Last summer, once it had become abundantly clear that covid was not the harmless little brushfire we had naively hoped, but a global inferno raging to no end, Kathy and I decided to start rescuing dogs again.
We would take them in—those collateral victims of the virus who’d been abandoned or surrendered by families and guardians now struggling for their own survival. We would take them in while we helped find them a new home. We ourselves were blessed to still have such a home, albeit populated already with one seventy-pound bully dog and a covey of housecats (never mind how many). We had food and a roof and love to share—all the essentials.
Plus an ulterior motive. We were looking for a playmate for one of our own. Our dog Towpath we had found eight years earlier as a four-month-old puppy, after somebody had burned and abandoned him on a rural stretch of the C&O Canal Towpath, seventy miles upstream of Washington, D.C. And like so many among his maligned and mistreated breed, he endured his wounds with a herculean resilience of body and spirit, and countered his lesson in brutality with an unbridled affection for people. He would single you out, wiggle on up, pin you down and kiss you until your laughter left you gasping for air. His happiness became both our daily salvation and foremost objective. We became those cooing, coddling, angelically blessed parents we swore we’d never become.
But in between our oglings—and most strategically during our busiest working hours—Towpath would dump and scatter his toy box across the living room, and start tossing kongs and tennis balls and tug-ring squirrels in our direction. We tried throwing them. He didn’t fetch. We tried goading him into games of tag. He grew bored of the chase. We accepted the hard reality: As surrogate playmates, we were sadly lacking.
So with the dual ambition of serving the covid crisis and Towpath as one, we decided to foster a needy pup. Missy came recommended by the good folks at our local pitbull rescue, Big Hearts for Big Dogs Rescue. Her profile depicted a worried little gray-faced girl with a sad bio to match. Her life of eight years had been spent with the same family, who after those eight years together had left or surrendered her at the local shelter. Alone and desperate, Missy destroyed cages and tore through walls. The shelter people deemed her unadoptable. There was talk of killing her. So of course we took her in.
Admittedly our hopes weren’t particularly high for having found Towpath’s perfect playmate in this damaged little dog. Until we met her. Missy took about half a day to settle in as family, and to turn Towpath into her favorite chew toy. Outweighed by thirty pounds, she compensated with cartoonish impersonations of the Tasmanian devil. Our house was suddenly a-whirl with little twisters of flying fur and hideous playgrowls. And somewhere amidst all that tussle, our Towpath had rediscovered his puppy gears.
To watch them play is to experience a choreographed dance of controlled mayhem. An instigator starts with a few exploratory nibbles on the neck. The nibbled party reciprocates. The nibbler ups the game, adding bared teeth and a bit of shoving for good measure. They parry and feint with open mouths, jabbing at loose jowls and undercutting feet. They crouch and charge to a crashing of chests, Sumo style. And soon somebody is on their back, feet flailing the air, a pair of jaws lightly gripping their neck in the symbolic coup de gras. The underdog eventually wriggles out of his or her predicament, and the race is on. Off they go, skittering across the tiles, trampolining off the furniture, cutting rings around the kitchen island—having what I can only characterize as way too much fun.
A clinic on play, presented by Towpath and new sister, Missy
Animal behavioralists would more soberly interpret such play as exercise for mind and muscle, their wrestling and chasing to hone speed and agility—making dry runs of the more serious business of predator and prey.
They would also note such play as vital practice in the social arts of trust and cooperation, apology and forgiveness. How gently Towpath submits to little Missy’s ferocious lunges, his belly to the sky, his neck exposed, his paws feebly waving in defense. When it is he who commands the upper paw, he all but helps her up. Their game has an etiquette of fairness and honesty that is easily and amicably enforced. When Missy oversteps with a bite too hard, Towpath simply turns away and disengages: “Uh-uh, no more play.” Missy apologizes with a kiss. Towpath forgives. And off they go again, thick as thieves.
It has been two months now, and still we are treated to our daily shows of rambunctious joy, bathing as we watch in our own tides of happiness. Needless to say, we have long ago stopped searching for Missy’s new home. She is there.
I can’t help but see the symbolic irony in all this playing, impervious as it is to a seeming world of hatred that hovers just outside our little bubble of love. I cringe to the thought of what nearly was, to the cruel injustice of putting that sweet little dog to death for having been abandoned.
But I also cannot help but take heart in the resilience our pups display. There is deep wisdom in their defiant rompings and outpourings of joy. Theirs is the embodiment of love in the face of hate, the antidote to every ill. Never mind all the woes and the whining—it’s playtime!
Animals at Play Marc Bekoff, 2008.
The Genesis of Animal Play Gordon M. Burghardt, 2006
Towpath’s Tail Will Stolzenburg, 2020