For several millenniums, dogs and Men have established between them relationships based on genuine love and principles we now make use of, for example, to define loyalty. These true loves, made up of routine and amazement in equal measure, hardly find worthy comparisons in human relationships. The following little stories reveal this love.
Allow me to start by introducing you to my dog – and, maybe even before that, clarify that it is a she and not a him: her name is Lolita Josefina and her seventh birthday is in January. We’ve never called her Lolita, neither in public or private, throughout these nearly seven years of coexistence and apartment sharing. Dog names are curiously volatile labels that tend not to materialize. Much like the plans we make for the future when we’re teenagers, dogs’ names change depending on what we enjoy at that given moment. Lolita Josefina has had almost every name on the book, including Dog. Today, her most usual names are Boo (I don’t know why – probably out of laziness since it’s so easy and unfussy), Loló and Lolis. When she does something bad, we usually resort to the most fitted name for punishment: Lola, no diminutives, no cuddles. Lolis on the other hand is a skilled corrupt that, out of phonetic similarity, came to be as a result of the pompous Lolis Regina, with all due respect to the muse we draw inspiration from. As far as I know and observe, this phenomenon of calling dogs a lot of different names is recurrent with those whose heart was blessed to have been conquered by one. Meaning, neither we, back home, nor Lolis, in herself, are special: it’s just how it goes.
Every morning, Lolis Regina, as soon as she hears me put my watch and coat on, she rolls out of her bed, still sleepy, and comes to me, indolently, as the lazy dog she is, but also impatiently, eager to hear the words that are at the genesis of all happiness in her life: “You want to go out?” That’s the moment when she throws her paws at me as a warm salute, at the same time as she stretches one more time before I put on her leash – and my oh my, does she love that leash, not knowing it is the artifact that restrains and represses her (it’s quite possible a ton of analogies and allegories could be drawn from this, but I won’t indulge on them). This description of Lolis Regina’s awakening is to exemplify what our routine consists of. Nonetheless, it’s precisely when Lolita isn’t home that I baffle myself. An example: in the morning, I put on my watch, grab my coat and, despite her absence, I can hear her little paws on the wooden floors, tictictic, after jumping out of bed. I can hear her even though she’s not there. When we give ourselves to this dog-love, the animal conquests its space – on the carpet, on the sofa, on our minds. It looks like the Pavlov effect isn’t just a dog thing: when they enter our lives, they also condition our responses, amongst many other things.
Many, many years ago, I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. I don’t recall the book in great detail, the preciseness of my memories vanished with the time that has gone by between the moment I’m remembering it and the time I read it. But there’s a passage that has stuck with me and to which I return to in my mind with unusual frequency. If I’m not mistaken, it is the character Sabina that owns a puppy, one of those little, cranky ones. Sabina, who maintained a tumultuous relationship with the leading character (Tomas, I believe) because she wasn’t able to give herself exclusively to one man – Sabina’s psyche was complex, as was her past and, possibly, her unconfessed traumas, and thus never disclosed by Kundera on those pages -, let’s her mind wonder around the pure nature of the relationship between her and her dog, Karenine (I can see now the resemblance between me and Sabina: I searched for a dog name in Nabokov, she did so in Tolstoy). And Sabina tells herself, that the love between her and Karenine is of the simplest and truest forms because it is unbothered, it doesn’t require any compensations, nor does it live through the satisfaction of demands. Ok, she must feed the animal, but that’s all she must do for him. The rest is affection, it’s connection, cuddles, independence, with freedom and without obligations. To sum up, it’s the perfect love, incomparably more genuine than the one that takes place, when it does, between humans. Maybe the secret resides precisely within the fact that this isn’t between human beings, maybe the improbable possibility of loving beyond our species amazes and crushes us, and of the counterpart – the dog, in this case – loving us back, and the fact that that astonishment might be the sentimental fuel that prevents us from questioning anything further, because their simple existence is enough – in fact, more than enough, it is wonderful.
Hachiko and Capitàn
All this seems like an illusion. That we might love our dogs is apparently easy to conceive, it’s practically logical. Now, that dogs may love us back and adopt behaviors that demonstrate it, that might be nothing more than our own projections – the imagination and desire for reciprocity, the need each one of us has to feel loved, well, may kickstart in us, humans, the mirage of a love that, truly, they don’t nurture for us. However, there is the wonderful story of Hachiko, the Akita Inu that these days is the symbol of Shibuya, in Tokyo. Hachiko – his real name was Hachi; Hachiko was a nickname – it was adopted by a University professor, Hidesaburo Ueno, and taken from Odate to the city of Tokyo. Every morning Hachiko would accompany his owner to the Shibuya station, where the teacher would take the train to the university. At the end of the day, loyal Hachiko would be at the entrance of the station, waiting for his owner to come back. This was their routine for over a year. Those who frequented that station knew of the curious story of Professor Ueno and his loyal friend, Hachiko. Until one day, the teacher didn’t come back. Ueno had had a stroke during one of his classes and ended up passing away. How do you explain to a dog that his human companion just died? How can we expect a dog to understand such an occurrence? It is known that Hachiko never gave up on waiting for his friend and that every day he would go wait for him at the Shibuya station, at the supposed time. Ueno died in 1925; Hachi would die ten years later, in 1935. Every day, until his death, he waited for the professor at the entrance of the station.
This story became known when an old student of the professor recognized Hachiko at the Shibuya station and realized that something was going on with the people who knew the dog. This Professor Ueno’s student, fascinated by Hachiko’s loyalty, ended up publishing more than one article on the matter in regional and national papers. When Hachiko died, on the 8th of March 1935, the news of his death caused commotion through all of Japan, up to the point of declaration of a national mourning day. The remains of the dog were buried on professor Ueno’s grave’s corner, in the Aoyama Cemetery, so that, alas, Hachi could meet his owner again. There’s a statue of Hachiko next to the Shibuya station and also one representing the encounter between Hachi and Ueno at the University of Agriculture of Tokyo’s University, where the professor taught. Hachiko’s story has been adapted to the silver screen in 2009, with Hachiko – A Dog’s Tale, with Richard Gere on the leading role of the college teacher who takes in Hachi. If we consider Hachiko’s story as a touching one, what else is there to say about Capitàn’s, the dog that became famous in the Argentinian province of Córdoba, more precisely in the town of Carlos Paz, after he refused to abandon his owner’s grave? Capitàn’s story can be quickly resumed. Capitàn was a gift from Miguel Guzmán to his son, Damián. The friendship between Damián and Capitàn was as immediate as it was strong. It was love, indeed. Tragically, Damián died in 2006, still a young man, what left Capitàn desperate. The dog ran away from home after his owner’s death. Damián’s parents thought he was dead or lost. Until a few days later, when visiting their son’s grave, they found Capitàn laying over it. And that’s how he lived for about ten years: every day and every night, watching over his beloved Damián’s grave. Capitàn ended up dying on the grave where he spent most of his life. On an interview with the local paper about the dog’s death, the florist at the cemetery couldn’t hold in the tears, as she remembered that story of pure love, of unshakable loyalty. At the time, the population of Carloz Paz intended to burry Capitàn next to his owner, as Hachiko was in Tokyo.
Balto and Togo
Whenever you visit Central Park, in New York, you’ll find a statue of Bato a Siberian Husky. Those who enjoy animation films with hero dogs might already have some idea of who this dog was. However, Balto’s story is a dramatic one – and the credits for his heroism should be shared with another dog, Togo. Balto and Togo played fundamental roles in the fight against a diphtheria epidemic in the city of Nome, in Alaska. In 1925, the disease spread amidst the children of Nome during the big snowstorm season. The town wasn’t prepared to face a situation like that so, it became necessary to organize expeditions in dog sleds from Nome to Nenana to fetch supplies and medicines. Supposedly, dogs would run parcels of total distance, but the violent snowstorms made it so that only the teams led by Balto and Togo managed to succeed. Both dogs ran around a thousand kilometers under the harshest of conditions, snow and strong winds, in order to bring medicine back to Nome – but they did it. Balto died in 1933, at 14 years old. The canine calling for rescue is known and has been amply documented, being that innumerous examples of hero-dogs, whether they’re on the police force, are firefighters, guarding dogs, house dogs or fictional characters – let’s not forget reality always overcomes fiction, since, if there are hero-dogs in books and movies, there must be many more in real life. Dogs have the extraordinary ability to save our lives in many different ways, even if some of them don’t make the news. Let’s take the example of therapy dogs, extremely sweet and docile animals, trained with the sole purpose of aiding people in need. Therapies with dogs have been widely used in different modalities and their effects has been studied – and, in most cases, verified – when it comes to the recovery of mobility issues, memory loss and even in emotional distress management. Yes, there are many ways we can be saved by a dog.
Once, I was adopted by a dog. Once again, it was a she. Thin, more than thin, skinny, with a begging look in her eyes, she followed me from school up to my front door, then my parent’s house. My heart of stone, on that day and before those sad, suffering eyes, couldn’t resist and softened right up: I fetched a bowl with water where I unstiffened old bread. She ate and drank as if she would never do it again in her life. Moved by the whole thing, I gave her a bowl of milk, which she drank swiftly. After the meal was over, I sent her away. She pretended to leave, but she never stepped out of my life – I was the one who went away, as you’ll see ahead. She started to sleep in our doorstep, my mom said she didn’t want dogs in the house. Fifteen days later, she was sleeping on the couch. We fed her, of course, but I don’t think she needed it (at least after a couple of months with us, when everyone already knew her, she didn’t). Okapi – my brother named her (he would end up becoming the official owner of Okapi) after finding out that in Africa there was an animal with that name, which was reasonably weird, zebra-looking with the head of a giraffe and the neck of something else entirely -, as I was saying, Okapi ate: at home, then afterwards at my grandparents’ home, then she’d walk by some neighbors, wrapping up her morning walk – I watched her do this, it’s the purest of truths – which would include a stop by the bakery (they’d give her muffins and once, she got one so hot she had to drop it to the floor to cool it down) and by the butcher’s (she’d get rib leftovers, go figure). Naturally, she got fat, it was a question of months. Okapi was a stray dog, independent, she didn’t need an owner – she did need, however, someone to give her food and shelter (and, if possible, a couch to sleep on), but there was no need to walk her, all we had to do was open the door so that she could go in or out. And yet, whenever I would walk her, she would give me extraordinary attention and reveal to be extremely obedient, though I never actually trained her – everything between us was improvised and intuitive. When I got to college, I started dating, something serious that until then hadn’t happened to me, at least not with that definitive commitment weight. I ended up leaving my parents’ house, sometime later on, to go live with that girlfriend of mine. It was such a toxic relationship that I don’t know how I dared to repeat the adventure, though with different people. I enjoy recalling the episode of when I took that girlfriend back home. At some point I was playing with Okapi – in fact, we called her Kápi -, I would throw her a tennis ball and she would fetch it. Then my girlfriend asked to throw it once. Obedient as I was, I interrupted my little game with Okapi and commanded her to bring the ball back to her nemesis. She did, although she did it her way: with the ball on her mouth, she approached her and dropped the toy with the biggest flair of contempt of the universe, a contempt that isn’t even dog-like, she turned her back on her and left. She lied in a corner as if she was saying “It’s your life; you go play with her.” This, this is love. And if I were at all attentive or perceptive, I could have let myself be saved.
Translated from the original article from Vogue Portugal's Love issue, published in December 2020.