August is the month we get to welcome new full-time voices to the post calvin! Please welcome Alex Westenbroek, who is taking over Julia LaPlaca’s spot. Alex (’14) works as a speech language pathologist for WordPlay Speech and Language, a small company serving charter schools, grades K-12, in the Twin Cities metro area. Alex enjoys many things, including collecting and listening to vinyl records and playing board games. He lives with his partner, Sarah, in Minneapolis.

I’ve considered myself a “dog person” for as long as I can remember. Mom’s house rules regarding pet ownership were, and have always been, as follows: 

  1. Dogs are ideal.
  2. Cats are good, tolerable, and mostly convenient. As long as they get along with the dogs.
  3. Horses are (hypothetically) allowed, on account of their majesty. Cost of obtaining and/or maintaining said horse will not be covered by Mom or Dad. 
  4. No other non-human creatures, except for those listed above, are permitted in or near the house.

We had two cats when I was in grade school. They and I remained mutually standoffish until they passed. I never understood the function of the horse clause. But I vividly remember my life with each of our dogs.

I have many, many gushy stories I could have told about my dear canines. You may have smiled wistfully, maybe even shed a tear as you thought of your own beloved beasts snoozing on their paw-and-bone-themed cushions. But I have a different dog story to tell.

My great-uncle and great-aunt live in Hopkins, a nearby suburb. They have an old farmhouse, a large plot of land on the gently flowing waters of Minnehaha creek, and three dogs of their own: an Australian Shepherd (Tessie), and two Bichon Frises (Lewis and Clark). For about a month each summer, my great-uncle and -aunt like to travel, and I’ve stayed at their house to take care of the pups every summer I’ve lived in Minneapolis.  

With terms like “dog mom” and “dog dad” worming their way into common usage, I’ve tried to find a title for myself here. The dogs are the “kids” of my great-uncle, and if I understand proper kinship terminology, that makes me their first dog-cousin, once removed. 

While I’m staying here, I often like to sit in the backyard and read while the dogs sniff around. The yard is sprawling and grassy and surrounded by trees. A wire fence keeps the dogs in, and Minnehaha creek trickles by just beyond the fence to the north. 

A few evenings ago, I was out enjoying such a pastime. At dusk, I closed my book and called the dogs inside to feed them. Clark and Tessie came immediately to the back screen door, already vocalizing their hunger. No Lewis. 

I put Tessie and Clark back in the house and called for Lewis. I heard a couple of barks from off to my left, towards the creek. I stepped down into the yard and called again. More barks, no Bichon. 

I took out my phone for a flashlight and looked through the line of trees. I saw two eyes reflected. I took a few steps closer and saw the rusty squares of the wire fence, and Lewis on the other side.

The creek had flooded a few times in the spring. The ground around its banks was dark, sodden, and silty. Lewis had gotten himself stuck on a strip of mud about a foot wide between the fence and the creek. Uprooted trees blocked his path on either side, and whatever crawlspace he had found to get there in the first place, he couldn’t re-find in the dark. 

So, my feet squinch-ing into the mud, carrying a ladder in one hand and my phone light in the other, I went to fetch the dog. Once I was over the fence (one foot in the water), he wouldn’t come near me. Even though I had to carry him to help him, that pooch still had the audacity to make me give him four treats before he would stand close enough for me to pick him up. He finally consented, and I hauled him back inside to clean him.

Dogs are great and all when they snuggle, give kisses, and act cute. But they also have a tendency to bark, jump, claw, and in general force their needs upon you tactlessly and incessantly.

“HEY HEY OK SO I have to PEE and I’m HUNGRY and GOSH DARN IT where the HECK have you BEEN?”

Other times, the loud, piercing barks have no clear referent. I sigh, pause my episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and stand up to check on them. After a look around and nothing amiss, I turn to Clark with my hands in the air.

“What do you WANT?”

This is the most meaningful thing I’ve learned while caring for dogs. Dogs think almost exclusively about the most basic of needs: food, shelter, human contact, a nice place to pee. And they still struggle sometimes to communicate exactly what they need. I can really relate to that.

I earnestly hope that the next time I do something stupid and get stuck in a bad place (literal, spiritual, or psychological), someone—partner, friend, or otherwise—tromps through the mud to get me and handles me with patience and care. Maybe they even bring treats.

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