How a Horse Gal Was Won by Charm on Shorter Legs
I just finished reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, and while I would prefer to report that it didn’t touch me, I instead have to confess that it yanked and jerked at my heart strings. Mind you, I admit this sheepishly and a little bewildered at the same time.
First, I generally refuse to read pet books of any kind but particularly the excess of dog books floating around bookstores in recent years. Sentimental stories about the joys of man’s best friend made me roll my eyes. This might sound sacrilegious in the horse world, but I have never been much of a dog person. Admitting this around horse folks is akin to something like saying “I am cold and heartless and without a soul.” But it’s the truth—the dog part, not the heartless part. Over the years of traveling to barns to give lessons, I have endured numerous run-ins with man’s best friend that left me feeling less than fuzzy. Where others might experience charm and warmth, I only noted the pummeling. I struggled through packs of large slobbering canines bolting into my legs and ramming boxy heads up my backside; smiled politely when they invaded my car and ate my lunch. I calmly accepted the hole torn into my expensive breeches by a Standard Poodle and the pocket chewed out of my Patagonia jacket by a German Shepard. I tolerated being jumped on, barked at, and licked too much. None of these encounters left me wondering how soon I could get my own dog.
Enter Turbo– hyper, strong-willed Jack Russell Terrier.
I first became acquainted with Turbo’s toenails. They raked and clawed across my legs as he ping-ponged from driver side to passenger side of the car. His owner, a new acquaintance of mine, and I were driving to a local park to ride mountain bikes. Apparently, Turbo went absolutely everywhere his owner went, including 20-mile bike rides. At the moment, his excitement about this turned him into a spastic lunatic jumping from seat to seat, breathing heavily. That, plus his natural terrier nature, made the little guy seem like someone had plugged him into an electrical socket.
By the time we arrived at the park, my thighs looked like several games of Tic Tac Toe were scratched into the bare flesh. The gyrating terrier just earned his way to the top of my Least Favorite Dogs list. Then he proceeded for the next 20 miles to focus all that vibrating, panting energy into a zen-like loping dominance of the trail. Flattening his black ears against his white head and stretching out his taut body like a miniature Thoroughbred, Turbo was an aptly named athlete of impressive stamina and love for the trail. It not my outright affection that day, he definitely won my respect.
Most of you know the rest of the story, which explains why The Art of Racing in the Rain had me all sappy and mushy last week. While the complexities of Turbo’s charm took longer to fully absorb, his owner’s affected me immediately. Thus began my shy but stubborn pursuit that lasted nearly two years. It required many more mountain bike rides, which meant more time with the hyper but admirably sporty little dog with a black spot on his rump. That I would fall in love with Turbo’s owner was no surprise. Anyone in her right mind would fall in love with Turbo’s owner. But that I would become so completely attached to…a dog still baffles me.
Our bond started with the mutual and obvious common obsession—his owner—followed closely by shared exaltation in all things trail-related: biking, running, horses, camping trips. It grew with the realization early on that neither of us possessed any clingy need for the other. Turbo would never bolt into my legs begging “love me, love me, love me” or whine at me when I came in the door. And I in return would definitely never go out of my way to pat him and coo sweet nothings into his mischievous face. The fact that we each respected these boundaries unfailingly led to a near instant dissolution of said boundaries.
To become increasingly smitten with a dog feels at first like honoring the primordial connection of mankind to nature. We love this animal, we say, because he illuminates our lives by being so different from us. We note his noble traits that we ourselves wish we possessed, like unapologetic playfulness or guilt-free afternoon naps. But these differences from us are not the real reasons we admire our dogs. Instead, we are drawn to one particular dog or another because he or she indulges our inner narcissist. We love him because of the traits that secretly remind us of ourselves. Or at least the person you think or wish to be.
I’m unashamed to admit that pretty soon I really enjoyed Turbo because he reminded me so much of, well, me. Like a native New Englander, Turbo is both self-reliant and fairly anti-social. He steers away from boisterous social gatherings and packs of tail-wagging in favor of keeping his own company. His need for affirmation and touch reaches only the mild wish for a good belly scratch by others’ hands. Turbo is neither emotionally needy nor chatty. He loathes swimming, snores like a lumber jack, and possesses an insatiable appetite for exercise. In all these ways, Turbo and I are kin.
Once my inner narcissist met its smooth-coated black and white mate, behaviors progressed out of my control. My identity as someone-not-really-into-dogs-the-way-other-people-are fell apart. I was a polar ice cap melting fast, a fortressed city letting walls knock over. A dog photo now decorates the background of my computer. Vacations are planned around inclusion of a football-sized animal smuggled in to ski resorts and hotels. I shop for Jack Russell Halloween costumes and sign Turbo’s paw to Christmas cards. Until recently, I have hidden the cooing baby talk from public, denied wishing to send him text messages during the day, and mostly refrained from telling cute Turbo stories to disinterested friends. But after getting all choked up while reading a dog book of all things last week, it’s now out in the open. In fact, I’m pretty sure I referred to him as “family” last week, as if he were my own offspring.
From here on out, I vow to stop rolling my eyes at sentimental pet books like the one I just read because, given the chance, I would pen my magnum opus about a little guy named Turbo.