May 2012

Americans Talk About Their Dogs

Ryan & Satchel

by Krista Whetstone

Several years ago, I encountered a wonderful oral-history project called Us: Americans Talk about Love. The book collected wildly different points of view on love, and was very intimate—like listening up close to each person’s heart. I contacted the editor, John Bowe, and he told me surprising things about his process (he also coedited Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs). He said he was really interested in getting a diversity of voices, and that to accomplish this, he asked people all over the country, of different class, regional, and racial backgrounds, to conduct and partially edit the interviews (I had assumed he’d conducted and edited most of the interviews himself). He explained that while he oversaw the process, he wanted other people’s voices and priorities to compete with and expand on his own. It was exciting to see someone working in the tradition of the great American oral-history master Studs Terkel, and altering it. I asked John if he wanted to work with Believer readers on a new project, and we settled on the subject of dogs, agreeing that the relationship between humans and dogs would be an interesting gateway into all sorts of emotions and experiences.

We’ll be printing the interviews in the magazine and online; eventually, they’ll be collected in a book. We’d love your help. If you’d like to interview, transcribe, edit, or find subjects, please contact John at johnfbowe(at)gmail(dot)com. The interview subjects can choose to remain anonymous if they like; what’s most important is that they feel free to speak openly without any worries.

The following interview, the first in the series, was conducted by Krista Whetstone.

—Sheila Heti

RYAN: Eva and I had a dog when we were first married: this great old shepherd mix, Ruby, who had been a stray in Brooklyn—incredibly great, incredibly sweet, and incredibly protective of us and protective of the cats, but very easygoing.

A couple years after Ruby died, Eva wanted to get a new dog. Eva likes having a dog. It sort of orders her life in a way she likes her life to be ordered. We found Satchel when he was about four. The previous owner loved him to pieces, but he was just very, very high-maintenance, and she had to get rid of him. Eva bonded with him pretty strong right off, even though Satchel was a very different kind of dog than Ruby.

Satchel was a Shetland sheepdog. Shelties are usually very little, but he was about thirty-five to forty pounds, which is huge for a sheltie. Imagine a long-haired collie, but sturdier. Super-long fur, like a tricolored collie, black and white and brownish. He had a blaze on his nose, a white stripe—very distinctive. He behaved like a little dog. He would jump on your lap as if he weighed fifteen pounds. He also loved most kinds of fruit, which was unusual for a dog. Apples, apricots. He loved the smell of bananas. He would beg for some, and if you gave him one, he wouldn’t eat it. He would put it in his mouth and he would spit it out, like, “Ugh, that’s not what I thought.” He did that probably a hundred times.

Shelties’ ears are supposed to stick straight up. But people who show them put little weights on them so they’ll tip over. Well, Satchel had one tipped and one straight. It sort of went with his style and personality. He was extraordinarily cute, the kind of dog everybody would remark on.

Shelties are Scottish herding dogs. They’re a lot like border collies, but more intense. They herd anything. That’s what they do. They just herd stuff. They’re high-energy. A sheltie’s like a full-time job, keeping up with it, keeping it entertained. The problem is that they’re basically paranoid—at least Satchel was—constantly worrying about internal and external threats, trying to secure whatever space they’re in.

When Satchel met you, he really wanted to mark you, to greet you, to lick you all over, to jump up on you, really check you out: “What are you doing here?” And then once he was convinced that you were basically OK, he wanted to be right next to you for a day or two. And really, he was just saying, “I’m now charged with protecting you.” Once that was accomplished, he chilled out a little bit and devoted his anxious energies elsewhere.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Krista Whetstone is a writer and independent filmmaker living in New York City.

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