When I first met Etta, my housemate Taylor’s German Shepherd, I marveled at her independence. Unlike other dogs, she rarely pleads for attention and affection. She prefers to curl up next to a person, letting them decide whether they want to pet her or not. When she greets you, she sniffs your hand and perhaps rubs her head against your leg. If she is in a good mood, she may just lick your palm, but nothing more. Etta doesn’t show much interest in typical doggy activities. When I throw a ball in her direction, she strolls over to sniff it, and then looks back at me with indifference. When I hand her a chew toy, she paws at it briefly, and then turns to sniffing around the room.
The most impressive expression of Etta’s independence is that she’s taught herself how to open the doors in her home by jumping on their handles, pressing them down and using her claws as a grip to pull them back. This skill has empowered Etta to cross boundaries a pet is not supposed to. She can, for instance, easily open the bathroom door, often barging in on a flustered Taylor sitting on the toilet. I too have had the experience of sitting comfortably on the toilet, only for the door to fly wide open and Etta to waltz in, perch on her front paws, and observe me. Although the behavior initially struck me as manifesting her desire for company, there is also an undeniable reciprocity in the act: We watch her go to the toilet every time we go for a walk. Why shouldn’t she do the same to us?
Etta has also used this technique to make attempts at an escape. Occasionally, when no one is home, Etta will press the front door open and walk out. She makes it as far as the end of the corridor, where she is thwarted by elevator buttons that are just out of her reach. Fearing that Etta may one day conceive of a way to surmount this challenge, Taylor recently installed devices under the door handles that, when activated, prevent Etta from pressing them down. The opening of doors, to the bathroom or to the outside world, is too much independence for a dog to exercise responsibly.
Etta has been one of the only reasons I’ve had for leaving the apartment during the pandemic. Etta loves being outdoors. When she’s at home, she mostly lies on the wooden floor waiting for someone to make any movement that hints that a walk may commence soon. Taylor is a nurse, so she currently works grueling hours to keep the hospital afloat during the pandemic. She usually spends her one off-day per week cocooned in her blankets watching TV. She gets up for just a handful of moments: twice to feed Etta, a few times to visit the bathroom, and twice to take Etta out to her designated potty spot in the downstairs parking lot. On the rare occasions Taylor comes home from work before I’m asleep, she trudges heavily through the door. She flashes me a smile and a greeting and then retreats to her room. Etta gets up and slips through the closing door before it shuts. When I wake up the next morning, I hear Etta pawing at the handle, waiting for me to turn off the device and let her out.
Since Taylor has been so busy, Etta has had to accept that it will be my unfamiliar hand that guides her walk, holding her back when she attempts to jaywalk lest she end up in the ICU herself. For my part, I’ve greatly enjoyed strolling with Etta. Having recently taken a course on critical animal studies, I’ve also begun to regard living with Etta as a practicum in learning how to engage with animals in ways that respect them as individuals. One way I’ve tried to do this is to let Etta make decisions about where to go on walks, letting her lead the way before I decide it’s time to return home. I figure that if the walks are for her enjoyment, she should be allowed to decide where she wants to go and what she wants to do.
Letting Etta take the lead has transformed our walks into a painstaking research project on the smells of, well, everything. We spend a good deal of time in the park, circling around trees as Etta studies the smells of the squirrels climbing up and down throughout the day. My impression is that Etta decides which areas are worth investigating based on whether she can smell food nearby. Bus stops and park benches, we have learned, are reliable food scrap treasure troves. Once we make it beyond these sites of intrigue, Etta breaks into a steady jog, excited to venture as far out into the wide unknown as she can. I can hardly keep up. Although Etta gets out much less often than I do, her stamina is still far superior.
One late-fall afternoon, Etta navigated us to the Cross Campus area at Yale University. Given her affinity for the smell of new people, I suspected she would take an interest in sniffing the geometrically arranged humans sitting on the grass plains. Instead, Etta yanked me up the stone path, then took a sudden jolt into the bushes between Cross Campus and Yale’s dormitory. “Let Etta lead,” I told myself.
So, I was now standing in a bush. Looking behind me, I noticed the questioning glances of those sitting nearby who, from their vantage point, only saw a masked Black man standing in bushes next to the window of a college dormitory. Etta has a wicked sense of humor.
As I turned back to Etta, I noticed her tail wagging in fast broad strokes. She was chewing on something lying beneath the bush. Then I caught the smell: She was eating poop. And not just any old poop, but one steaming with the fresh odors of another dog’s insides. I recoiled in surprise. What was she thinking? Was this her idea of a workout power snack, or perhaps a delicacy? I gripped her leash like a teacher whose authority has been questioned might grip a ruler. But I caught myself before my gut reflex yanked her away. What was really so awful about her eating poop?
According to canine experts, not much. In fact, dogs eating the feces of other dogs is quite common. Pet gut health company AnimalBiome claims that forty-nine percent of all dogs engage in coprophagy, or poop eating, at least once in their lives. According to their claims, Etta might give good reasons for her behavior if she could communicate them to me. For instance, some studies indicate that dog coprophagy can be linked to bacterial deficiencies in their regular diet or other medical conditions. Other canine authorities, such as Dogs Naturally Magazine, suggest Etta might tell me that she ate it because she thinks poop tastes wonderful or, perhaps just because she was bored. Yet dog caretakers—myself initially included—have a hard time stomaching this. Googling “dogs eating poop” returns pages and pages of suggestions by veterinarians for training programmes and references to products that promise to defeat the behavior.
Many of these websites suggest that dog caretakers feed their dogs “healthy dog food” to curb the behavior. But what is dog food, really? Is it just the food that chemists and machines manufacture for dogs in laboratories and factories? Or could it perhaps be whatever food dogs happen to eat? The power to name and to designate – to say what is dog and what is not dog – is a subtle, yet fundamental act of power. In the Bible, God instructs Adam to name each of the non-human creatures he creates as humanity’s first act to concretize human dominion over animals.
While I stood pondering the thorny ethics of letting Etta eat poop, she had already wolfed down her snack and turned her attention to the whiff of a nearby squirrel corpse. I later learned that this is an enjoyable thing for dogs to excitedly flop around on. Yet neither Etta’s poop eating nor her flop around on the squirrel made her seem the slightest bit unwell. Rather, unease overtook her later, as I took charge to lead us home. As we neared the apartment, she planted her legs and bowed her head. I tried calling her toward me, but she stood still. Sigh. In her view, we had not been out for long enough, but I was tired. I pulled at the leash tied to her neck.
When we returned to the apartment, I filled one of Etta’s bowls with water and the other with food I retrieved from a dog-proofed cupboard. She lapped up a few mouthfuls of water, finished her food and trudged toward the couch. She climbed up on it, and let her chest and head fall onto the cushion. After my unilateral decision to return home from the walk, she had seemed less dog, and more Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. Staring into her melancholy eyes, my image of her impressive independence started to crack. In the Anthropocene, Etta must always depend on Taylor and me to access her most basic needs: food, water, shelter and fresh air. She must not leave the apartment alone or else she may get lost or hurt. On our walks, she must always be shackled by her neck, and she must submit to my schedule. For the first time, I truly recognized the material impossibility of her independence.
I sat with Etta on the couch for the next hour. I did my homework while stroking her head and back intermittently, as she lay quietly on the couch, looking into the darkness through the window. However, I was going to watch a movie with my girlfriend, so I would have to leave Etta on her own. As I stood up to collect my belongings, Etta got up with me, anticipating a walk. But when she saw me placing my belongings in my bag, she bowed her head and returned to the couch.
Given Etta’s jail-breaking attempts, Taylor has asked that we lock Etta in her room when there is no one home. But getting Etta in there was its own mission. I started by calling Etta from Taylor’s room. No response. I walked back to the couch, and tried to coax her by softly calling her name. She peered at me for a moment, then looked away. I grabbed a treat from the kitchen to try to lure her from the couch by letting her sniff it and then pulling it away. Nothing. Finally, I handed her the treat, and tried to pick her up as one would a baby. She let out a cry, and shuffled around to avoid my hands getting a grip. But she didn’t do more to resist. Eventually getting a hold on her, I carried her to Taylor’s room and placed her on the bed. Etta curled up as she did on the couch. Sigh. As I closed the door, I glimpsed a frame standing on Taylor’s desk with the quote: “Well behaved women rarely make history.” I looked back at Etta, her head buried in the sheets. I wondered how Etta might define home, whether it is a place she finds comfort and joy, or whether her description might resemble something more like a prison.
That evening with Etta left me wracked with guilt. So, the following weekend, I decided to take her on an extra-long walk down to New Haven Long Wharf. This time, letting Etta lead meant running to keep up with her. Her encounter with new sights and smells excited her enough to dart past many of the poles, trees and benches she might usually have stopped to investigate.
Near the end of the wharf, we turned down a path that opened up to a secluded strip of beach. As there was no way for Etta to run away, I let her off the leash. For a few seconds, she stood still, looking at me inquisitively. Then she darted off, sprinting up the beach some 50 meters before turning back to look at me again. Her tail wagging energetically, she let out a big bark. I had never heard her bark before.