Please welcome today’s guest writer, Laura Sheppard. Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She currently lives in Madison, WI, sharing a house with three other Calvin grads. She works as an IT support analyst for the State of Wisconsin court system and enjoys walking her dog, rock climbing, biking downtown, and painting.  

I love how social barriers break down when you have a dog.

I still live in the Midwest, where Midwest Niceness prevails—if you’re lost downtown or need help changing a flat, you’ll have plenty of passersby willing to help you. Still, for the average sidewalk-goer, you’ll find yourself politely avoiding eye contact when you pass a neighbor.

When you have a dog, though, things are different. I take my Samoyed, Rainy, for a walk every day. Just as much as the joy of dog ownership, I love witnessing the joy that my fluffy little pup inspires in others. A person walking down the sidewalk immersed in their phone or scowling on their way to the bus stop will look up and break into a grin. When my dog prances down the sidewalk, tongue lolling out one side of her mouth, who can blame them?

A stranger on the sidewalk becomes an acquaintance when they kneel down to pet my pup, or when they have their own dog who pulls his leash to approach Rainy, sniff her butt, and wrestle her to the ground in a frenzy of licks and paw swipes. I would never have approached this neighbor, but our dogs approached each other—and the social blockade crumbles.

A lot of people my age revel in double meanings and sarcasm. If a friend says they like a popular band, I’ll ask, “You mean, unironically?” Irony is the mask I often wear to avoid caring too much, or loving the wrong things. I’ve let myself become too cynical, too doubting of others’ sincerity. But who can doubt the sincerity of a tail that wags every time a squirrel passes? A dog who sees every stranger as a new best friend?

Dogs are an antidote to the barriers we set up as a culture. And a lot of folks on the internet have noticed. Meme images of dogs feature bad-grammar captions about loving snacks and tennis balls. WeRateDogs has built a multi-million dollar brand by posting photos of cute puppies and rating them eleven or higher on a ten-point scale. Although we project irony and cynicism on much of what we see, dogs have an uncorruptable earnestness that is more valuable than ever.

Rainy, like most dogs, loves to hang her head out my car window and grin into the wind when we drive. Other drivers, typically stoic behind the wheel, laugh and smile and wave at her. Last week a middle-aged man stared at Rainy when we were stopped at a traffic light, then called out, “High sweetie!” I turned to meet his eyes and smile at his appreciation of my dog. Sheepishly, he called out, “I meant the dog, not you!” But his father in the passenger seat leaned over and yelled, “Nah, it’s both of ya!”

Another day, a girl walked past us at the park and said, “Your dog is beautiful!” Apparently feeling that I deserved a compliment, too, she added, “I mean, you are too?” And walked away faster.

Dogs cause us to shed our masks and let joy take hold. I’m thankful to have a fluffy friend to take around who brings me nearer to the strangers I meet, and who never censors her unbridled joy at being given an ice cube to chew on. May we all look to dogs as we strive to live life to the fullest, chasing every tennis ball with renewed wonder and glee.

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