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Americans Talk About Their Dogs: Ryan and Satchel

by Krista Whetstone
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Americans Talk About Their Dogs: Ryan and Satchel

Krista Whetstone
12 Snaps

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.

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.

They make a kind of hierarchy, and they recognize you as being at the top of a hierarchy. You’re like the shepherd. But they also think you don’t really know what you’re doing, so they’re constantly notifying you that there’s an emergency going on. He would count anything as an emergency. Thunder and lightning, that was an emergency. If he saw out the window of the house, a hundred yards away, a kid on a skateboard or someone pushing a stroller or someone working on the phone lines, those were things that agitated him. He couldn’t stand it. Do you see what’s happening up there? Do you see there’s someone out there? What is going on? This woman with a stroller, what the hell is she doing? Is that a threat to us? You need to be alert to this! And you’re trying to say no, there’s nothing going on, and he’s like, No, take me seriously! You’re not taking me seriously! Look outside! There’s someone working on the phone lines! What if that person’s been there all day? Don’t you understand? No good can come from this! Everything is this massive emergency.

It was a bit hard on the cats. We had two at the time. One of them was smart enough to realize, “This dog is insane,” so she tolerated him. And that made her part of the flock. She’s a sheep or whatever. Our other cat was much too scared of Satchel to let this happen and she hid from Satchel for a long time, which was rather unwise on her part. Satchel never regarded her as fully a member of the flock, which meant he was always regarding her as a potential threat, chasing her around.

Basically, it was just him, being constantly on edge, worrying all the time, barking and barking, constantly barking. It was very, very intense. But I mean, it was super, super interesting, and super fun. They’re very smart dogs. We both strongly bonded with him and loved him a lot. He required a lot, but it was something that we were totally into. We structured our lives to some degree around him, even though it was a tremendous hassle. You know, you have a dog, you love the dog, and it’s a big commitment. And we were engaged in that commitment.

At the time, I was working as a lawyer in Minneapolis. My wife was a history professor. So we had decided – this was the year September 11 happened – that for Christmas, we were going to drive to North Carolina, where my mother lives. It’s at the lower edge of the Appalachian Mountains, away from any kind of town or anything.

We were going to go to there for four or five days, then to Atlanta for an academic conference, and then to visit my wife’s friend in Virginia. It was this triangular trip. And one reason we were driving is because we decided Satchel would not have responded very well to a kennel. We couldn’t take him to the conference, obviously, so we were going to leave him with my mom and my step-father to take care of while we were in Atlanta and Virginia, then swing back and pick him up.

We had tried to tell my mom, “Look, he’s a very nervous dog and you need to watch him carefully. Don’t let him get loose because he doesn’t know where he is, and we’re not sure what he’ll do.” My mom underestimated this. They weren’t keeping him inside, they were letting him come into the garage and also keeping him outside. Well, I’m sure that was disorienting to him, because he gets disoriented when he’s out of his normal environment.

Anyway, we were in Atlanta and at some point he’s outside, and he runs off. She calls after him, but he’s a little skittish; she doesn’t think much of it because she thinks he will come back. It’s not a big deal. She’s used to having a certain kind of dog around. My step-father has hound dogs, hunting dogs. They’re used to being out, going on adventures, scouting around, and they might even be away for a day or two and it’s not anything you would think about.

I think it was the last day we were in Atlanta that he ran off. And then we drove to Virginia. We did not have cell phones at the time, and my mom didn’t tell us until we got to Virginia. She said, “Oh, I’ve been debating whether to tell you this. He’s been gone for a day.” And so we were freaked out. We got up early the next morning and drove back.

We got there around dusk, so there wasn’t much we could do that day, so we got up early the next morning and started looking. By that time my mom had contacted various people in the community. A few people had seen him running around, and they’d tried to call to him, but he wouldn’t go up to anyone. He was very wary.

At the time I wasn’t thinking about being angry at my mother. We were more fixated on finding Satch. There was obviously a sense of emergency, and we needed to devote our energies to finding him. We spent days and days looking for him. We never saw him, but occasionally we’d get reports from people who had seen him. Typically they seemed to see him in the night or early in the morning.

I think my step-father, who is really very good with dogs, he expected the dog to behave differently than it did. He just never had a herding-type dog before. We reconstructed this later, but what Satchel was doing was circling around, circling around in these sort of ever widening circles. He wasn’t behaving in a way that my step-father Tommy was anticipating. Tommy’s thinking was that the dog will always come back to where he has food and shelter and stuff. So he was not that worried about it for a while.

We walked around in this mountainous terrain in the middle of the winter, with ice on the ground, trying to go where people had reported seeing him. We tried to spread out. We put up some posters and pictures, we kept calling people. There were a few times where people were able to sort of almost catch him or get near to him, but he would always get wary and run away. So he just kept roaming around. If he had just seen us, that would have been the end of it, but there was nobody else he really trusted, and he was disoriented. He’s outside, in this sort of cold, snowy, mountainous terrain that he’s unused to.

We looked for five days, and we eventually had to go back to Minneapolis. I had to get back to work. I’d taken two weeks off. And so, with a terrible feeling, we went back. We were still hopeful that he would get found at some point.

My mom and my step-dad were still looking. But I think it was the day after we got back, my grandfather found his body. He’d been hit by a car.

That’s when I started to feel frustrated and angry with my mom. It felt like she had sort of been extremely untrustworthy. The reason that we hadn’t put him in a kennel is because we felt protective of him, and because I thought that he would be safe with my mom. All she had to do during the few days we were gone was just walk him and feed him and keep him from getting away. Well, she didn’t.

Obviously, she didn’t let Satch go intentionally. And my step-father, Tommy, he’s a super-competent guy, with what I would call mountain skills and so forth – I don’t blame him for anything. But I mean, there’s such a thing as negligence. I didn’t think that my mother used the amount of care that she should have used, and so I was irritated and angry.

But this is a constant problem I have with my mom: she thinks she knows better than me. I’m 45 now, or 44 now, but she thinks of me as a little boy who doesn’t know what he’s doing. In this particular case, she believed herself to know better than me how to take care of the dog.

And the way she is—she’s fixated on being absolved from blame for anything. She wanted to be told she didn’t do anything wrong. And I wasn’t able to say the sort of stuff that she was sort of begging to hear, and so she was angry about that, too, and it was not a pretty scene.

I felt negligent. I felt guilty. I left the dog with an incompetent caretaker. If we’d been there, Satchel would still be alive. I still feel very bad for Eva because she’s been totally victimized by my negligence and by my mom’s negligence.

I was torn up, not only about losing Satch, but from the trauma of the search, and rushing back, leaving in the middle of the search. And when I came back to work in January, I just couldn’t focus. I kept continually trying to replay the past, trying to figure out a way in which it could have gone differently. People at work were like, “What the fuck is the matter with you? Your head’s not in the game. You’re not doing what you should be doing.”

At the time, I had a fancy law job. I was an associate, and it was a serious job. I couldn’t just be like, “Oh, my dog is lost,” you know? They’re not going to be sympathetic to that. I mean, they were sympathetic, but they’re running a business.

I was just dithering and fidgeting, not paying attention, going to long lunches, constantly going out and getting coffee. People were saying, “We need this brief from you!” or “We need this memo from you.” And I’d just say, “Yeah, I just don’t have it.” Then I’d leave the office at 3:30 or whatever.

Somebody suggested to me that I should just take a leave, like, “If you’re only billing two hours a day, that’s fucked up. You won’t be able to cover this up.” And that was someone being sympathetic. I just kept thinking, “No, no, no, I’ll just tough it out….”

I began to think really sort of paranoid things like, “What if my mom did this intentionally?” I got to the point where I was running the thing over and over in my mind all the time. I recognized that that was a nutty thought, and so I fought against it, but it was very persistent.

Eva was really torn up about the whole thing, even beyond what I went through. But she was by then associate dean. Plus she’s teaching. You know, she had stuff to do as well.

For me, I think it had a huge precipitating effect. I liked certain parts of being a lawyer, but I was already a little burned out. I thought about going to another firm. I thought about making a move into academia. But it was very hard to focus. I had a period of reflection, in a deeper way than I had ever had before, and it somehow shook a kind of fundamental confidence in the world. I just thought, “Well, so what exactly am I doing?” Ultimately, for me, that led to the realization that I needed to get out of practicing law and look for a job in the academic job market.

I think it left a pretty big scar on me and Eva. I’m already lazy, and I always thought that if we had kids, I’d just become this sort of doting father, totally devoted to the kids, and that’s all I’d do. Eva also had doubts about her ability to be a good mother. The fact that both of us were ambivalent — it’s hard to make a decision if neither one of you is really on board.

I wouldn’t have said this before, but now I have a tremendous fear of having anything I have to protect. I have a really strong desire to protect things, but I also believe, ultimately, when push comes to shove, I can’t do it. If I think about having kids, I just feel like, well, I don’t want to bring something into the world that I care about, that I really want to protect, that I can’t protect.

I think that if I have kids, I’ll just bleed all the time. I’ll be one of those people that can’t take it. If they suffer, I won’t be able to deal with it. A parent has to be able to deal with that. You can’t protect them from everything. The idea of me having a child that’s in pain — I just don’t want any part of that.

Eva and I obviously talked a lot about it at the time, but it’s very difficult for us to talk about now and I don’t think we like to go back to it. I think it was an ordeal that created a deeper emotional bond, of a kind, but it’s also a wound. Obviously, there are things that come up about Satchel that are very sweet, and that’s fine, but if anything comes up about his death, it’s not very pleasant. It’s not something that either one of us likes to approach very often. I don’t think she blames me, because it was both our decision. We both talked about the pros and cons of Satchel staying with my mom.

She’s said to me, “We both thought your mom would be fine.” She has the same attitude toward my mom that I do, although she’s more forgiving; she doesn’t have the tangled history that I have with my mom.

But it has a coloring. It’s colors our relationship, if you know what I mean. I don’t think it’s changed our relationship in a significant way, but it’s a trauma that we went through together, and like any trauma, it colors or stains the relationship in a way. It remains.

It did not change the way I thought of Eva — at all. I really don’t know whether it changed the way she thinks of me. I don’t know that we would want to get into that. That’s a good example of the sort of reticence that surrounds this whole thing. I guess my view is that you don’t have to get everything out on the table all the time.

My mom still wants to be told she didn’t do anything wrong. It’s been ten years now, and she still doesn’t take responsibility. It doesn’t come up very much, but if it does, she will again ask to be told that she didn’t do anything wrong. She wants to be told that she behaved in an exemplary fashion and that nobody could’ve prevented this from happening. But that’s just utter bullshit. I told her what to do and she didn’t do it, because she thinks she knows better. I understand she didn’t do anything intentionally, but it didn’t go right, and it’s on her.

She knows that this was damaging for Eva, and my mom believes that if she begins to be emotionally florid about it, that then she will join in with Eva’s sorrow, and they can then bond by crying about it, and that will mean that they’re now on the same page and whatever. My mom has tried to do that a couple of times with incredibly low success. It’s just not something that’s ever going to work with Eva at all.

When it comes up, like if she brings it up to Eva, Eva tries to be polite but then usually tries to interpose me in between them, whether they’re on the phone or in person. And I think in the ten years since Satchel died, we have seen less of mom. I go home less frequently; Eva has accompanied me less often. We’ve seen his grave. They buried him down there there, in North Carolina. They have a lot of land in the mountains.

We don’t have another dog. I think there was a three or four year period when we thought it would be too painful to get one. And then by the time that Eva started really wanting one, we already had three or four cats. They have this odd and hilarious kind of relationship together, but maybe with one exception, they’re not cats that would respond very well to a dog. You know what I mean.

My stepfather, I’ve rarely had a conversation with him about it. I think his vision is: bad things happen. You try to prevent them, but there’s no real point dwelling on them once they’re done. I think at the time it was quite traumatic for him, but I think he just thinks that, you know, life is hard. He did the best he could at the time. But – you move on. I think his view is like an ancient sort of stoic view. You know, if you want to get torn up, you can find something to get torn up about every day.

Again, Satchel just wasn’t the kind of hunting dog he’s used to dealing with. Tommy believed, well, of course he’ll come back. A dog that doesn’t know where he is? He’ll come back ‘cause he wants to be fed. But he didn’t understand the kind of weird, needy dog that Satchel was, and also the kind of shepherd that Satchel was. Satchel really believed—maybe it’s sort of ridiculous to say this – but you know: we dropped him off there. He probably believed we were lost. Eva and I. Really, that’s the way he would look. As if we were in danger. I mean, it’s hard to know exactly what goes on in a dog’s head, but that explains why he never came back. He thought we were out there. And so without knowing the area, he was just looking, trying to herd us up. We were like lost sheep and he was trying to get us.

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