… would first pay homage to Brian Doyle, knowing that it could never reach the dizzying heights of his “Greatest Nature Essay Ever,” before offering some doggie tidbit, like maybe the fact that dogs smell in stereo, or that sometimes when they roll on the ground in what seems to be joy they’re “really” discharging the static electricity built up in their electrophilic fur. Or maybe it would begin at the purblind beginning, with dogs’ very uncertain origins. They may have evolved from proto-wolves not one but twice, or possibly even three times, maybe in northern Asia or maybe the Middle East or perhaps even Europe. All we know for certain—or think we do—is that dogs evolved alongside humans, intertwined with human interests from their beginnings, leading to this bizarre concoction of natural selection and human engineering.
The greatest dog essay ever might be structured around the dog’s five senses, offering a paragraph on each, putting the reader in the dog’s-eye, dog’s-ear, dog’s-nose view. It would ask: What’s it like to smell in stereo? Should we think about hearing in stereo, and then imagine our ears as nostrils? What’s it like to see in fewer colors but alert to every minute movement? To hear all those sounds out there that the world makes without our knowing, so we call them “ultrasonic”? Imagine feeling a passing car’s rumbles in your paws.
Or the greatest dog essay ever might be structured around different dog breeds and their histories: the cocker spaniel, flushing woodcocks from the underbrush, his flapping ears brushing up scents; the border collie, harnessing the predation of her lupine ancestry into her stalk and stare; the dachshund, whose oversized web paws still dig for genetically remembered burrowed badgers; the husky, whose 20-inch neck yearns to pull weight, be it sleds or sleighs or middle-aged humans on the wrong end of the leash. Every feature of a dog’s body has a history. And then there’s the mutt: the cocker spaniel head on the border collie body, or the husky-terrier that Disney might cast as a cartoon wolf.
The greatest dog essay ever might mention important dogs in history and culture: not just Rin Tin Tin and Lassie (which of course it would mention in passing), but also, maybe, the White House dogs, from Bo Obama to Miss Beazley Bush to Buddy Clinton to the Him and Her beagles of LBJ to FDR’s Scottie, Fala, and all the way back to George Washington’s American foxhounds. Or perhaps it would stretch all the way back to the legendary Argos, who waited 20 years for Odysseus before dying of happiness on his master’s return. It might dip into dog mythology and question the association of dogs with death in many cultures: Cerberus, that three-headed hound of Hades in Greek antiquity; Xoloti, the monstrous dog of the Aztec Underworld; the messenger dogs of Yama, God of Death in Hindu mythology; Anubis, the ancient Egyptian jackal-god and guide into the Afterlife; and the Black Dog of the British Isles, portent of death. Dogs at that liminal space between human civilization, such as it is, and the natural world to which we all return. Dogs who show us the way to a world beyond our knowing.
The greatest dog essay ever wouldn’t shy away from the darker facts. The dogs gone wrong. Mange. Rabies. Dogs bred to kill other dogs, or to kill humans. The perfect little angels who one day suddenly maul a baby. The greatest dog essay might mention the cultures that eat dogs, and then gently redirect that disgust to wonder why it’s okay to eat other animals, mammals even. The essay would acknowledge the millions of strays, and the millions of euthanized dogs every year, and the puppy mills with their permanently caged puppy-making bitches, whose only crime is being female and fertile. The greatest dog essay, though, would consider more than condemn, recognizing that we all struggle in this dog-eat-dog world.
We struggle, but dogs make it a little bit better, and just when you start to feel overwhelmed with dog sadness, the greatest dog essay would remind you of the joy of rescue dogs, who come to you broken, miserable things and then quickly adapt to happiness. It would transition from darker side, not in denial but with the resolute resilience of a dog rebounding from a scolding by plopping a ball in his human’s lap, every muscle tensed for the throw, making waiting the most active verb ever, and you know that however much you love your own dogs, however much they’re the perfect culmination of canine evolution, are in fact the best dogs ever in the whole entire world, you would never clone them, like some celebrities might, knowing that there are even more dogs out there with more ways of being dog that you haven’t experienced yet, more than you could experience in a lifetime.
Perhaps this essay, having started with the nose, would end with the tail. Soft, swooshy, feather-duster tails and coffee-table clearing tails and thick, muscular tails that leave welts and sideways-curling tails and brush tails and up-and-over scorpion tails. Tails that tell emotions: stiffening to rigid alertness, flattening subordinately to cover escaping odors, whooshing warningly, or happily splashing their scents to all who know how to smell their greeting. Let other people doubt that dogs experience what humans know as emotions: the tail says otherwise. As does the acquisitive nose, twitching questioningly before the big sniff. The nose seeks the tail, or under-tail, of another, leading to the nose-to-tail circle-dance, that dog-to-dog handshake.
The greatest dog essay ever might itself do the nose-tail circle dance, reminding the reader that, seriously, dogs smell in stereo. Just imagine. The reader would return to her own dog—her ordinary, everyday, endlessly shedding, ever-pooping, tail-wagging, tail-drooping, tail-wagging dog. Perhaps he’s drowsing on the couch next to her and, sensing something different in his human’s fingers, raises his nose, thumps a tail once, twice, only half aware that his human will never again see him in quite the same way, that she’s feeling something beyond his emotional register, some bizarre hybrid of grateful and amazed, a feeling that, to be accurately expressed, would require something more physical than words. It might require a tail.
Deborah Thompson is a professor of English at Colorado State University, where she helped to develop a master’s degree in creative nonfiction. Currently, she’s working on a book project on dogs in America and what they mean.