anticipated the exact opposite reaction from a dog owner. It's then I see that for 32 years, I haven't contemplated dog owners as being their own kind of bonded, tolerant community. Thanks to Chewy, I now get to be one of them if I want. On subsequent visits to area dog parks, I am regaled with numerous tales of love, devotion, and sometimes frustration, of rescue, cancer, and the inevitable rainbow bridge. What strikes me the most is the unique kind of parenting humor. There's an acceptance of dog nature in the humor of these people, myself included, that's often absent in discussions about the parenting of kids. Maybe this is because we have a much clearer idea about the trajectory of our pets' lives, whereas the futures of our children are a massive question mark.
I enroll Chewy in three separate puppy behavior classes; through sheer stubbornness and rambunctiously punk behavior, he manages to flunk all three. This is an animal who truly only cares about the now--the freewheeling, devil-may-care, larrikin now that most responsible humans have been trained to keep well in check. Playing with the other dogs trumps anything else, even the dried liver treats waved in front of his face. I can get Chewy to sit and give paw, but that's where our team effort stalls out. Nevertheless, I show friends my adorable "commencement" photograph of him wearing his little square black cap with the elastic chin strap. I sense I'm oddly jealous of him, jealous that I never got to be an unbridled, fun-loving academic underachiever. It's a dog's life, so the saying goes, and I rather envy my dog's spirit.
At the park I see artistic configurations in the dogs' roughhousing and antics, and start photographing Chewy playing with friends. One image looks like a grizzly bear rearing up on hind legs, though he is a Great Pyrenees; another like a 70s band on a rock album cover, only the group are fluffy little Bichons. In one shot, dogs bite the scruff of one another's necks in a chain, like animals in Celtic illuminated manuscripts. Dog park action photography isn't a genre I know of, a "thing," but I decide after a month or two of taking these shots that I want to make it into a thing. Just me, my camera, and my crazy yellow dog and his random cohorts, each moment unpredictable. There is a zen to my newfound hobby, a heightened sense of the present moment in time, as I study through my lens what's unfolding in front of me.
It is a gift to understand how photographers and dogs share this critical trait--live in the now, right now. What happened five minutes ago doesn't matter, because there's an incredible photo that might present itself in one second, or a rubber frisbee that could go airborne and some other dog might get it before you do.
The second part of Mindful, with Dog is coming soon, promising even more insightful reflections on pet ownership and wellbeing, not to mention even more of Bonnie's incredible photos of Chewy. You can find Bonnie at Penduline Press.