good dog

Keeping Up with the Pack

Why settle for one dog when you can have five?

Illustration: john cuneo

On the other end of the line came a long silence. I had just asked a friend, a magazine editor in New York, where he thought I could live in or around Manhattan with five dogs. My wife and I were migrating north from Mississippi, and our pack—a Lab, a golden, a pointer, and two mutts—was somehow moving with us. “Canada,” he finally replied. “Canada is probably as close as you get.” 

His was a fairly typical response. Nevertheless, I flew up to scout rentals. This was in 2000, when the magazine industry was still flush and publishers threw lavish, celebrity-spangled parties for what seemed like the hell of it. At one such party I went pinballing around the room asking anyone and everyone where an aspiring New Yorker might live with five large and unruly dogs. Most folks just blinked at me.

An editor friend took me by the elbow, suggesting I meet someone. This someone—I didn’t catch her name over the music—was an angular blond woman who listened patiently while I described my pack and my predicament. “I see lots of people with multiple dogs on Central Park West,” she offered. “You should look there.” Now it was my turn to vacantly blink. At the time, Central Park West had the city’s spendiest real estate—possibly the world’s—and those multiple dogs she’d seen had clearly been in the care of pro dog walkers. I quickly excused myself, rolling my eyes as I turned away in search of more helpful company. Moments later that same friend grabbed my elbow again, this time less invitingly, and demanded, “Did you really just walk away from Heidi Klum?”

Oops. But I would do it again, albeit more gracefully, for the very same reason: for the good of the pack. When you become head of a dog pack—a more accurate term might be curator—you cease thinking or acting like what we’ll loosely call a normal human being; that is, a person who claims for his or her life a measure of self-determination. No, your life becomes the pack: feeding it, caring for it, training it, herding it, playing with it, making up inane songs about it, and, yes, in the face of dubious real-estate advice, somehow housing it. There’s a stale dad joke that goes around whenever couples announce they’re expecting child number three: Get ready to switch from man-to-man to zone defense, har har. Well, there’s a corollary there with dogs. When you go from two dogs to three (or more), you go from dog owner to dog…freak. You become a minority shareholder in your own daily existence.

My own freak flag has been flapping nonstop for a quarter century now. For that original Mississippi pack, we eventually found an empty old house on a lake northwest of the city. The dogs enjoyed paddling around that lake for several years before living out their days on an upstate farm where rabbits darted across the fields as steadily as a stock ticker. As old age stole them from us, puppies soon appeared to, in essence, keep enough players on the field. When children also appeared, the pack helped raise them. My youngest son, for instance, taught himself political economics by observing the pack. The dog burying his bone, he concluded, was a capitalist; the dog sharing his bone was a socialist; and the dog growling and barking at the others in the hopes of them surrendering their bones was obviously a fascist. Not long ago that same son got knocked off a small cliff while trying to capture a runaway coonhound on some river bluffs. I guess he learned something about gravity from that, and also about the variety of bruises the human body can acquire. But something about devotion, too: The coonhound, with a yowl, leaped after him.

Our current configuration is a three-piece combo—a Gordon setter, an English shepherd, and that aforementioned coonhound. I don’t know why, in my marriage, the dogs have always had to be assigned to one of us, as in, YOUR dog just chewed a leg off the Queen Anne chair. Possibly it’s because our union was founded, like a canine Brady Bunch, on a merger of dogs, thus imprinting some kind of pattern. I’m not friendly with enough couples with three-plus dogs to know if this custodial quirk is common or a sign of a troubled relationship. But two of the dogs “belong” to my wife—she did pick them out—while the other one, the East Tennessee coonhound mutt, the speckled rescue pup, the knocker of children and the chewer of chair legs, is mine.

He is, admittedly, a bona fide handful. For one thing, every time he opens his foghorn mouth, ships change course along the mid-Atlantic coast. But the English shepherd (I’m whispering this so my wife won’t hear) is kind of our problem child. Lula’s hobby is ripping apart squeaky toys to neutralize their squeaker; her ambition, on the other hand, is to do the same to delivery drivers. A not-insignificant chunk of my free time has been spent Googling “toughest squeaky toys.” I came across one on Amazon guaranteeing invincibility; click. “The Amazon driver,” I announced to Lula, “will be coming tomorrow with an indestructible squeaky toy.” She perked her ears. Based on the next day’s events, however, what she heard me say instead was “The Amazon driver is an indestructible squeaky toy.”

Owning a pack is more than just owning a dog times three, four, or five. (Above five and I’m just going to assume you’re a dogsled racer.) There’s an exponent in there somewhere. Taking them all out for a walk becomes an undertaking equivalent to a cattle drive; at the end you will be dusty, exhausted, and in want of a saloon. When one dog hears a bump in the night, the others join in barking and baying until a full canine feedback loop occurs, with none of them sure why they’re still barking or why I’ve come staggering outside in my boxers waving my arms at them at 2:00 a.m. Feeding time requires elaborate diplomacy and mediation; the Gordon setter, who lives for the envy of his peers, likes to finish his meals last so the other dogs can see him with food when they no longer have any. (Yep, he’s our capitalist.) Driving them around is like piloting a rowdy school bus; if they spot a squirrel, however, then it’s like driving a bus of high-school girls past the Beatles in 1964. If, like me, you’re loosey-goosey about dogs on the furniture, you may sometimes enter an otherwise unoccupied room to find every seat taken. More than once I have evicted the hundred-pound coonhound from the couch to read, only to have him galumph on top of me and award my face an accommodating slurp.

Do I at times grumble, grouse, bemoan the furred lunacy of my life? Ask my family, or my Amazon driver: I do. But would I have it any other way? Oh God no. That exponent I mentioned applies to the pleasures of a pack, too; it’s dog joy, compounded. Whether I’m ready or not, every morning of my life begins with the same unspoken proclamation: Let the wild rumpus start.

Yet amid all the slobber and chaos there is a calm, abiding comfort, too, a kind of interspecies camaraderie that keeps my heart buoyed—Fix-a-Flat for the soul. I don’t have to tell you about the airwaves being full of grim headlines. Just the other day came news out of Texas that slashed my heart so badly I had to switch off the radio and pull my truck to the side of the road to get my damn eyes cleared. I’m not as confident, anymore, that everything is going to be okay. But when I watch my pack in the evenings, wrestling and romping in the tall glowy grass, chasing one another through the dwindling copper light, panting, grinning, every now and again glancing my way to make sure I’m watching their madcap show, it feels, for me, like everything might be.