Benny and Carter are the two dogs who run our household these days. Benny is a fuzz-ball of a poodle, and Carter a herding mix with a coat like an old shag rug. Benny grew up here with my housemates at the Manor, and Carter grew up with me.

Benny, the most independent dog I’ve ever met.

I’ve never seen two dogs so very close to each other before. It is a bromance of the canine kind where they follow each other, play together, share bones, and our leftover dinner plates. Their favorite sleeping place is on my bed with Dinky, the cat, who has come to be part of their tribe.

 Benny and Carter are opposites in personality in many ways. Carter understands “No!” and is eager to please if he can figure out what you are asking of him. Benny asks “But why should I?” in response to most commands. Benny is basically low-key, and can happily sleep away a rainy day or two. Carter is high-strung and always asking, “What’s next? What are we going to do NOW?”

That grin…

In the living room at midday where we often gather for lunch, Benny will sit very regally—the posture of most poodles I would guess—with his paws crossed, waiting to see who has the first empty lunch plate to lick. Carter paces, his eyes on every face, drooling buckets. While Benny maintains a straight-mouth, suave look on his face, Carter’s face is a wide grin mostly all the time. He can grin and slobber, grin with a ball in his mouth, grin while scratching fleas. 

I watch the two of them with heightened interest these days. My counselor has given me a book about attachment styles in relationships, because I continue to reflect upon my many failed relationships in addition to my recently failed marriage. Is there a theme in all of it? I fear so. And I’m ready to heal this. 

I know that Benny are Carter are far better with close relationships than I am. Is it because dogs understand all canines better than we understand ourselves or others? Is there a common civility and willingness to get along that we—I—lack? A cooperative gene that fell out of our DNA and got lost along the way?

What fascinates me about my two canine teachers is how grounded in themselves they are. Is this what comes, perhaps, from walking on the bedrock of all grounding—our steadfast Earth—on four legs instead of two? 

Each dog manages to maintain his selfhood at all times. Benny never becomes a goofball in imitation of Carter, and Carter will never, ever be suave. Their play gets astoundingly rough sometimes with roars instead of barks and teeth snapping the air with a sound like breaking, dead branches. They move fast, sometimes in a mixed-up bundle of what sounds like utter rage until one or both break it off suddenly, back away, and give a few boisterous sneezes. 

Sometimes, they’ll dive right back into the intensity, and other times, the two will curl up Yin and Yang, and nibble each others’ make-believe fleas.

Bone time

I’ve never been able to get over intense fights with a partner that quickly. It takes me far more than a few sneezes. My personality requires me to go off by myself and lick my imagined wounds. That is the best I do. At my worst, I don’t lick anything, but choose to start a fire of smoldering resentment that can last hours or days.

Benny and Carter are never off with each other for more than a few moments. And they seem so abundantly gifted with goodwill for each other. For example, Carter goes into an intense trance when balls are being thrown. He is utterly fixated, deep into his own world, while Benny follows along muttering, “Yeah, okay, I’ll run this way with you but for heck sakes, slow down!”

Carter rarely brings a ball back to me. Instead, he will always drop it yards away, so Benny can grab it and wave his head in the air with pride: “See! I got it!” Even in a trance state, Carter manages to keep Benny on his mind, reminding him that he is always part of the play.

Too often, I choose to go it alone, concerned that my partner would participate in ways that aren’t mine. The unspoken words here are, “Let me do this because you will just screw it up.” Yes, I really do this, and so I’ve felt myself alone in this world a lot, much by my own doing.

The dogs carry their hearts wide open for each other. I open and shut mine and open and shut again, maybe because I don’t walk with four feet, grounded on the Earth with myself.

The Tribe

One thing I share with Carter is shame. If I need to raise my voice to him, he will cringe, put back his ears, and grin while avoiding my eyes. He says, “I guess I messed up. Maybe…not quite sure how…” I’ve walked this path all my life, with this background tension on my limbs: “I must have messed up. I’m not sure how…” Over enough years, it has put a permanent stoop to my shoulders. 

Carter will mend a shame face with copious face kisses and butt wiggling. For many decades I have not known how to mend it. Apologize? Grovel? Get hostile? Why is it so easy for him and so hard for me? 

I must spend more time close to the ground, being astonished at the miracle of dirt and leaves and tiny green shoots and quick spiders. And I must pull this astonishment up into my knees and arms and see if it will pour the deep grounding into my bones.

And I must keep listening to Benny and Carter, and marveling in their open hearts, their constant generosity, their confidence in just being dogs.

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