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The Poetry Column

Gene Weingarten: Knucklehead cuts to the chase

The following is adapted from a speech I gave at a fundraiser for the Washington Animal Rescue League. It was a black-tie affair. Dogs were in attendance.

I recently spent two weeks in a hospital. As far as my dog understood, I had died. After a few days of checking around to make sure I was not, for example, hiding in the laundry hamper, Murphy accepted the tragedy of my passing and was stoically preparing to go on without me. By that I mean that through some timeless, mystical entwinement of grief, survival and social cognition that has united man and dog since the first Pleistocene hominid befriended and domesticated the first gray wolf — after just four days, Murphy moved up and stole my spot in the bed. Head right on the pillow.

My point here is that — and I say this before a potentially hostile audience — we must always remember that dogs are, in the end, only dogs. To paraphrase the British writer Frank Skinner, never expect too much from an animal that is surprised by its own farts.

I mean no criticism by any of this. I think we understand that one of the most endearing traits all dogs share is that they are absolute knuckleheads. In fact, if you examine the top of a dog's head — check it out right now, if you happen to have a dog nearby — you will see that they all have a lump there, right in the middle, toward the back. Feel it? My daughter, who is in veterinary school, informs me this is the occipital crest, but my medical theory is . . . that's the knuckle!

In people, that area is filled with brain, but dogs have their knuckle, which assures that even though their species may be filled with love and a full, deep range of emotions, they do not have the intelligence to figure out that statues are not enormous, menacing people; that one cannot obtain legal ownership of a plot of land by peeing on it; or that, among all the things that qualify as "not a good idea," one of them is eating pins.

As I was writing this speech, a friend sent me a link to a story from England, where veterinarians had operated on a family dog, expecting to confront and extract a huge stomach tumor, but instead found, and I quote, "enough clothing to fill a washing line," including two rugby gloves, two golf gloves, one mitten, one stocking, nine socks and a dish towel.

Murphy doesn't eat pins or gloves or stockings; her greatest gastronomic idiosyncrasy involves something I am not going to elaborate on here because people may be ingesting food; suffice it to say that one way to discourage this particular behavior — recommended by dog trainers everywhere — is to go on walks with an open bottle of hot sauce within easy reach.

I'm proud to say that Murphy was adopted as a puppy from a shelter, and also that we did not choose her for her looks. She was a sweet little misbegotten mottled brown thing, so odd-looking that we weren't entirely sure she was a dog. She resembled a nocturnal burrowing mammal — a vole or a gopher or possibly some sort of mutant, swamp-dwelling marsupial. For a time we considered feeding her only grubs, worms and insect larvae.

That probably would have been a mistake, because Murphy turned out to be a dog, and a beautiful one. She'd been abandoned in the rural woods, part of a litter of seven, and now she is in many ways the center of our lives. She is the last one in the house to wake up every morning, yawning and stretching as she saunters downstairs, clearly wondering, for the thousandth straight day, what the heck we're all doing up so early.

Murphy has a good life, which is the least we humans can do for a dog, in return for what they give us, which is access to the sort of innocence and trust and absence of guile or pretension that's lacking in our own species. That's the gentle transaction between dog and human.

Finally, I want to mention what happened on the day I returned from the hospital. I was sitting on a chair when Murphy came in from the back yard, glanced at me and literally did a double take. Then she looked at my wife and said, the way dogs can say in one eloquent glance, "Do we let him stay, or what?"

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. You can chat with him online at noon Tuesdays at www.washingtonpost.com.

Gene Weingarten: Knucklehead cuts to the chase 05/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 4:31am]

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