A Garden-Variety Wednesday For a Dog in Quarantine

The hydraulic arms of a garbage truck heave and press in slow undulation, lifting a dumpster and slamming it to the ground. My neighbors a building over are having a conversation in Tagalog, speaking with great joy and laughter just beyond my bedroom window. The truck reverses and beeps, pistons inside of pneumatic air cylinders compress, a la rap video Chevy Impala lowrider, hoisting and dropping another dumpster. It rattles off the pavement and my neighbors speak louder. The morning is cool and dim and Cohen rises with a rigid tightness. Sinking into a deep stretch, he leans back with a commendable hold to hit the front legs. Then it's forward, face pushed out for the back legs—finishing with a full extension of the spine, a foot off the ground, and a nice quiver for good measure. “Oh, good stretch, good stretch,” I tell him and he looks up at me with an expression of grave seriousness. Cohen is the self-appointed protector of the household...he wants desperately to be taken seriously, for me to know the coast is clear, that I can safely start my day if I choose. He sits proudly with his chest inflated, refusing, to the best of his ability, the luxuries and comforts of a domesticated life, though, bit-by-bit, he's devoted himself more to pets and rubs, day-by-day surrendering further to the lifestyle of a tender bear. The feeblest invitation or extension of hand would bring about a unanimous softening in his eyes and a bow of the head, his valorous stance transported by love. Instead, he licks his face, pushing air from his nose. Gazing at me, fully inspired by the day's first blush, Cohen walks towards my bed and lays down with reckless abandon, a behavior that's raison d'être can be traced to the dual coat of fur that safeguards him. He wets his nose a final time and lays his face down softly on his paws. 

There’s a comfort for him in being up against the frame of my bed, like we're now somehow touching. If you look beyond Cohen's permanently furrowed brow, you see enduring hopefulness in his eyes, a truly shimmering outlook on life. It seems at times there is nothing that can break his optimism. On a normal day, in a normal time, we’d be on our way to work by now, which he was always game for, but being furloughed with a stay-at-home order I prefer to sleep in to shorten the days and he’s game for that too. He never acts bored or resentful. Just lays by my bedside, always satisfied, always trusting of me and the day that lies ahead.

As I start my day, he lays in the middle of the living room rug, his paws again serving as a pillow, occasionally looking up as I walk to the kitchen for water and then to the bathroom to brush my teeth and back to the living room for my headphones and shoes. I ask him if he’d like to go pee-pee and, vaulting to his feet, he stares at me deeply to confirm he heard me correctly and subtly cries.

His leash quickly disappears in his immense mane as he sticks his face through the loop and leads us out the door, pausing at the head of the stairs before diving down. It’s supposed to rain more today as it had last night and this morning, but for now, the sun shines on us — his fur glowing copper, his eyes a glassy brown — as he tiptoes down the driveway. He tries unsuccessfully but valiantly to stay at my side, wanting desperately to charge ahead of his listless father who holds him back and expounds on the importance of poise and restraint.

In the front yard, he approaches a run of plants trimmed to look like a wall. He sniffs and locates a proper spot. Alas, just as he’d inserted himself into the plant and perfectly angled his body to douse his mark, a spritz of water from a plant leaf hits him in the snout and he has to start again. Again he sniffs and locates his target, again he establishes the most favorable pee position, this time successfully spattering the plant...his eyes partially rolling back, his mouth slowly biting as if he were nibbling on an imaginary strand of grass.


When I return from my run, I get water for both of us and put food in his bowl. Cohen watches peacefully from the living room, his face remaining perched on his paws. Through the kitchen window, I see a man walking up the driveway and Cohen can hear him, so I close my eyes and listen for footsteps or a jingling of keys, but hear nothing. Soon Cohen is up to his feet with his ears pinned back, breathing heavily through his mouth and boorishly forcing air back out his nose. He rushes to the door with a flurry of cries and barks, an ad hoc denouncement of the stranger danger lurking in the driveway. The man begins his ascent up the stairs outside my apartment and Cohen leaps into the door in front of him with apprehension, snarling and huffing and perhaps also once or twice puffing. He comes over to my side and sits. Not receiving the solace he sought, he sits again, this time with clear intention and duress. I give him a scratch on the head and the fear momentarily wanes from his eyes...until the man’s garish hoof once again clops on a step and Cohen’s back at the door. Finally, the man reaches the apartment above us and Cohen returns to his place on the rug and his ears return to their natural heightened angle.

Chow Chows were originally bred in China to be guard dogs. They are known to defend their territory. In Cohen, I can see that it is not a heroic spidey-sense that hurls him into protect mode, but rather a persistent fear. His outward-seeking performance of viciousness and power is a front meant to conceal his fear from a potential threat. To grow instead of shrink in times of terror. He’s often judged or fitted into an aggressive Chow Chow stereotype for this, but it’s a behavior I feel many should find relatable. I, for one, have acted like a jerk on occasion to not appear weak and I certainly understand. 


As I towel off from a shower in my room Cohen leers, his fluffy head poking out from around the corner. I put on clothes and he yawns audibly as though the day has finally begun and this would be the final yawn of the morning. I lunge forward at him and he flinches. I charge forward, this time for real, and chase him into the living room. He bounds and dives under the coffee table, staying low and spinning in place to face me, his eyes hidden by the tabletop, his snout and paws poking out.

I ask him, “Cohen, do you want to go to the park, dude?” And he immediately begins pacing back and forth, his nails clicking against the hardwood floor. I ask him again and he pauses, crouching into a pouncing stance. I say his name to which he responds by pouncing up on me and bucking around the room like a bronco, eventually diving back beneath the table. I pull a ski mask over my face, reach into a 100 pack of latex gloves and try to work my fingers into them. I snap my fingers through the gloves and Cohen charges out from under the table, sitting in front of me so I can fasten his E-collar and sporty, navy blue harness. 

On our trip to the park, he cries frantically, pacing from window to window, periodically attempting to join me in the front of the car. The voice on the radio tells us that in New York and California more black and Hispanic people have died of the novel coronavirus than white people and I think of reasons that seem feasible but also make me feel guilty and racist for having thought them. As we make our way to the park entrance, Cohen pulls furiously, breathing as though something is asphyxiating him, and I judge a man with no face mask for pressing the street crossing button with his bare fingertips. 

Traditionally there’s a number of requirements and internal hang-ups that must be met and alternatively eased before Cohen can go number two. The dog park, however, alleviates all and upon entering the gate he rushes across the dirt-laden play area to the small, grassy outskirts in the far corner to crouch in safety, far away from the other dogs. After his pooh, he makes a break — ears pinned back, mouth open, front feet crossing back —  for the heart of the park, then circles around, grunting at other dogs that give chase or stand in the way. “Coming in hot,” I say every time. After twenty seconds or so a weariness seems to build, not because of what appears to be an excess of abdominal fat—his watermelon like shape essentially consists of a sturdy frame and dense, double coating of fur— it is in fact because he rapidly overheats beneath his lordly coat. I reckon he only has ten more seconds of this in him before he stops and goes about sniffing and seeking a dog that will let him hump it. Staying true to himself, Cohen stops to approach a fluffy white dog and sniffs its butt. He licks at its crotch and tries to advance to a more dominant position where he can place his chin on the dog’s back. Much to my chagrin the dog allows this and, before long, Cohen moves to mount. The dog allows this too, but I do not. I send a pulse from the remote control in my hand to the collar around his neck that he ignores. I yell for him to get down, this time holding the button so the pulse is continuous and more disagreeable. He dismounts and breathes heavily with his tongue out. It's customary for me and the owners of the dogs Cohen defiles to exchange their disgust or umbrage with my embarrassment and remorse but nowadays people are more concerned with keeping a safe distance and look as if they recognize there are bigger problems or that perhaps short-lived moments of non-sexually motivated dog humping were never actually grounds for war.

The pandemic is a great beast sacking our cities, a devourer and destroyer of humankind. It's left us a bit disfigured socially and emotionally, hiding...but also searching for a revelation, a divine resetting of the environment and our own toxic ways. It's left Cohen with a park that's sparsely populated and post-apocalyptic looking, so he mostly grazes and sniffs until he finds his own revelation in a patch of mud resembling wet clay that he likes. He maneuvers his front two legs to one side and digs the side of his face into the mud, using his back legs to drive himself deeper into it. This would continue until the mud was in his eyes and mouth and he felt sufficiently covered, but I just can’t allow this either and I again send a pulse to his neck. It makes me feel bad every time I press that button, but this time in particular, so when he looks up at me I bolt in the other direction so he can chase me and try to jump up to bite my arm. I run because I feel guilty. I run because there aren't other dogs. I run to disbelieve. Cohen is thumping hard behind me and I hear him grunt as he leaps up at my arm. We play this game for a while, plus more grazing and pooping and feeling a panicky dolefulness over the state of the world, and then we leave. On the way back to the car I take a picture of his muddy face. 

When we get home, there’s a lot of removing and washing...carefully removing gloves and then mask and washing hands, removing harness and E-collar and washing Cohen with the hose. As is our ritual, we go to the staircase outside my door where he can run up and down the stairs and shake off. The water reawakened energy he didn’t realize he had left and he runs in a circle around me and up and down the stairs like a new dog. I watch and spin and get dizzy, telling him he’s a good boy when he shakes. "Can you believe the incremental dryness coming from each shake?" I ask a pretend companion. "How much initial wetness would you say the first shake alone expels, seventy-five percent? At least that much, right?" We say to each other. I know Cohen's adequately dry when water no longer drips from his undercarriage and he’s sufficiently tuckered, but we aren't in a rush to return to our quarantine. This micro-outing was an uncommon and much-needed departure from the normal day-to-day spent confined to our modest, one-bedroom apartment, so we sit on the steps and enjoy the sun a bit longer. It seems there is something in this extraordinary moment for all of us, but for what I am not yet sure. I think maybe the prestige of having survived it. Perhaps we'll keep our benevolence when we come out on the other side...it also seems possible that the rawness that's been exposed will persist and hold us closer to honesty and sensibility. At least I hope so.

Once back inside, Cohen quickly falls asleep under the coffee table and I post his picture to my IG story with a Muddy Mutts sticker.  “Who’s my stinkies?” I ask him and he opens his eyes but doesn’t really move. "Bist du mein stinkies?" I ask him again in German and he closes them. I’m still confident he knows it’s him.

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