If someone had told me a year ago that I’d be going for a walk with my girlfriend’s dog, I’d have told them that was impossible. I was so prejudiced against dogs that even dating a dog owner was out of the question.
Dogs have long lived alongside us as man’s best friend. Personally, I have always been surrounded by cats. In order for a cat to approach you and display any kind of friendly closeness, you must be patient and respect their freedom. I looked down on walks, leads and guaranteed proximity with a trained being. I wasn’t interested in inherited loyalty and learned devotion.
I thought I could just ignore his presence.
I saw him for the first time on my computer screen. He jumped up on the sofa beside her, right at the start of our self-conscious, pandemic-era Zoom date. I expected to hear a command to get down. Other people I knew allowed their dogs to sit in baskets nearby, but always on the floor. In less than a minute, I saw that this case was different. The dog was hugged, allowed to lick his mistress’s face, and kissed in return. His omnipresence was temporarily explained by his small stature, although being a terrier for the most part, he was far from a miniature lap dog. This was a medium-sized mongrel, at first glance similar to Jim Carrey’s dog in The Mask. Three years old, black and white with a ginger muzzle and triangular ears that made him look like a fennec fox, especially when he pricked them up.
For now, I was the one pricking up my ears.
“This is Ludwik,” she said.
The name reminded me not of Beethoven, but of the author Ludwik Kern, and above all, the publicist and journalist Ludwika Włodek. At one time I was so enchanted by her media appearances that my first suggestion for my daughter’s name would have been Ludwika.
“My cat is called Mateusz,” I replied.
I had the feeling that a relationship between a dog person and a cat person could never work out.
Our first meeting only served to strengthen my reluctance. Ludwik barked stubbornly at first as if I were a thief, then began growling in defence of his mistress. His reactions made us keep our distance. On the first date, he still had the charm of a chaperone. On each subsequent meeting, the charm dissipated. It became irritating and bothersome, our words of greeting always drowned out by loud barking, and every kiss and hug paid for with an abrupt command to cut out his aggressive defence reaction.
“I never wanted to have a dog.”
“We’ll make a dog person of you yet.”
“I doubt it.”
Our attempts to get acquainted were often cut short when he ended up in the bedroom with us. He’d either burrow underneath the bed or sit beside us with his muzzle on his mistress’s lap. Or his two front paws on the sheets.
“You let your cat climb on your pillow and sleep between the sheets, but this disgusts you?”
“But I trim the cat’s fur, and I don’t let him in the wardrobe, and Ludwik’s moulting fur gets everywhere. And that dog smell.”
I tried to curtail arguments about the superiority of cats over dogs with a suggestion that I might be allergic to dogs and the dog might be constantly stressed, so it could be a good plan to find him a new home. I was pretty determined.
The days of silence following my proposition passed quickly. Ludwik had some sessions with a behaviourist, and I was given the task of establishing a relationship with the dog. I set the border at the threshold of my flat.
“Mateusz is an old cat, I don’t want to stress him out just after moving.”
Instead, I introduced Ludwik to my daughter. He barked, but when she fell in love with him at first sight, despite his mistress’s fears, he didn’t respond by baring his teeth, biting or playful snapping. He patiently endured repeatedly being given treats by a delighted five-year-old and learning some new rules and commands. I gave him the nickname “Little Button”, but there was no sympathy lurking behind the diminutive. It was natural for me to sleep with a human pup in the bed. But letting a dog into the bed and snuggling up on the same pillow? I couldn't even imagine that. I was irritated by the mere presence of the dog, the dog hair, the dog breath, and the dog sounds. He seemed to be everywhere, I could constantly hear him moving around, his claws echoing across the floor.
When I was left alone with Ludwik, I felt like the adults from the film Little Nicholas, increasingly on edge. He strained at the lead, pulling desperately in his mistress’s direction, or – if he couldn’t see her – cried and whimpered, staring at the spot where she’d disappeared. When she returned, he ran. He ran, and then – no matter whether five days or five seconds had passed since he last saw her – he bounced on all four paws like a flea to hop onto her lap, or jumped up like a circus animal with two paws in the air, or leapt sideways, as if trying to catch a frisbee, gnawing at her hands instead. Each of these expressions of devotion could be repeated over and over again, as if a hidden Kennel Club promotion were secretly replacing his batteries.
“I get jealous when I see that. It’s hard to compete with such intense love.”
“He’s excited,” she explained every time.
“Continually. Even when I want to stroke him.”
“You don’t stroke him, you tousle him.”
“I know, I know. And not in the right places… But everyone strokes dogs on the head!”
We went on holiday to the Polish seaside with a group of friends. There was also a traumatized female dog called Serbia and a little puppy called Coco, and a whole lot of people in the house. Ludwik reminded Serbia how to bark and enjoyed playing with Coco. He spun in little circles around the humans, the living room furniture, the numerous legs of various chairs, and the garden shrubs and trees. Only a trip to the beach was beyond him. The behaviourist had advised against having him run behind a bicycle, but when placed in the basket he tended to jump over the handlebars. Dogs don’t land on four paws. So as not to risk an injury, we postponed Ludwik’s seaside adventure. He doesn’t like the water anyway. My sympathy for him suddenly grew when on the first day of the holiday, on an early morning walk, I realized he was bypassing the puddles by waddling or manoeuvring around them, or as a last resort, jumping over them – not with his classic flea-like jump from four legs, but like a horse over an obstacle with one front leg and one hind leg comically bent.
The walks started spontaneously. I got up in the morning, it was raining. No-one else was keen, and the one thing I knew about dogs was that they needed to run around and sniff at things. As we entered the forest, I was overcome with fear. I was convinced the dog would escape, get run over by a car as we crossed the road, or I’d fail to cope with a million other things, and my shinrin-yoku would turn into a nightmare.
I was overreacting.
Gradually, Ludwik began to listen to me. On our first walk, he sat down after the third command and let me take off his lead. Keeping his distance, he began to operate as my satellite. He circled me affectionately to check that I was coming; sometimes I heard him in the distance, rushing like a catapulted projectile to catch up with me. In the days that followed, it was increasingly rare that I had to call him to heel when it was time to fasten the lead. But sometimes he didn’t respond to my calls at all and ran away. The first time this happened, I immediately reached for my phone to send an angry text message: “That’s it. Your dog just doesn’t listen to me.”
That didn’t happen again, because I stopped taking my phone on walks ‘just in case’. The apocalyptic scenarios never materialized. I didn’t have to break up fights, put my hands between jaws, splash around in bloodbaths or put up ‘missing dog’ posters. He was always waiting somewhere on the horizon, staring with his sad black eyes, innocently panting with his tongue sticking out. He started to respond to whistles and clicks, and when his name was spoken more firmly. He waited. He stood on his slender white paws or lay down with his front legs crossed. His torso looked like the skin of a black and white cow, speckled with grey flecks of shaded fur, similar to the elegance of a Dalmatian or a thoroughbred horse, and accentuated in the brownish-red spots on his head and around his muzzle.
“Did you just say something affectionate to my dog?”
I thought it was obvious I’d been doing that for some time. What surprised me was something else. In terms of our relationship, it wasn’t like we were struck by lightning. I didn’t wake up one morning thinking that from then on, I would start accepting him. Gradually, it stopped bothering me that he was climbing, jumping, running, shedding fur, and constantly wanting to be nearby. It bothered me that he only jumped up to greet her. I got used to the sound of his claws tapping on the floor. I started giving him treats. I learned to use his toys ‘the right way’ and explained to others why you couldn’t throw Ludwik balls or sticks. I tried to teach him to jump higher for treats. I stopped being happy that he only associated me with walks. I stroked him more, tousled him less. Under the chin, not on the head.
I asked her how many types of his gait she’d distinguished, because I’d noticed more than a dozen.
When on the lead, he walks with his paws wide apart, like a bodybuilder looking for a fight. When he’s let off the lead, he begins to move sideways, like a bus taking a corner or a car drifting, depending on the speed. When he trots straight ahead, he pulls up his paws like a ballerina and minces like an animated flamingo to the beat of Swan Lake. His sideways jog could be set to the sound of a cartoon mouse’s pitter-patter. His straight line jog looks like a dressage competition. When he runs fast, he looks like Lassie, a bloodhound, or a hare.
With me he used the step-by-step method. Sometimes he didn’t bark when I approached, just whimpered happily. Or he started jumping up and down in greeting, trying to snap at my hand. He only greeted his mistress that way before. He also began coming over and laying his head on my lap. He nuzzled into my side when I lay down. He jumped up onto the bed and lay on top of me. If someone had described this scene to me in the spring, I’d have sworn it would never happen. Now I was reconciled to it.
No-one was surprised. He won over our friends in seconds, whether they had dogs or not. He rolled up to dinners, picnics and family gatherings and always made a good impression.
“What a good little dog.”
“And so calm.”
“You said he barks all the time, but he’s so quiet.”
“The children love him.”
“Is that your dog?”
If only I knew how to introduce him to my cat.
Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster
It’s not easy being funny. Thanks to your support, we can keep on making you laugh. Please consider making a donation to PRZEKRÓJ Foundation.
Choose your donation