Living with a Dog
Nantucket Essays

Love Unleashed

• by Robert P. Barsanti •

Until this year, I have never lived with a dog. I have lived with parents, children, and wives, so I am used to certain duties and responsibilities. I know enough to turn the lights off before I go to bed, hide the Oreos from the boys, and put the toilet seat down. Dogs don’t require that sort of responsibility. Instead, dogs require that you open your life up a few more feet so that they can jump up and sit in the back seat. And then they would like a window open.

You can negotiate with the people in your life. You can look at your kids and let them watch another hour of Thomas the Tank Engine while you nap on the sofa. You can promise to powerwash the house in exchange for an extra hour of sleep. But when a furry, toothed face starts licking you, no promise of dog bones or extra scratching is going to put him off. You get up, you get dressed, and you walk around the yard for five minutes until he finds the right bush.

At least his manipulations come from a clear source. When he drops a slobber-covered tennis ball in my lap, he isn’t looking for me to get him a racket, some lessons, and some white shorts. After it bounces off the piano, a chair, and then comes to rest in his dog bed, he will be back and give it to me again. In the final glimmer of evening, when the Red Sox are squandering base runners, he will approach me on the sofa and settle his head on my feet. After a few moments, and a fetid burst of gas, he will settle his whole body onto me.

Such are the burdens of love. You have to give more than you want to give and take more than you really want to take. But your life swells to let him in.

Unfortunately, the one part of my life that has had to contract comes at the beach. Our dog, Moby, is an energetic, handsome, but intellectually challenged one-year-old puppy who bangs his head on parked cars. Overall, Nantucket is a wonderful place for dogs, as long as they have some sort of tick repellant sprayed on them. Many of the stores downtown leave water dishes out, the banks give treats to the dogs in the backseat, and the dogs attract a fan base near the benches. The one place on Nantucket where dogs have difficulty is at the beach.

Moby has two basic goals at any moment of the day: can I eat it? and will they play with me? When he sees other people, dogs, or slow moving bicycles, he wants to play. When he sees flowers, dead bugs, or sandwich wrappers, he wants to eat. So, going to a beach could be a smorgasbord for both appetites. Other dogs, other children, and other flying things dip into the airspaces over the poor lab’s head. Further, every one has snacks and is dropping them in the sand. Chips here, a cookie over there, and, if his nose is right, there are hot dogs in that group two blankets down. And his nose is never wrong.

Guilt has about a five-second delay in a dog. It takes a few moments for the conscience to get up off the sofa and grab the microphone to scream “bad dog!” But by the time that happens, his ears are flapping behind him, his mouth is trailing drool, and his legs are bolting over the sand. Of course, his tail is wagging and his eyes are full of good cheer, but if you just came from Bartletts with a $12 sandwich, how happy can you be with this 80-pound and sharp-toothed seagull perched at the edge of your blanket?

So, at the beach, he can’t be off his leash.   Since he can’t be off his leash, he can’t be in the water. And if he can’t be in the water, what is the point of a dog at the beach? He waits with us, in the shade of the beach chairs, pants, and dreams of better days.

Relationships are about give and take. My life expands to take the loving licks that he gives, and it needs to add more things to a summer afternoon than putting Moby in house arrest while we play in the waves. Sometimes, we need to do what he likes. And what he likes is splashing in the pools and puddles of Squam Swamp with a friend.

We left the cars and dipped into the buggy, dappled shade of that hidden forest. Now freed from his leash and the society of beach sitters, Moby ran circles around us, dipping into the ponds, then leaping over the branches and logs of the woods. He can cut circles, leap, pounce, and invoke the spirits of his ancestors.

It’s a fine thing for a dog, and a fine place. Unrestrained and unbidden, he circles us in love, but speeds about in passion. Sometimes the two come together as he and his partner double back on the path and charge us. We slide to the underbrush and let animal passion rush by unchecked.

We know him. We know his ways. And we know that, when we come back to the car, he will sit patiently while we affix the leash one more time and place him into the back so he can trudge his way through the world of feet and leash tugs.

Sometimes, the clearest form of joy doesn’t rise from our own chests and voices, but from the ones we love. Most of the time, love requires a leash. We ask that love sit in civility, pause in politeness, and heel as it is bidden. But that love asks us to be free, to be wild, to run through muddy puddles, to shake off in the middle of the path, and sing out that joy. If our hearts are large enough, we can. We love the things we love for what they are.

Articles by Date from 2012