What Is a Dog?

Friendship, faith, and love, for starters—yet our relationships with our canine companions contain many more unfathomable mysteries

Michael Davis-Burchat/ Flickr
Michael Davis-Burchat/ Flickr

I’m lying on the floor of our kitchen, resting my head on Booker’s huge, hairy chest. It’s late. The house is quiet. He smells like cinnamon rolls baking in a barn. I smell like dog.

I come to visit here often now, at the side of Booker’s bed, because at 15 years old—and as a big, big dog at that—he has trouble walking, trouble even getting up. We use a harness to lift him, an act that at times takes on acrobatic grace, and at other times reminds me of the shame my elderly grandparents showed when they started needing similar help. The harness is always on him so that at any moment, up, up we go! It’s about time to wash it again, I’m thinking, and, What do you know about death, Dog? It’s a glossy, bleak place to have arrived, but here we are every day now, trying to figure out if he’s ready to die, and if we’re ready to let him.


What is a dog? At some cloudy, pink point in my life, I didn’t know the answer to that question, same as I didn’t know the answer to, What is blue? What is a tablespoon? What is fear? I imagine eventually my mother or father pointed to our old Afghan hound, Ytse, and said, “Dog.” Okay, I must have thought. I see the dog, but what is it? I see its eyes, its nose, its tail trailing fur like tentacles. But what is a tentacle? What is a dog?

I was around four years old when Ytse collapsed in the kitchen. My mother took her to the animal hospital in lower Manhattan, and I never saw her again. Cancer had invisibly, wickedly filled her up.

So a dog must be nothing. A dog is a dream I once had. A dog is a disappearance, a dog-shaped hole in an otherwise identical house.

When I was six, my parents gave me Agatha, a sweet slip of a Scottish terrier puppy. My dad bought her from a pet store; back then, we didn’t know better. I think we have only one picture of her because she immediately came down with parvovirus, my mom took her to the animal hospital, and I never saw her again. It was the first time I remember seeing my mother cry, her face stiff and contorted like a house several days after a fire. I laughed. That was the first thing I did. Then I cried, because I realized I knew what a dog is. A dog is death. A dog is abandonment. A dog is sorrow.

As soon as the period of parvo contamination in our house had passed, my parents got another Scottie puppy, this time brindle, and this time from a breeder in White Plains. My dad and I went to pick her out from the litter. I sat on the woman’s plush red carpet and let puppies run all over me. I wanted the one that came over and curled up in my lap; my dad wanted the one that peed on him. “That’s character,” he said. So we went with character. She was the runt of the litter, and until we took her home as Agatha, she’d been called Ida Red.

Maybe a dog is a second chance. A dog is death and life. A dog is plush red carpet and fresh warm pee.

I’m an only child, so perhaps my bond with Agatha took on extra weight. Along with a handful of humans, she was my favorite company for 13 years. Almost perfectly, she died the summer before I left for college. I say almost perfectly because the pain was the greatest I’d ever felt. I cried for days that stretched into weeks, months even. Years. I wore her nametag as a necklace and broke down regularly in stores at the first note of a sad song—much like after my first breakup.

Among other notables, two things stand out about Agatha: she once ate an entire pack of gum out of my grandmother’s purse, and I trained her to run from one end of our living room to the other, jumping over my extended leg along the way like my very own urban show pony. She was hilarious and sweet and loyal. She was a dog.

Oh. A dog is hilarious. A dog is sweet. A dog is loyal.


In the spring of 2006, the relationship I was in came to a startling end. It was no doubt for the best, but at the time, rattling. So I—a serial monogamist—swore off men. I adopted a second cat and that would be that, I thought. And it would have been, if it weren’t for my determined friend Cyd. She would casually check in on me during the weeks after the breakup, at first to see how I was doing, then to announce she’d met someone I had to meet. No way, I said. Never. But over the course of a few weeks, she gently chipped away. He went to the same college as we did! He’s smart! Kind! Athletic! Handsome! I’m sure he is, I said. Not ready. Did I mention he has a dog? she said. What had seemed like a beleaguered last-ditch effort had probably been part of her plan all along. I forgot to mention, Cyd’s a lawyer. You did not, I said. When shall I meet him?

It turned out I would meet Matt and his dog, Booker, on a chaperoned dog walk, with Cyd and her dog, JJ. Driving down the shaded path, I was skeptical, but excited to spend the afternoon with some dogs. I hadn’t had canine company since Agatha. As we got out of the car at the supply ponds on the Connecticut shoreline, I might have audibly gasped when I saw Matt and Booker standing in the dappled yellow dream light near a big rock, waiting for us—for me. What a poem, those two. Matt was indeed handsome, warm, kind. And how to describe Booker the dog? Wolf meets horse meets dinosaur meets tongue. We were all smitten. Right then and there, I swore off swearing off men, and Matt and I would spend every weekend together until I moved into his house in Branford—with my two cats, Tito and Lolita—less than a year later.

Merging furniture is one thing, beasts another. But, with work, things went along beautifully—mainly because after enduring a hiss or two, Booker, who could have gulped the cats down for breakfast had he wanted, let them run the ship. Working from home, I quickly (and happily) assumed the role of Booker’s primary caretaker—feeding him, walking him, taking him to his vet visits, which were many, as he’d torn both back MCLs, two years apart. I remember feeling giddy and a bit nervous, getting to know him on our own time, like a stepmother must. Matt said I could let him off-leash at the marsh, and I held my breath the first time I let him go. Would he really come back? He came back, over and over. He was the kind of dog you could lie about with. The kind of dog you could race to the lake. The kind of dog that might make you want … another dog. At least he made me feel that way. As is my darker tendency, the madder I love you, the more often I picture losing you. Booker was eight, technically a senior. The pain of losing him was already looming. It occurred to me that he was such an incredible dog that surely he must overlap with our next dog so that all his greatness would rub off. It took some convincing—I am undoubtedly more beast-mad than Matt—but four months before we married, we adopted a sweet three-month-old husky-collie mix from Georgia and named him Safari because he looks like five different animals stuffed into one.

Safari and his siblings—an unintentional back-yard litter—had not spent a lot of time with humans. They were shy. The way he curled into my lap on our first drive home with him felt less like love, more like disappearance. I’ll never forget, though, when we set him down in the yard and let Booker out to meet him, how Safari came instantly alive, as if his whole fluffy, wiggling self was shouting, “My people! My people!” For years, he almost never left Booker’s side. Though I can’t say this development was immediately Booker’s bliss, within a month or two their limb-tangled naps and fur-crossed car trips were clear displays of mutual affection. As Safari grew, his youth brought out more of Booker’s, and in one of the most vivid, moving examples of love and trust I’ve ever seen, Booker gradually coaxed Safari out of his shell. He, not we, taught Safari to trust his humans, to love his humans, and allow himself to be loved.

This must be why Safari has always had my heart. I, myself, am deeply anxious, and though it may have taken me into my 40s to name it, it’s around humans that I, too, want to disappear most. If it’s a therapist’s job to help us figure out why we are the way we are, it’s ours alone to want to see it—but there’s always a reason. A reason some of us never feel adequate. A reason some of us drink. A reason some of us would prefer to smash our faces in a dog than wrestle with a fellow human being.

I grew up in a world of beautiful things—stately old brownstones with their well-appointed façades, window boxes dripping through spring; private gardens (my dad’s own enchanted roof deck included) that popped up regularly in print; people, too—but a world that tended toward stiff lips and alcohol over transparency and self-reflection. It was a world—a time—that championed achievement, less so emotional truth. I learned to say the right things even when they felt wrong. I learned to be fine. I learned to be deeply private. Held, not always heard. Celebrated, not always seen. Loved, not always known. So, before I learned to write, I learned to tell my dog what I wondered and worried most.

Are there wolves in New York City, Dog? If we accidentally leave our front door open, will they trot in their wounded snow? Can they climb stairs? What about the sharks I see swimming above me in my room at night, glowing down from their bellies like incandescent gowns? They’re not real, are they? Then why do I see them? Why is there one in the toilet, too, hot, glistening teeth? If I lean too far to one side of my seat, will I flip the plane? And is the same true of a boat? And is the same true of my mother if I’m on her knee? Are those animals on the side of the road asleep? Is thunder the sound of them snoring? Is politics the thing that happens when adults close doors? Is that why I hate politics? And closed doors? Is it weird that I have imaginary friends? Is that why people laugh? Is my vagina supposed to look like this? What if I get mad at somebody? What happens then? What is that called, when beauty doesn’t prevail? If Daddy is late, does that mean he caught fire somewhere? Why can’t I ever stop laughing? Does the middle finger mean something different in ballet? Why does classical music fill me with despair? Why do I turn so red? Why does it feel so awful to turn so red? Can’t I be you, Dog, full-bellied, wet-nosed, dreaming of kilim pillows covered in batter meant for cakes? Will the boy who grabbed my ass on the way home from school this afternoon remember doing it when he is old? Are Harriet and I really lesbians if we don’t want to play spin the bottle? Why is a blow job called a blow job, Dog? Can’t I be you for today?


You’ll just know, people tell us. Animals have their ways. He’ll tell you when he’s ready.

I’m spending the better part of Booker’s last year looking for signs. Loss of appetite. Loss of interest. Loss of trees reflected in his eyes. But none of this is happening. He pants a lot, but it’s getting hot. Finally, though, comes the day when the panting seems to come not from heat but from anxiety—misery even. It isn’t that hot. Safari’s not panting. Suddenly—and without hesitation—I know. Whether or not he’s telling me, I have come to the place where I am ready to make the decision for him. As his human, I know more. I know a way to make it better.

When Matt comes home, I try to speak but cry instead. I think it’s time, I finally say. He cries so quickly, I know he thinks so, too.

I email our vet and ask all kinds of questions. Will she come to the house? How does it work? What will it look like? What do we do with Safari, whose lifeline for seven years has been this magnificent dog? She will come to us. She will give him a sedative first so that he will fall asleep, then she’ll deliver the lethal injection. It can look like a lot of things, but most often, peaceful. Safari shouldn’t be there for the procedure, but we should let him visit Booker’s body once he’s gone. Animals have their own way of acknowledging death, and their bond was so great, there’s worry Safari might otherwise spend the rest of his life searching for his friend. But we should be prepared for anything. Safari might lie on top of him and refuse to get up. He might hump him. He might have no interest in him at all.

We set a date. I line up my parents to take my kids for the night. For a few weeks, we talk more and more with my son, age five, and my daughter, two, about how Booker’s not doing so well, that we can tell he’s really fading. We don’t say sick, because what if they or we get sick? We try to keep it vague and truthful, but not scary.

“I just hope he doesn’t die,” my son says.

“Well, he’s going to die,” I say. “We just don’t know when.”

“Yeah, because everyone dies,” he says.

“That’s true,” I say.

“When do you think I’ll die?” he asks me.

I don’t tell him that he’s already died a million times in my head.

“Not for a long, long time,” I say.

“Do you think I’ll die before you?”

“I don’t think so, Love.”

“I think Moma’s going to die before both of us because her hair is the whitest.”

“Well, she’s also older than we are so that would make sense, but I don’t think she’s going to die anytime soon either. I think we’re all going to have a lot more fun together.”

“Yeah,” he says, but he has Jupiter Eyes, as he calls them. They’re far off.

That afternoon, my daughter, who calls Booker “Buh-ber,” pulls her tiny red rocking chair from the living room into the kitchen, right up next to Booker’s bed. She doesn’t say anything. She just rocks, pushing her foot into the corner of his bed.


We’re lying on the beach under a tropical, turtle sun on our honeymoon in St. John, and my husband says, “You’re thinking about the animals right now, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I say.

He’s my husband now; I promised the truth.

We laugh, but I know there’s pain in this. The good news is, the person my husband is most likely to find me spooning other than him is a dog. The bad news is, it’s a dog. In other words, not him. And herein lies a problem. As much as I’ve relied on dogs to take in my truths over the years, I haven’t chosen a life with just dogs. I’ve chosen human love, and marriage—to a psychoanalyst, of all improbable beasts. I’ve chosen children—two, when I know only the experience of being one. I chose a house full of movement and emotion when I don’t handle conflict well. I chose messy and loud when I don’t know how to be either. My husband doesn’t just like to talk—not about the weather, but us—he needs to. As much as I need to smash my face in a dog.

I don’t feel like a great mom. Is a good mom enough? Do I need to master emotional honesty to write emotional honesty? Can I still call myself a writer if I never publish a book? When the doorbell rings, is it okay to hide? I have one remaining puppy kindergarten class. If I die today, will someone else finish them out and make sure my puppy learns how to sit, stay, share, come? Do I forgo the writing or let the kids run our well dry, spraying each other with the hose in great shrieks like cowbells just so I can finish this sentence?

There’s a reason it’s so unbearable for me to lose a dog. It’s then I’m most reminded of my limitations as a human. It’s as if, in their deaths, they’re telling me, Hey, Person! You really are on your own here. I’m lucky to have a husband who reminds me that in fact, I’m not alone—as long as I’m willing to let myself not be.

We’re about to have our 10th anniversary. Which means he’s put up with a lot of dog-spooning by now. But I’ve also learned, these past few years the most, why I don’t just need dogs. The beauty of dogs—animals, really—is that they want to be with you as you are. The people who want that, too, are the ones who turn the trials of human life into hard-won marvels. And still, dogs and people can save you only as much as you want to save yourself.


It’s the night before The Day, and my husband has moved Booker’s bed into the living room. It’s a hot night. Matt is sweaty from having just finished digging the great hole into which tomorrow, soon after 11, Booker will go. He opens a beer, gets down on the floor with his friend of 15 years, and turns on Game of Thrones. I have a picture of them sitting there, taken from behind. For that one moment, they’re back to their essentials, the way they were before I met them, man and beast, getting each other through another day of it. Matt periodically weeps as Booker seems to vacillate between vast gratitude and panting discomfort.

Afterward, Matt brings Booker and me outside and takes some pictures of us, since I’m the one always taking pictures. If dogs have their one person, Matt is certainly Booker’s, but I think I’m a close second. Actually, I think you could say that I’m Booker’s Mama, complete with rules and regulations and ferocious, bone-crushing love. Matt is Booker’s one true friend—the one who sneaks him leftovers when Mama’s back is turned.

The night ends quietly with lingering kisses to Booker’s still-warm head. I look at Safari as I go up for the night. He can’t know what’s to come tomorrow, can he? We’re going to be okay, I tell him, but I’m crying. What does he make of crying? Of butterflies? Stone walls? Dancing? God? Money? Sex? Death?

The morning is endless. Matt and I pace about the house, as if movement will bring the hour of 11 closer, sooner, but also, maybe, push it back. Though I can’t yet fathom what we have to survive to get there, and though we’re certainly not ready to be without him, we’re ready to be on the other side of this, we’re ready for him to be peaceful.

Our vet, Heather, and her vet tech, Lori, arrive. My stomach tingles in the excited way it did that first day I met Man and Dog, but with a terrible dread shot through. I’ve never hugged Heather before, but that’s how we begin. If vets have their favorites, Booker is one of Heather’s. She calls him “Booker T,” and the sound of her voice makes him bounce.

Heather and Matt walk Booker out to the back of our yard, where we’ve laid the big blanket we’ll wrap him in.

Matt and I cry from beginning to end. We watch him, kiss him, hold him, as his panting slows and he gently lowers his head. That head had bones in it you could cut stone with. That head got so hot by the summer lakes. I remember realizing as he finally closed his eyes that I’d never see them again. Those enormous brown eyes filled with goop and sun. I didn’t think he’d look much different than that once he was dead, but he did. I’ve never seen anything so still. He looked like a picture, like he was already a portrait framed on our wall. All the leaps those legs took—up a ledge in the forest, off our back porch, out into the cold, blue ripples of Keuka Lake. I hope to God as he lies here that’s what’s playing for him against the pink-to-gray insides of his lids.

Then Matt lets Safari out. We all stand back to give him room. How will I survive this?  Wagging softly, he walks right up to Booker’s face. Their noses touch. Then Safari backs away and comes over for a few scratches. He trots a large circle around Booker’s body, returning once more to the place he’d licked a billion times, the place he’d looked to most those seven years for direction, companionship, faith—Booker’s face. Their noses touch like strawberries on a shared stem. Then Safari trots back to us. He seems neither anxious nor distraught. He wags the low wag of acknowledgment, perhaps. He seems to understand. The only unusual behavior he exhibits is that for the first time ever, he spends the afternoon on Booker’s bed.

We hug Heather and Lori again, wrap him in a moving blanket, and lower him into the crater-size hole we spent the week digging for him. When the kids get home, we will find rocks to paint and place over the spot where Booker lives.

My parents pull up and chattily, busily get the kids’ things out of the car so they can leave quickly and avoid crying themselves. Right there on the back porch, where so often we’d sat with the dogs, watching the hummingbirds zip through summer, we told them that while they were at Moma and Pa’s, Booker died. At two, Rae knows the right face to make, but she doesn’t have a whole lot of emotion. Jackson immediately announces that he’s fine, a word that makes me shudder for all the times I’ve said it—most often when I wasn’t fine at all.

“It’s okay to be sad,” we tell him. “This is a very sad day. We are so sad.”

“I’m not sad at all,” he says.

But after a pretty splendid tantrum, I get him in my arms and hug him until he collapses into me with a sobbing-mad sadness. That night, we all sleep as if we have rocks on top of us.


My daughter has been going through a phase of saying unexpected things at grocery checkouts. Things like, “Cat poop,” “diarrhea,” and “Mommy tooted.” So I feel braced as we near the front of the line. “Awww, she’s so cute,” the cashier says. “Buh-ber died,” my daughter replies. She says it again to a man in the parking lot who tells her he likes her rain boots. “Buh-ber died.” “Sorry?” he says. “What did she say?” “We lost our dog, Booker, earlier this summer,” I explain. “She’s been telling everybody.” It’s true. It’s become her greeting, and I’m a little jealous because I realize that’s what I want to say to everybody. It’s all I’ve wanted to say all summer. To the garbage man: Booker died; to my son’s summer camp counselor: Booker died; to my dentist: Booker died; to the last black rhino on earth: Booker died.

It feels wrong to be so distraught over an animal. It feels childish. He was just a dog. But he wasn’t just a dog. No dog is. A dog is a trampoline park 300 feet off the highway. A dog is a swift kiss in the rain. A dog is, to steal a line from Stephen Dobyns, the answer “to what comes next and how to like it.”

What a thing it would be always to say what we really want to say. Not “I’m fine” but “I got caught stealing makeup for a stranger today.” Not “I’m fine” but “Last night in the shower, I miscarried a baby.” My grandfather always hated when people told him to “Have a nice day!” He thought he should be able to have any kind of day he wanted. And he was right. I’d love to spend a day saying exactly what I want to say, saying the words over and over until I feel understood, like any reasonable two-year-old.


When we open ourselves to the possibility of love, we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking; and when we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking, we open ourselves to the possibility of being made whole again. Almost two years later, we have a new pup, Otter. Part Catahoula leopard dog, part Lab mix, and part otter, it seems, from Jackson, Tennessee. At his first vet visit, Heather told him, “You’ve got some big paws to fill, Mister.” She’s right. But, oh, my kids are at such sweet ages for a puppy—four and seven, now. My husband is making a sound when petting Otter I haven’t heard him make since Booker died. But what’s probably most moving to me is seeing Safari act as pack leader. My plan worked. Safari, who was raised by Booker, is now raising Otter. This is where you pee. This is when you bark. Enough is enough, and get out of my face already. I can see it happening before me and feel Booker there, too, maybe one step ahead of Safari, as Safari runs maybe one step ahead of Otter, who runs maybe one step ahead of the trail of dogs yet to come—but all of whom will always be following that first one, Booker the swashbuckler, the cinnamon roll, the sound of Sunday leaping deep in the woods. Eyebrows. Legs. Black-spotted tongue of wonder.

Maybe a dog is, in fact, the absence of things—what you get when you take the bad stuff away. Absence of politics. Absence of evil. Absence of sharks shifting into your room. A dog is a lonely heart without all the loneliness. Dog, why can’t I be you for today?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Chloe Shaw lives in Connecticut with her husband, two kids, and two dogs. Her book What Is a Dog?—based on an essay that appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the Scholar—was published last year.


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