Playing ruff

March 13, 2012

When I was about 12 years old, my single father and I moved away from northern California, where I’d been born and raised. My father had fallen on hard times, and my uncle had offered to let us stay with him in Long Island until we could get back on our feet. Not only did this connect us back to our East Coast family; it also gave me my first dog in my uncle’s Golden Retriever. Robert Maximillian III: a regal name for a down-to-earth personality. Robert didn’t own a leash. He went wherever we went. Most of the time, in fact, we let him out to do his business, after which he would come back and scratch on the door when he was finished. Two things I remember most about him: his smell and his voice. Those who’ve lived with a Goldie know that smell, which is somewhat foul to non-owners yet nostalgic to the rest of us. Even his weekly bathing did little to mask it. It saturated the house, became a part of our lives. His voice, on the other hand, had a variety of scents. It was full of color. Squirrels or other dogs would occasionally set him off, but for the most part he was quiet. I remember most his sounds of play. We had a favorite game, for which I’d put on my dad’s oven mitts (much to his chagrin) and initiate a play fight. I would begin by slapping Robert on the face until he started growling, and we’d wrestle for half an hour, respecting each other’s boundaries but sometimes getting pretty rough. Yet his voice—a combination of snarls, snorts, and joyful rumbles—always let me know it was okay. He spoke to me in those moments, ensuring that the script of our play was true to character. Was this violent? For all intents and purposes, I suppose so. There was plenty of physical contact that in other contexts might have been considered abusive. But we shared an agreement. Case in point: I rather naively came to believe that all dogs shared this understanding, foolishly tried to initiate our little game with a neighbor’s dog, and received my first (and last) bite in return. We’d simply never had a conversation about it. My takeaway point is this: If we’re going to talk about physical boundaries between animals, including ourselves, then we must also think about play, for it is a contract that few language barriers, if any, can nullify. -Tyran

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