My dog Aktis celebrated his tenth birthday by treating himself to the naughty pleasure of a nap on our bed. I found him fast asleep, head on my pillow, and curled in a fetal position. Until recently, Aktis has never been interested in the bed, or any other furniture. In this and many other ways, he’s quite unlike our dearly departed dog, Kestra—who always appreciated the creature comforts and had to be trained to stay off the bed and couch.
As for the state of Aktis’s union, he’s doing well for a large, spirited, often heedless German shepherd. His hips are fine. He’s had a bulged disc in the lumbar region ever since he torqued his back end in a spectacular wipeout while chasing another dog across a sheet of ice. I remember watching in horror as his mindless pal ran onto the ice and Aktis—never one to put on brakes—mindlessly followed in hot pursuit. That accident seven years ago added a permanent hitch to his gait. However, apart from the gimp and the creeping arthritis in the back, he’s fine. His eyes are clear, his coat is healthy, he’s not senile. His ability to walk and run and swim is largely undiminished. He eats with gusto, and he instantly appears in the kitchen whenever a banana is being peeled, eggs are being beaten, meat is being cooked, or a can of fish is being opened. (He’s learned he can expect us to share these things.)
He loves training, working, and playing as much as ever. Above all, he adores swimming and playing games involving “Seek!”* (You can read here about some versions of playing seek I’ve invented for Aktis.) When I send Aktis off to “Seek!” he flashes me an ecstatic gaze and yelps eagerly as he launches himself in the direction of the scent trail I laid down for him. I admire the intense concentration and singleminded doggedness that makes him and others of his breed valuable working dogs—as well as, yes, fools on ice. Aktis brings intensity and exuberance to everything he loves, whether it’s searching, swimming, fetching, tug of war, or chasing deer and foxes.
In just about every sense of the word, Aktis is game. He’s scarily intense, spirited, competitive and fun-loving. My wife calls him a “playboy.” As far as we can tell, it has never occurred to Aktis not to enjoy himself. He doesn’t take our occasional anger or corrections personally; he just waits for us to get over it, often giving us his puzzled look, as when I told him to get off the bed: he lifted his head briefly off the pillow, cocked his eyebrow at me inquisitively, as if to ask So, you’ve got a problem with me sleeping on the bed? and then dropped his head back onto my pillow in a bold display of princely indifference. In fact, we suspect that in his last life Aktis was a degenerate Bavarian prince whose karmic comeuppance was to be reincarnated as a German shepherd dog. Yet it’s not clear where the comeuppance comes in, as he’s obviously not suffering from the demotion.
Aktis can appear impressively dignified in repose or when you see him working. But for me the core of his dignity lies in his whole-hearted embrace of his own nature. Unlike Kestra, who was blessed and burdened with more social intelligence, Aktis doesn’t care (much) what others think. In one moment he intimidates strangers with his size and ferocity, and in the next he’s impossible to take seriously. Yesterday, for example, he picked up a comically small twig and pranced over to me, an inch of it sticking out of his mouth, offering it for a game of fetch or tug-of-war. I’d like to say he was joking, but humor is not his strong point. (Remember that German ancestry.)
Likewise, the same dog who can appear so regal will, with utter nonchalance, shit anywhere. No warning, no preparatory maneuvers; he just stops, arches his back, gets that faraway look on his face and shits right in the middle of the trail or sidewalk or driveway. Doesn’t bother stepping aside. Sometimes he won’t even step out of his own way: Many times I’ve stood shaking my head in wonder as I watch Aktis piss on his own front paw, then walk a few steps and—as if he suddenly noticed the dampness—stop and lick his paw dry with great delicacy.
Kestra was infinitely more discreet and dignified about her toilette. She’d go way off the sidewalk or trail, even hiking up a hillside to do her business. This discretion occasionally caused her trouble. Once, when she was about four months old, I watched her maneuver up a steep slope overgrown with ivy, looking for the sweet spot. When she found it, she circled (to get aligned with the earth’s magnetic poles of course), then crouched to do her business; alas, no sooner had she begun than she lost her balance, toppling over and sliding down the slope. Visibly surprised, she quickly righted herself and looked down to see whether I’d been watching. I suddenly felt ashamed of my big grin and smiling eyes—what sort of rascal laughs at his friend’s misfortunes!
But back to the dog of the hour. The truth is that my wife and I are as charmed by our dear playboy’s silliness and vulgarity as we are by his more dignified qualities. We’re grateful he still has the vitality to enjoy his life and bring joy to ours. This birthday was the sweeter for the scare he gave us some time back, a scare that reminded us of what we shouldn’t have forgotten in the first place: nothing lasts. So here’s to enjoying the health and good spirits of our loved ones, while we can. Happy birthday, dear old friend. (But the bed’s still off limits.)
Finally, I have a little gift for you, in the form of a recommendation. Check out the brilliant, hilarious, and decidedly offbeat comedy Wilfred, starring Elijah Wood and Jason Gann. It’s available on Netflix, and elsewhere. Squeamish viewers beware: if you don’t think this video is funny, the show may not be for you.