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  By: Ken Foster

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How to be Alone”

During the first months Brando lived with me, I opened my eyes during the night and found him sitting next to my head, staring down at me, as if I was a subject he was studying; when he realized he had been discovered, he would move silently to the bottom of the bed, curl up and close his eyes, pretending that nothing had taken place while I was sleeping, nothing at all. If the quilt sometimes formed a mountain that hid my face from his view, Brando couldn’t trust that I remained just a few feet away from him and would creep closer to peer cautiously over the temporary barricade that had come between us.

Sometimes, I pretended to be asleep as he licked my entire head, carefully, while I waited, testing him to see how far he would go. Once, I woke to find him arranged with our nostrils aligned, his breathing synchronized so that the same air passed back and forth between us. At this point I decided that perhaps he’d gone a little too far.

Dogs are pack animals; their existence and behavior are built on establishing and maintaining their position in a group. It’s for this reason that many people find dogs annoying. We tend to be far less social as a species, when it really comes down to it, than we might like to think. For humans, social activity has become something we chose, or something we resist. For dogs, interacting is an irresistible impulse and for some dogs, like Brando, every time a person walks away from them it triggers a sense of panic at the possibility of losing part of the pack.

I had just returned from three months in Costa Rica, and I’d fallen in love there with a dog. Duque came to my apartment each night and took his place on a chair next to the door. During the day he would guide me around the edges of the property, showing me trails along the hills that even the farm’s inhabitants had forgotten. Sometimes he would stop over a particular view and look up at me, to make sure that I was seeing it too: the bright flowers growing on the other side of a ravine. He ignored the leisurely retirees in the neighboring houses and sometimes he ignored me, but he always followed the gardener and housekeeper on their daily chores, fascinated by every boring task they were expected to complete. In the villages and on the beaches were mismatched packs of dogs, living the high-life, swimming in the surf, flirting with the tourists, better behaved than any leashed dog in the city.

“You’ve lost your mind,” my mother told me, each time I emailed her about Duque. “You must be lonely. You have no one to talk to.” It was true, I didn’t speak the language. But I didn’t speak dog either, and that hadn’t stopped him from finding a way of approaching me.

Returning from the jungle to a winter in New York City was jarring to say the least. I’d been out of town for six months. I didn’t remember what it was I’d done with my time. And more than anything, I missed that dog, missed his snoring in the corner of the room. In emailed reports, I heard he was now living like a hobo, disappearing for days at a time before returning again. If I was going to be spending my time worrying about a dog, I thought it ought to be one that was actually living with me.

I found Brando on the internet, after finding my way to a website called Petfinder, where you can search shelters across the country by breed, size, gender and age. I remember filling in the search form, thinking I could find a match for Duque, the one I was missing. Mixed, small, male, young. A list of choices, each with a small photo, none of which looked anything like Duque. By the time the train had crossed the river to Brooklyn, I’d decided getting a dog was an awful idea, but went to the shelter to look anyway, since I was there. I walked into the shelter, a windowless room of barking dogs, and was doubly sure that I’d better off living alone. Then I turned and saw him, a skinny copper-brown and black striped sock-puppet of a dog, staring quietly up at me. I knew it was him.

I decided that it would be best for both of us—Brando and me—to make this transition slowly. I took the L train each morning over to Brooklyn and walked through the snow to the shelter, where Brando would race out of his pen to great me, doing a quick spin around the room to rub it in the noses of the other dogs. He had a person, and they didn’t.

Brando had been found wandering the streets on December 27th, but whoever had left him out hadn’t thought to remove his vaccination tag, so the shelter was able to trace some of his history. His first owner had returned to Puerto Rico unexpectedly and left the dog behind “temporarily” with a friend, who claimed he had run away. But it’s hard to see how a dog in the city can run away from home, and it seemed more likely that the second owner had holiday plans that a foster dog didn’t fit into. On the records they gave me with his adoption, under NAME it read Nene—baby—and then above it, File under Brando. Someone had decided he needed a new name.

I tried to imagine who would name a dog Baby and then so easily leave him behind.

Another reason getting a dog seemed like a fine, logical choice was my total lack of employment. Surely it would take months before I found a job, and so we would have those weeks together to settle things between us. But just as I was deciding on Brando, I found a couple of months of freelance work doing research in midtown. But this is even better, I thought. This will establish immediately that he can’t expect me to always be around.

All of the books I had read before “the adoption” had encouraged the use of a “crate” or cage to contain the dog in the owners absence, to encourage housetraining and keep the dog from chewing on things—varnished furniture, electrical wires, shoes—which might harm him if not irritate you upon your return. Dogs are den animals, they said. By keeping him in a locked crate, they said, I would be encouraging his own soothing instincts for safety.

Brando felt differently. Once I had lured him into the crate with a treat and closed the door, he would grip the metal grid door in his mouth, shaking it like a scene from a prison movie. He emitted sounds that resembled a variety of exotic tropical birds. Neighbors commented on it—not just the noise itself, but the fact that it sounded like a bird. In a matter of days he became suspicious of the whole thing, never stepping into the crate without first pushing the door open and closed several times with his nose to make sure it was working. Once he was inside, I would latch it on him again, just as I had done the day before.

I never worked more than four hours, because I worried that something would happen, and I wanted to spend time with him. After all, wasn’t that the point of having a dog? To spend time with him? Each afternoon when I returned and opened the crate, Brando tumbled out onto the floor at my feet, honking like a clown horn before jumping onto my bed, the stage on which he proceeded to perform an elaborate Can-Can dedicated to me, kicking his greyhoundish legs in the air. Then, as if concerned that he might somehow lose the attention he’d been waiting for all day, he began nipping at my hands, until one night, I shut myself in the bathroom to get away from him. And then, he began to cry.

A week later, I arrived home to find him waiting for me just inside the door. He wagged his tail and brushed up against me, as if looking to be rewarded for his accomplishment: he’d gotten out of the crate on his own. It took a minute for this to register, and then I ran over to check the door, which was ajar, but bewilderingly, the latch was still in the closed position. Scattered around the room were various items that he’d gotten into: a bag of treats, some clothes, a pile of poop, a puddle of pee, and several disposable razors he taken from the bathroom. As I picked up the razors, which were in pieces, I realized that there was one piece of each that was missing: the triple-blades were gone. He had eaten them.

When I was three, I’d once stuffed a little wooden man up my nose while my parents were attending a party up the street, and they had to return with a doctor to get it out. I’d also had a habit of getting myself out of my own crib when I was even younger, so much so that when at two I had broken my leg, it was only when I didn’t climb out of my crib that my parents knew something was wrong. Now it was all coming around again.

“Feed him bread,” the vet told me. “Believe it or not the razors will pass.” Not satisfied, I dismantled another razor and saw that the blades were so thin that I was able to tear them with my hands. When I left the next day, I locked the bathroom door, in case he might escape again. And he did. He was going through a new segment of the apartment each day, taking inventory of things he’d been watching me use while we were together. This time it was the things piled on the chair next to the door, and my luggage, where he found more razors and ate them.

Just having me there wasn’t enough. If I sat on the bed, hunched over my laptop, trying to get to work on something new of my own, Brando would arrange himself just behind the screen, where he could stare at me, incredulous at my insistence that anything short of him might be worthy of my focus. When staring didn’t work, he joined me at the keyboard, pressing send on dozens of email messages before I’d actually finished them. Finally, he settled in behind me, where I could use him as backrest or pillow.

When I talked to the vet about Brando’s problem being alone, he said, “But you’ve only had him a few weeks.” It seemed unlikely to him that we would have acquired such a strong bond so quickly. When I called the people who had sold me the crate and told them he’d escaped, they said, “That’s not possible.” When I called a therapist, or behaviorist as they are called in the animal world, she asked, “You don’t coddle him do you?” He was next to me of course, his head in my lap, his little body serving as an armrest.

“Coddle him?” I asked. “Isn’t that the whole point of having a dog?”

Brando wasn’t Duque, and Manhattan wasn’t the jungle, but still I thought he’d be good for me: the responsibility, the need to keep a schedule. There was a difference between a dog that chooses to visit you and one you choose to take home. Now, with two suicide attempts in as many days, my feelings had turned around completely. He had acted out for my attention, and rather than seeing it for what it was, I fell into a neurotic, fierce, protective love for him.
“You need to ignore him when you are home,” the behavior therapist told me, a difficult task in a one-room apartment. “And when you are gone, you need to enroll him in daycare.”

What they don’t tell you is that it is contagious; once you realize what the dog is capable of doing without you, you find yourself unable to ever leave him alone again. Even after the extravagance enrolling him in a daycare program, I felt inadequate, a failure, the way I imagine some women feel when they leave their new baby for the first time to return to work. Other people could manage it, leaving their dog for the day, remaining productive and worry free, returning to their apartment without incident. Where had I gone wrong? And if he got into trouble at daycare, a fight with another dog, or worse, with one of the humans, could they ever be as understanding as I might be? After signing all the papers the first day, I sat in the office with the daycare staff, mortified at the sudden sensation that I might cry. I was leaving him there for just four hours.

Worse, he began to feel a little too comfortable at daycare. Like a child starting out at a new school, Brando cultivated a reputation as a troublemaker rough-housing among the other dogs, while simultaneously charming the staff. He liked to sit with them in the office when the other dogs were gone at the end of the day. He impressed them with acts of charity. There was an old lame dog who was kept in a bed in a room away from all of the action. “Brando likes to visit with him in the afternoon,” one girl told me. “He’s so sweet!”

This same girl became my first rival for his affection. She was Latin, with long black hair that she sometimes let Brando pull while he sat in her lap in the office. When I arrived to pick him up, Brando would run down the hall to me and leap into my arms, but by the time we collected his things and headed for the elevator he’d be reluctant to leave, thinking perhaps that we should just move in there with everyone else, since it was so much bigger than our apartment. He would sit, stubbornly refusing to enter the elevator, or, even more painful to witness, he would run back and forth between the staff and me, unable to decide to whom he should be loyal.

When my assignment ended, I was thrilled with the idea that I could get my dog back fulltime. I weaned him off daycare, but for months, whenever he saw a woman with long black hair in the distance, he squealed and raced to catch up to her. “It’s not her,” I would tell him as he dragged me by the leash. Eventually, he gave up looking.

Not much is known for sure about what makes separation anxiety strike some dogs and not others. It is more likely in neutered animals, in animals with single owners, in animals that have been abandoned, but not animals who have been passed along multiple owners. It is unheard of in Europe, which doesn’t surprise me at all, because in Europe you can also bring your dog with you nearly everywhere. Brando qualifies on every level, with bonus points, I imagine, for living in Manhattan.

In the past year, Brando has grown from a delicate looking whippet-shaped dog to something more like a greyhound-mastiff-Great Dane—the mix changes as he continues to get bigger. He has destroyed four metal cages, including one billed as “Gorilla-Tough.” He’s scratched his face by forcing it through the bars; he’s scraped the enamel from his teeth. It isn’t the cage itself he minds, because when I am home, he’ll spend time in it without complaint, just as he doesn’t cry when I am present, or even if I am outside the door, within earshot. When he manages to get out of the crate, anything goes. I return to find a metal can impaled on his teeth, a newspaper slipped into the doorframe by a neighbor to muffle the noise of my dog pounding to get out of the apartment. Once, I left him in the cage in front of the TV during an address by the president and returned to find the cage filled halfway with shredded copies of the New York Times, the television unplugged, the cord pulled into the cage and buried beneath the Times.

Dogs believe in family the way the Ticos in Costa Rica do, which may be why the two seem to me so inseparable. Big extended families, all living in the same building or along the same street, never splitting up or moving very far away: this is what dogs expect from us. In Ciudad Colon, when I walked to the village to get a bus that would take me into the city, Cecelia, the cook, would scrunch up her nose as I passed. “Why would anyone want to go there?” Duque agreed, following me to the stop and waiting with me, then staring through the window at me as the bus pulled away.

Imagine a dog’s confusion assimilating into the North American family, where children and grandparents are shipped off at the earliest convenience, leaving empty rooms to be remodeled or used as storage. My own parents, like so many others of their generation, waited until the children were gone before expanding the size of their house, so that the two of them could have more room to spread out in. After the renovations, I found real and imagined excuses for not coming home for a visit, meeting my parents in hotel rooms in other cities rather than returning to the transformed house I grew up in.

When I adopted Brando, my parents were as mortified as if I’d become single parent. They argued with me, they rationalized. I wouldn’t want the responsibility, they said. I wouldn’t be able to travel. When I answered that it was time for me to stop travelling, that a little responsibility might be something good, they came up with a final ultimatum: I would never be allowed to visit them with the dog.

Six weeks later they drove to the city in their white van to pick us up for Brando’s first vacation in the country. He was cautious at first, settling into the very back of the van, where they had laid out a dog bed for him, but soon he moved into my lap and then, realizing who was really in charge, he settled between my parents’ bucket seats for the rest of the four-hour drive.

Most, if not all, of Brando’s experience indoors consisted of my small apartment, where we did little other than write and sleep, and the large daycare center, where he was allowed to run up and down the long hallway, playing as hard as he liked. My parents house is a T-shaped ranch house, with each room opening into the next and a group of bedrooms clustered at one end. To keep him out of the fancier areas, including the extension, a crate blocked the way from the kitchen to the living and dining area, and the door in an adjoining study and subsequent hall was kept closed. Nothing could be more infuriating to Brando. It was bad enough that there was all this space within his sight, but beyond his range. What made it even worse was our insistence on entering and exiting in every direction: into the bathrooms, into the hall, into the basement and the garage. He could never keep all of the family together in one room, and whoever was missing, he waited at the door closest to the direction they had left in, his nose pressed against the crack at the base of the door frame, sniffing for signs of their return.

In the morning on our visits there, Brando wakes up early and goes out to the kitchen, his tail wagging in anticipation until my mother comes out in her robe to start the coffee. When my father arrives, Brando begins his dancing, his hips swiveling like Elvis, or a frantic hula dancer in a grass skirt. What makes it thrilling to him is the boring sameness of the fact that the four of us are together again in the same place, at the same time, just like the day before. Then after coffee comes the shocker, we will all be going in different directions, he hasn’t managed to convince us to stay, just as he hasn’t managed to convince us at bedtime to sleep all together in one bed.

For Brando, my father is the worst offender, often retreating after dinner into the extension, sliding the doors closed, and sitting alone watching television. This makes no sense to Brando, since my mother and I are watching TV too, in the family room, where Brando is allowed to lounge on the floor in a carefully calculated spot between us. What could the point be in doing anything on your own?

Because of the shape of the house, and the large windows facing into the back yard and woods at the edge of the property, Brando often leads me back to a spot where he can stand and peer out the window, across the patio, and in through the windows on the other side, where the shadow of my father is visible, sitting alone, reading, or watching television.
We can stand that way—together—for quite a while, staring at the distance.

Photographs by Cami Johnson,