There’s a little dog that lives next door to us. His name is Chai. He’s a fuzzy dust mop of a mixed-breed shih tzu toy dog, and he’s yappy. Every time we drove by the neighbours’ yard, the dog would start barking at us. He would run along the fence barking at the car, and the slower we drove, the crazier the dog became. I found it very irritating. My roommates and my husband found it very irritating. The neighbours themselves found it irritating. “You know,” they lectured, “it’s because you’re driving too fast around that corner. If you were driving more slowly, he wouldn’t bark at you.”
I tried to explain about how the dog went crazier if I drove more slowly. Before Chai had been a toy poodle named Boomer who had done the same thing; I doubted that both dogs would have developed the same neurosis in the form of social commentary. But they weren’t listening. I left before it became one of those stupid minor disputes with the neighbour that blossoms into a feud.
I have to admit, I was already somewhat ill-disposed toward small dogs. I viewed them as noisy and irritating, aggressive and nasty-tempered, partially because I’d had some bad experiences with little dogs before. I was a believer in the idea that only bigger dogs were real dogs, and little dogs hardly seemed like real canines at all. We started making disparaging comments as we drove by. “Stupid thing,” we sneered. And along the shih tzu came; yap, yap, yap, and bounce, bounce, bounce, spinning around in circles because our presence made him so crazy. My dog Blue would bark at Chai himself every time we drove by with him the car, viewing his body language as a challenge.
So then my husband and I brought a new partner into our relationship. “What the hell’s the matter with that dog?” he asked us after a few weeks of living with us. “He’s going bonkers. His reaction is all out of proportion.”
“Little dog syndrome,” I postulated. Then I shrugged. “I don’t know; he’s always been like that.”
Our partner has a mild form of autistic spectrum. He’s amazingly bright and he has a unique way of looking at the world. And because he has little intuitive understanding for behaviours, he observes them carefully and tries to figure them out like a complex puzzle. The result is that sometimes he has amazing insights that we, in our casual (and somewhat arrogant) belief that we understand these things, don’t see. He carefully observed Chai every time we drove by; and he carefully observed how Chai was always friendly and wagging when we walked up to the fence; even if we had Blue with us. He pondered the apparent dissonance. “Was Chai ever hit by a car?” he asked us at last.
I considered it. “I don’t think so,” I said. “The neighbours keep him in that fenced yard usually because he’s got lots of room to run around there. I’ve only ever seen him get out once aside from when they walk him around the area, and he didn’t jump at the car or run and hide or anything.”
A couple of months into the relationship, as we were once again driving by, he said, “I think I’ve figured it out. What Chai is doing.”
“Oh?” I asked with arched eyebrow.
“Sure,” he nodded. “I think it’s a game. It even has rules. He gets ready when he hears the car start; you know how he starts barking when we start the engine?”
It was true. “Yeah,” I nodded. “Yeah, he does do that.”
“Okay, so then when the car reaches the fence, he sees how many times he can turn around in a circle; and then he has to run to the end of the fence and get there before we do.”
I blinked. I had never even considered the notion, but the details were consistent as far as I could tell. “You think so? Okay, I’ll watch for that!”
The next time we had to go out that way, I started the car and waited. Yes, sure enough, Chai was already barking.
We got in and drove by as slowly as we could. Again, when he saw us, he sat up and waited with his body quivering in anticipation. As soon as we reached the fence he leaped into action. Around and around and around and around; he made eight spins before he charged over to the other side of the yard, barking merrily. And then I noticed the small details I had missed; the continually wagging tail, the bright sparkling eyes, and the pink tongue lolled out as if to say, “See? I did good, right?”
I laughed aloud. “I’ll be damned! You are absolutely right!”
Now every time we pass the neighbour’s yard we make jokes about Chai’s idiosyncratic sport. “Not as good a run today; must be the off-season.” “Nine spins – it’s a new record! And the crowd goes wild!” And now that a new puppy has been added to the family: “Uh oh, the rookie is cramping his style!” (The puppy got in his way, disrupting Chai’s spinning, and Chai barked at him and chased him out of the path.) It’s amazing how much this change in the narrative has changed our attitude about our plucky little canine neighbour; indeed, I’ve entirely changed my view about small dogs. Blue doesn’t even bark at him; perhaps Blue was sensing our annoyance rather than reading canine body-language. We never call him “that dog” anymore. Or “stupid thing” either. Instead we greet him with affection and we cheer him on.