Belle being cute xL

[Sure Belle looks cute here, but you have no idea the mayhem she causes.]

Writing about our crazy canine teaches me (again) about essaying.

At last I’ve documented our family dog’s epic weirdness—and, well, mine. My essay “Why I Hate My Dog” explains on Longreads. Bottom line and fair warning to the rescue-minded: every adult pound dog I’ve known or heard about has suffered from scorching separation anxiety. Belle’s is far from the worst—at least she doesn’t tear apart the house—but plenty bad. Her suffering, plus some truly odd behavior, affects her humans.

Especially me. Hence my wife’s suggestion that I write about Belle. “Your essays are getting too dark,” Kathy said. “Writing about Belle would be fun.” She was right. And I did try to channel David Sedaris, which helped me forefront the humor of living with Belle’s quirks. Of course dark notes crept in—well, serious ones. Because I can’t help but think ill sometimes about Belle’s previous owners. And because there’s poignancy in living with dogs, or almost any pet, that shares one’s emotional life but whose own life ends so much sooner than ours.

In Shepherd: A Memoir, I wrote about Belle’s predecessor terrier, Jack, whom I revisit here. Happy Jack looks great in comparison to neurotic Belle, though that’s relative. Once, for instance, he hopped on our dining table and consumed a large triple-anchovy pizza. That’s a new story about him in “Why I Hate My Dog.”

But Belle’s the focus. Here’s a snippet depicting her emotional fragility:

I pretend I can’t see her crouched amidst our bedclothes where she isn’t permitted, because she’s so ostentatiously suffering. Radiating tension, her head up and rigid, her face narrows, the taut line of her black lips forming a rictus of agony, much like the death grimace on the face of Jack’s possum; her paws grip our down comforter as if tornadic winds are clawing at her. She’s capable of spending an entire day like this, suffering an eventual human exit, especially when we vacation.

And one about mine:

Yet just last night—actually in the wee hours of this morning, at the ungodly time of two o’clock—she again performed her lone, great, silent service: keeping me company. I’d come wide awake, twitchy with vague anxieties, which soon attached to recent fears and old regrets. When my feet hit the floor, Belle stood in her warm bed beside ours. She trotted downstairs with me. In the light of day, I can take for granted Belle’s shadowing me from room to room; her steady presence seems to reflect her own insecurity, and I can ignore or mock her. At night, stranded in the darkness, I can’t. So I had felt grateful to Belle. I worried that she’d climb the stairs, nestle into her cozy nest, abandon me. She didn’t; she never does.

Claire & Belle LR

[Daughter Claire with Belle.]

The latter passage epitomizes what I love about writing, the way in making meaning it leads to new insight. And getting there is what frustrates me too. “Why I Hate My Dog’ began as a comedic riff on our needy dog. My realization about my dependence on Belle came very late. The draft had been “done” for weeks, and actually had been accepted by Longreads—I was getting ready to email it for editing.

But the longer I lived with my account of Belle, the more I could hold her portrait in my mind. And then I saw that our sharing the dregs of the night was central to conveying our relationship and our emotional connection. It showed her loyalty and her awareness of my need, showed the reciprocity of her companionship. Similar late breakthroughs occurred this summer in another allegedly finished essay.

It would be wishing too much for writing to get easier, I know. But in each case, sweet insight fell into my lap only after months of work on these medium-length essays. I hope I’m learning better to sense when a piece isn’t quite done! But it seems I must accept that harvesting only low-hanging fruit isn’t enough. Getting donked on the head by high-hanging fruit is probably part of the writing process. When I think about it, I realize this usually happens, to one degree or another, when I write.

Formal pre-publication editorial tweaking of “Why I Hate My Dog” was accomplished via the better part of a week’s asynchronous communication between me and my Longreads editor using Google doc. I knew of it, but hadn’t used it. I liked it. Familiar with trading Word-markup files by email, once I got used to Google doc I enjoyed its shared-meeting-space feel. Somehow less pressure—we’re just talkin’ here! A neat collaborative back and forth. Plus whenever I see my work in a new format or even in a changed display, new stuff jumps out. Ideas and diction fixes arise. And they did, again.


[One halloween: She has never forgiven us.]

Briefly this essay has made me more tolerant of others’ bad dogs. This morning, Kathy and I passed a man on our walk being dragged along by a snarling dog. We sometimes see him, and I dread it. Though I hold him responsible for that awful hound, and probably signal my disapproval, Kathy greeted him. His response was slow and a tad sullen—we’d disturbed his peace, too, even though his canine was the one wanting to kill Belle and maybe us. Then we ran into him again on our loop. He was friendlier, saying by way of possibly ironic apology for his dog, “He loves everybody.”

“I guess he’s trying to be funny,” I said when he was out of earshot.

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe that dog was his kid’s, who died,” I offered. “The kid kept it in his room, never socialized it. And now dad’s stuck with it.”

“Maybe it’s a rescue he got to keep himself company in his old age,” Kathy said, more realistically.

By definition, almost everyone is doing his best, right? Sometimes that’s pretty pathetic. But it goes for me and Belle, too.

[Next: an interview with my Longreads editor, Cheri Lucas Rowlands, about working with writers and her career in the digital world.]


  • Bravo, Richard. I’m hoping to get donked on the head soon. 🙄

  • Clay Cormany says:

    Having enjoyed the antics of rat-killer Jack and sheep-herder Flower in Shepherd, I know your new book is bound to have plenty of excitement, fun, and surprise. Maybe some heart-tugging moments, too. I look forward to reading it.

  • John says:

    Love the part about being more tolerant of other people’s dogs.

  • David C. Bailey says:

    How is better than track changes in Word, which I’m not a fan of?

    • Richard says:

      It’s different, not necessarily better. For another writer helping me, I prefer track changes because it’s efficient for them and straightforward for me. But I loved Google doc for working with an editor because it’s so collaborative in feel and intent. Any writer likes an editor to share edits in advance, but not all do, so track changes is pretty good for that reason alone—it means an editor is open and not being passive aggressive, springing edits at publication. That’s happened to me! Google doc fosters a conversation, however, and that seems more collegial and clarifying for both sides. It stretches out the process over several days or a week, so must be planned for, but I liked the way it led to second thoughts and discussion.

      • David C. Bailey says:

        thanks. Now, I understand, it’s more the process than the tools. I think I’ll give it a try next time I’m pingponging a story with a writer.

  • jzrart says:

    Can’t wait to read your new book. I’m a dog person. I have two rescues. There is no other kind. They are my solace and my teachers!

  • Oh, I love it. And now I can say, “I told you so in a previous comment.” I just knew your essay would be published. Longreads is a perfect fit. Can’t wait to read it, but I’ll have to wait for the sun to go down first. Off and running. xoxo

  • sixfootjew says:

    I really enjoyed your essay, and I don’t usually enjoy dogs :)

  • iambcvilla says:

    I read your essay on Longreads and I have to say it was quite impressive! Reading about your dog Jack made me tear up a little. I used to walk this huge Malamute named Minnie (she was the runt of the litter and ended up growing up to be bigger than all of her siblings). She was charismatic and funny. She was put down at the age of 10 because of her crippling arthritis. Sad times, but dogs always have a special place in our hearts.

    I will be following you :)

    Do you accept guest-posts? I would love to write about my rescue, Katara, a cat but equally as strange and entertaining as your dog. We secretly

    If you would like to check out my blog, you can find it here —>

    • Richard says:

      So gracious of you to find your way from Longreads and comment. Thank you, B.C. Your new blog is impressive. So far, I haven’t done guest posts, aside from periodic book reviews by a few others.

  • Congratulations on your story! I don’t have a shaggy dog story, but I am accumulating a few new cat stories from my interactions with my new comrade (since Dec 31), Lucie-Minou. Of course, cats have their pride, and groom a lot, so she wouldn’t allow me to call it a “shaggy cat story,” but she has a few little quirks too. For one thing, when she hears anyone outside in the hallway in our condo building, she hides under my bed, still, after all this time here, and refuses to come out for several hours. She likes to lick the empty vanilla ice cream container, but won’t eat the actual ice cream much, even melted. Also, I reserve the appropriate size cardboard boxes from shipping for her to play in, since cat furniture is too expensive, and until the other day, I thought that was a good thing, but then I came into the living room and accidentally stepped on the small regurgitated corner of a cardboard box, which she had evidently mistaken as an enemy and devoured, only to return it to store later. But as with Belle, she is the best little companion imaginable, especially in the far reaches of the night. When I can’t sleep or sit up crocheting until the wee hours, she keeps me company, and either plays with her toys beside me, or snoozes on one of the couches where I am working. On July 2, she had her second birthday, and since it was so close to the 4th, she and I just celebrated all weekend long, with special foods and new toys, and lots of play. The fireworks of course alarmed her, since people were setting them off all around in town, and then on July 5, she seemed down in the dumps, as if feeling the letdown from so much excitement all at once, just like a young child. I thought I loved my other cats, and did, but as with (I believe) Benjamin in the Bible, she is the cat (child) of my old age, at least as old as I am now, and there’s a special fervor to such relationships. I’m not in ill health, but every time there’s a “blip” on some part of my health scene, I think of her and Shakespeare’s line “To love that well which I must leave ‘ere long,” and I hope that I outlast her, so that we can have many happy years together. Sorry to sound grim–last night was a night of weird dreams. Thanks for your tales about Belle and Jack.

    • It appears your Lucie-Minou is a character in her own right, Victoria. I think this is why we, well some of us, can write so much about pets: those who share our emotional life are akin to people that way and in the stories that accumulate about them. Enjoy her!

  • shirleyhs says:

    I’ve never been a dog owner, though I have found memories of our dogs on the farm. Your writing, however, takes me beyond my own experience with dogs into that even more universal place — experience with difficult people. :-)

  • owen1936 says:

    Richard, thanks for the love/hate story in Longreads, though clearly the love dominated. I imagined a tug of war with you on one end of the rope and Belle on the other. I also admire your discipline of pushing far beyond the low hanging fruit–something I need to work on.

Leave a Reply