I believe in my dog, the canine embodiment of purity and the bringer of love. His name is Riley, after the 1940s radio sitcom that popularized the phrase “living the life of Riley,” which is to say living the good life on someone else’s money. The name is uniquely apropos of dog life.
Right now, Riley’s looking at me. I don’t know what he’s thinking. I don’t know whether he’s thinking. To be honest, I suspect he’s not. But that look carries meaning nonetheless. That look represents a bond between animals, a bond that has been with us hominids for fifteen thousand years.
Early humans are said to have welcomed Riley’s ancient predecessor, Canus Lupus, into their camps as food-scroungers. In return for spare chunks of wooly mammoth meat, the wolf-dog would perform certain vital functions, like protection from predators and help with the next hunt for new chunks of mammoth meat. People now had their first nonhuman boon companion; wolf-dogs now had something approaching the life of Riley, which catalyzed the gradual sloughing-off of their wolfishness.
Today, as then, the dog is simple. The dog is pure. But that purity and simplicity belies the intensity of our bond and the extent to which our existence is not just mutual but symbiotic, the product of shared experience and emotion. This should go without saying, but I love Riley. And I think he loves me, a fact science alternately proves and disproves, depending on which text one consults. Science aside, the feeling is intense on this end, a fact I need no experiment to verify. When I feed, walk, play with or pet Riley, we co-operate, we co-exist, and we co-love. This affectionate interplay between ancient hunter and ancient sidekick is not just something craved by those of us who share our lives with canines. It’s coded for in our DNA, written into the spiral of genetics across millennia.
In the 2004 comedy Anchorman, bumbling newsman Ron Burgundy’s temporary and predictable slide into oblivion is triggered by the loss of his beloved dog, Baxter, who is dropkicked off the Coronado Bridge by an enraged motorcyclist. Upon witnessing this devastating act of vengeance, Will Ferrell’s character falls apart, unable to say anything intelligible beyond “I’m in a glass case of emotion” (a.k.a. a phone booth).
I hesitate to wrest deep meaning from a quagmire of slapstick, but I believe I will anyway: Ron Burgundy’s comic attachment to his dog, which speaks Spanish, wears pajamas and orthodontic headgear, and saves lives ala Lassie, is an attachment to love itself. Baxter is an anthropomorphized caricature, yes, but he is nevertheless a symbol of a bone-deep and biologically real connection. Baxter, Riley, wolf-dogs, all prove one thing: dog is love. Believe it.
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