Stray Notes of a Somewhat Dogged Tendency

PEGGY is the kind of dog of which friendly strangers on the street ask, ‘What kind of dog is that?’ I always reply, ‘Oh, she’s a kind of Irish terrier,’ and then I hasten to add, ‘She is n’t my dog. She’s my little girl’s dog.’

Examining my motives for such a reply, I think that I make it because of some subtle feeling I have that a grown man ought to apologize for being out for a walk with a dog like Peggy. I am sorry to feel so about a friend, but I cannot help it. The fact is that, though we enjoy a complete mutual understanding which leads her incessantly to look up at my face to see whether I am cheerful and contented, I cannot lead Peggy on a leash without feeling foolish. Try as I will to remember her sterling character, I cannot forget that she lacks the dignity a dog out walking with a man ought to have. When I go along the street with her, I find myself oddly remembering a tiny motor-boat in which I once went sailing. I felt foolish in that boat, because it was so small that I seemed to bulge all round outside it, and the stout owner and his fat son and I looked, from the shore, like the three wise men of Gotham who went to sea in a bowl.

I often tell Peggy she has not only the appearance of a yellow dog but the manners of a flapper; and yet she does not appear chagrined. The trouble is that she does not look like anything in particular. She is not standardized at all. And she has no dignity whatever. To feel at ease on the street with a dog, one ought to have a dog of at least moderate size and dignity, and the dog ought to be one of which people sitting on porches will say, ‘That’s an Airedale,’ or ‘That’s a collie,’ and not, ‘What kind of dog is that?’ I often tell myself that I will not go walking with Peggy any more; but she knows perfectly well how weak I am, and that if she goes to the head of the stairs and noses at her leash and whines I will go.

Now Peggy’s father and mother were not only Irish terriers but conventional and standardized Irish terriers. They had heads and hair and legs and tails and other things of a certain so-tospeak predetermined shape and kind. Looking at them, one knew instantly what they were. They respected the conventions, both in appearance and in manners. I never saw them on the street, but I have no doubt that they walked along with poise and decorum, and never tried to look backward and walk forward simultaneously, with a resultant gait that can be compared only to that of a water spider; they never attempted to trot and to scratch their ears at the same time; and they never suddenly changed their minds about trotting at all, sat down, and slid a few yards along the sidewalk, before their owner became aware of their altered intentions. Peggy does all these things and several others. Besides, her head, legs, hair, and tail are no more conventional than her manners. If she only looked like what my friends call ‘a regular dog’ — they are fond of asking me why I don’t get a regular dog — one could overlook her other peculiarities. But she seems to take pride in looking ordinary.

Of course, I may be oversensitive; but let me give you an illustration of Peggy’s plebeian tendencies. Last month we were crossing the automobile ferry that runs over the Sheepscot River between Bath and Woolwich, Maine, and our car, with Peggy sitting on the front seat, stopped alongside a limousine with an Airedale sitting on its front seat. It was a ‘regular’ Airedale, too: there was no doubt about that. Instantly Peggy began to hop about and shiver and yawn, with shrill feminine squeals. I suspect that she was trying to flirt with him. But did he reciprocate? He did not. After giving her one supercilious stare, he turned and gazed across the river at the hills of Woolwich and continued to gaze, sitting up with all the hauteur of a footman or a butler — and there is nothing in the world more terrifying than that. We were all humiliated, except Peggy; and we agreed among ourselves that when we were buying a dog we might have picked out one with a little more style.

Of course, she is not really ordinary. I tell my friends constantly what a remarkable dog she is, and try to narrate to them examples of the unusually brilliant things she does. But they never listen, because they are thinking up something remarkable that some dog of theirs once did. They really do not consider Peggy remarkable, anyway. They judge her by her looks and these always make them laugh. But I never listen to their stories either, any more than I listen when they tell about their remarkable children. I merely assume a fixed expression of interest or astonishment and then, the moment I get a chance, tell them about my little girl or my little dog — my little girl’s little dog, I mean. I shall not tell any of Peggy’s remarkable doings here, however, because the reader would be thinking all the while that they were nothing to what he could tell about his dog.

When I go walking with Peggy — usually at night — I study her. There is a philosophical principle, for which a good deal can be said, that if one studies anything, however insignificant, — like Peggy, for instance, — if one studies this thing long enough and follows out to their conclusions all the thoughts suggested, one will end by knowing everything, not only about that thing, but about everything. I have never had time to apply the theory exhaustively, though perhaps sometime, when I am on a summer vacation, I shall; but I have experimented with it in a modest way and have found it very amusing. Now it is one thing and now another I use for the purpose, and just at this time it is Peggy. She is my ‘flower in the crannied wall,’ so to speak.

My studies do not take the laborious and pedestrian form known as experimental or laboratory psychology. My little girl and I did once experiment on Peggy for perhaps ten minutes, but she is not a good laboratory subject and I am naturally indolent. She has not the calm and poise that such a subject should have if one is to obtain the best results. Our experiment was a form of intelligence test, for I wished to satisfy myself whether what looked like intelligence in Peggy was really intelligence or only vivacity. I have often wondered the same thing about human beings. To this end, then, we laid two pieces of cake, a small one and a large one, on the floor, in order to determine whether, if she were permitted to choose freely between them, she would always choose the larger. Now such a test, to be significant, must be properly controlled, and Peggy refused to be controlled. We felt that scientific procedure required that the two objects should be placed at the same distance from the subject, since otherwise the closer proximity of one or the other piece to her would vitiate the experiment. But we had to give it up, because the subject took too great an interest in the objects and managed to gulp them indiscriminately before we could be quite certain whether she was using her brain at all. We became exhausted before she did, and I have since confined my studies to empirical observations.

As Peggy trots or gambols before, behind, or all round me, while we are taking our walks, — usually, as I have said, at night, — I ask myself questions about her and then look about in my mind for any stray items of information on the subject or any original ideas that may hitherto have lain there unnoticed. Last night, for example, I asked myself, ‘Has she a soul?’ This question, though interesting, is a hard one, because to answer it one would have first to decide what a soul is, and then to determine whether Peggy carries anything like that about with her. I have decided that she certainly carries something about, but whether it fulfills the specifications of the theologians is another matter entirely.

The first time I ever saw Peggy — that is, when I went to buy her — I knelt on the ground and held out my hands, and she jumped into them and, planting her forepaws on my chest, looked steadfastly into my eyes. At that moment I detected — or thought I did — a certain something that looked at me and answered to a certain something in me understandingly. That something I feel free to call a soul if I wish to, whichever of the two somethings is indicated. It really seems conceited to call my ‘something’ by one name and hers by another.

Anyway, there is something about Peggy — and you may call it whatever you please — that is simply Peggy and nobody else. I have watched it grow, too, and it seems to become more intrinsically Peggy all the time. I have known many fine dogs and have always been struck by the fact that they were so singularly themselves — much more so than most human beings. You are never quite sure about a human being, whether what you see is really himself or is his histrionic creation of a self that he keeps for show; but you are always sure about a dog. When I look at Peggy, for example, I know that I am seeing her and not her attempt to look and act like the dog around the corner. And it is the same way with the dog around the corner, whose name is Betty. She is even funnier-looking than Peggy, but is not at all humble on that account. She looks like a composite picture of a very large mole, a very small kangaroo, and a muskrat, while Peggy looks only like a dog that tried to look like an Irish terrier and then changed her mind. But Betty, in spite of her rococo appearance, is still every inch herself, and I always know exactly how to take her. I know, for instance, that she feels a profound scorn of Peggy and that she will try to bite her whenever she can. I think that she objects to Peggy’s lack of dignity, though it may be that she remembers how Peggy used to wear, last winter, a green sweater that made her look like a cucumber. Betty does not believe in dogs wearing green sweaters. Peggy, however, far from cherishing any grudge, lives under the unalterable delusion that Betty wants to play with her.

Peggy’s complete independence of mind, considering her size, is almost humiliating to a human being who sometimes knows his own mind and sometimes does not. She always knows hers. In fact, I often call her ‘Mr. F.’s Aunt,’ after the startling old lady in Little Dorrit, who I suspect, by the way, has been reincarnated in her. For just as Mr. F.’s Aunt had only one idea at a time but had that with all her might, so does Peggy; and just as Mr. F.’s Aunt shook her venerable fist under poor inoffensive Clennam’s nose, so does Peggy object to our iceman. She even disapproves of icemen as a class, and flies into a rage the moment she hears the rumble of an ice-wagon on the block. She begins to rumble herself, making in her throat a terrifying noise which, by long practice, she is able to keep up unintermittently and without losing her breath, until the iceman has come upstairs and has gone down again. She also erects the hair along her spine, and draws back her lips in an expression that would chill the heart of the most frigid iceman; and when he has left the pantry and is well on his way downstairs she rushes to the door and breathes hard through the crack under it.

There seems to be no good reason why she should do this three or four times a week for months on end. No iceman has ever done anything to her, and our iceman has made many overtures of peace. The only reason I can think of is that she enjoys doing it; and that, I suspect, is her reason. I cannot help admiring her and even envying her a little, for it must be very amusing to fly into such a terrible rage for no reason whatever.

What I especially admire in her is the stability of her opinions. When she has once made up her mind on any subject, there is nothing more to be said. That is her opinion, whether it rests on any rational grounds or not. It must be very comfortable to feel like that. We human beings look before and after and pine for what is not; Peggy never does — at least, not for any length of time. We, as the poet says, fluctuate idly without term or scope and each of us strives, nor knows for what he strives, and each half-lives a hundred different lives; but that does not describe Peggy in the least. She is living only one life at a time, but she is living it for all she is worth and not worrying her small head about all the it-might-havebeen’s and if-there-were’s that so commonly assail human beings. When she is sad, she is the complete and final epitome of sorrow, from the twitching black button that answers for a nose to the last quivering red hair at the tip of her somewhat too long tail. When she is glad, she is equally a compendium of all the denotations and connotations of joy. When she is hungry, she is just that; and when she eats, well — perhaps the less said about that the better.

Her soul is probably a simple little elementary soul, but it is crystal clear. It might not carry a man very far toward the skies, and yet he would be lucky if his were as honest and as staunch and as brave.

While I have been writing that last paragraph, Peggy has been making her bed. This is a serious matter, which occupies her for half an hour every night. She pulls her blankets up in little points with her teeth, then tramples them down with her feet, ploughs them up with her nose, tramples them down again, and sighs and snorts, while her basket creaks like a ship in heavy weather. At last she turns around half a dozen times, and flops with a thump and a final deep sigh. I sigh, too, thinking that her efforts are ended. But no! So long as there is a light in the house, she has to make the rounds of the rooms at intervals to be sure that all the family are safe. She has just been in to see me, laying her black nose on my knee and looking up at me with her brown eyes. I have pulled her ears, and scratched her back, and now I hear her toenails scratching on the oilcloth, as she goes to her basket in the kitchen once more. ‘Good-night, Peg,’ I say, ‘you’re a good dog.’