This article was published in Traverse Magazine.
My dog doesn’t care I spent 24 hours marinating that pork tenderloin, especially as it slides down her throat in one selfish gulp. Same goes for the dozen eggs I left on the counter, the venison thawing in the sink, or the box of crayons on the shelf— it all taste better on the way down.
I found her on a day most people choose to stay inside. Rain filled the potholes on a lonely stretch of country road, and while I was trying to avoid them, a skinny black dog walked out into the middle of the road. I pulled over on the gravel shoulder and swung the door open. She plopped two wet paws in my lap and quickly helped herself into the truck with no working heater.
“What’s that?” My wife gasped in the doorway to our home.
“Well obviously, where did you find it?”
“Out west of town, she walked right out in front of me. I couldn’t just leave her there.”
“Yes you could of.”
“But look at her.”
She hadn’t been in the house 30 seconds and she was curled up in an impossibly small ball on our couch.
Who couldn’t love this dog?
My wife and I actually, more times then we’d like to admit. My efforts to civilize a stray dog were met by the rebellion and disregard of an animal that lived by its own rules.
What began to develop was a relationship bound by something some wonder if they even have any to give. Can a dog be grateful? Did she even care that I scooped her up off the side of the road that November day?
Slowly, she gained weight, and eased into a lifestyle much different from her previous nomadic existence. She was told “no, come, sit, stay”—each commanded met with increasing resistance. Bad manners, engrained from a life on her own, exposed themselves quickly. But calling them bad is a little unfair, it’s not like an abandoned house pet can learn how to survive politely.
My wife and I would gasp, wondering if we should be mad or impressed at this dogs ability to eat any and everything. There was no wondering how she survived on her own, when we watched her chase, catch and consume a squirrel—swallowing it whole, no chewing or gnawing required.
Her owner was nowhere to be found, ads went unanswered, phone calls never got returned. After several weeks of keeping our distance, trying not to get attached to something what might be returned to its rightful owner, we committed.
Layla we named her, not after the song, but after the Arabic translation of the word, which means night, or dark haired beauty—which we found out after we named her. She noticed when our commitment changed, when we began buying expensive food, swapped the piles of blankets for a dog bed, and put a collar around her neck with tags that jangled when she ran. Slowly, her submission to this life, and new masters, was noticeable.
We made a commitment. No matter how much food she ate off our table, clothes she chewed, stained carpets, she was our responsibility. She just didn’t know better, and punishing her for rules she doesn’t know is cruel. Dog’s emulate their owner, and if it’s poorly trained, it shows the lack of responsibility and commitment of their owner; because—believe it or not—a dog cannot read your mind.
She began to obey commands, because she wanted to, not because disobedience was met with punishment. A somewhat untraditional approach to training a dog, but it worked, and it was in her biology to obey and follow a master. Most behavioral problems in dogs come from a dogs inadequacy to be a leader, trying to lead. It’s up to the owner to respond to this need, to be the leader and train a dog to listen to them because it wants to, not because it has to.
And eventually, key word eventually, she began to adhere to our expectations of a dog. Only unleashing her wild side with ferocity when we’d go on long walks in the woods, the same woods she roamed before I found her. Finding dead stuff to eat, chasing rabbits with reckless abandon through blackberry thickets. And that one time she tackled a running doe—the deer ran off unharmed, and Layla, foaming at the mouth, panting with her pink tongue hanging to the side—basked in pure satisfaction of using the instincts she survived with, no matter how upset her master is at her.
I won’t ever hear Layla say how much our relationship means to her, or how grateful she is for the life we’ve given her. But I don’t need to, because it’s there; in her brown eyes when I throw a blanket on top of her, sneak a little venison in her food, or pull porcupine quills out of her mouth. It’s in the way she burrows her way between my wife and I while we sleep on a cold night with the window open, or rests her head on my lap while I write this essay.
Fading into the fabric of a relationship built on the presumptions of someone who really has no idea what feelings their dog has for them, is a friendship woven together from time spent with something that owes you their life—and that, can be translated in any language, even if it’s a slobbery kiss.