When I became a dog owner to my own surprise a year ago, I had little idea what to expect. Since our miniature schnauzer, Lyra, joined us, she has caused chaos and exposed our innate laziness, all our good training intentions having fallen by the wayside once toileting was under control.
But through these last weeks, she is more than repaying the many chewed up toilet rolls stolen, and hours of walks. She offers uncomplicated skin to skin contact that is so tightly rationed elsewhere. We are genetically and culturally conditioned to crave the physical and social warmth of contact with others. And that’s why forcing ourselves to keep our distance from others and to hold back on touch feel so tough. We miss the casual moments of human warmth – hugging a friend, a pat on the arm, the literal bump into someone as carelessly our paths collide.
The dog senses the altered routine and emotional tempo, and seemingly effortlessly works to fill the gap. She waits particularly patiently as running fingers through her coat offers a warmth combined with the pulse of life which now feels like a special treat. She seems to make an extra effort – or else I just notice it more – to hover round my feet, to curl close against my legs as I work under the duvet, to lick my hand. And each of those moments of physical affection is like a shot of tonic in these challenging times.
Her needs provide a framework for the emptying hours inside the house. Walks around the (suitably deserted) wasteland offer a reminder that spring has no time for covid-19, and is continuing to grow grasses and flowers. When from time to time we meet another dog, free from the burden of being a potential disease vector, the two check each other out, and briefly play before passing on. It’s a good reminder of all those casual passing interactions we perhaps took for granted in the past, while as dog owners we now stick to opposite sides of the paths and hurry on.
The sense of a dystopian present that many of us have may be compounded by the masks, gloves and other forms of protection that the humans who hurry past us are wearing. But the clearest sense that something is awry lies in our (necessary) avoidance of each other. Even hugging a child feels fraught with the possibility of sharing something that could turn us if not into victims then into killers. In all this, like so many others, I’m grateful for now the only friend physically there for me. My dog.