Our 4-legged social ambassadors

On Christmas night up here on our foothill cul-de-sac, we had weather. It wasn’t that snowy kind of weather we fantasize about in L.A. around the holidays. It was windy and blustery, leaves flying madly, door slamming shut, and a chill blowing into your bones if you stepped outside without the right outerwear.

We finished our “traditional” English Christmas dinner of standing rib roast, yorkshire pudding, baby peas, and roasted potatoes — which my Greek mother had taught me to cook — we’d opened gifts, and then gorged on English trifle, which I’d saturated with a little too much sherry.  And then it was time for my 16-year-old niece to drive herself home.  I opened the front door to a whoosh and chill, and my daughter and I walked her up to her car, carrying bags of presents and plastic containers of leftovers.

As we approached the car, a stray dog caught our attention. He was bounding around in the middle of the street — very near the spot where our own dog was struck by a car a few years earlier, a space that made me nervous whenever I saw it occupied by an animal or child.  My daughter grabbed him by the collar, he looked disoriented and stressed as the wind blustered.  My niece drove off, and we led the dog into our house.

The dog looked a little unfamiliar to us. We read his dog tag, then called the phone number.  It was the voice mail of our across-the-street neighbors. Of course, I thought. We don’t see them much and the dog is usually fenced off in their backyard. But the wind had blown their gate open and the dog got out. And no one was home. We have our own dog, who’s adorably sweet to humans but absolutely obnoxious to other canines, so we locked ours in the back rooms. But now we had an unexpected Christmas guest.

I left a message on their voice mail. My husband, meanwhile, wrote a note to tape on their front door just in case they didn’t notice their land-line message (who checks those anymore?).  As he made his way to their house — bundled up against the cold wind — he was met by a couple of teenagers who had just pulled into their driveway, frantically looking for the dog.  They were the housesitters.  And they were hugely relieved to know we had the dog.

Over a brief two-week span around the holidays, I was struck by how the dogs in our immediate suburban hub were connecting the neighbors.  They made us open doors.  They impelled neighborly phone calls.  They broke down social barriers, inducing new interactions and connections.  They became a kind of admission ticket to new social intimacy with our neighbors, allowing us to circulate through one anothers’ homes for the first time, crossing that rubicon from exterior to interior, glimpsing what lay behind those closed front doors.

My son, for instance, dog sat for our next door neighbors when they left town.  The needs of the dogs inspired a kind of neighborly trust, where they felt confident enough to turn their home over to someone they didn’t know that well, an act that ultimately help pull us closer together as families.

And when it was our turn to leave town, we reached out to neighbors we knew only in the most passing way, a couple a few doors down who we knew loved dogs.  My husband — the dog walker in our family — knew them through those brief encounters on the street, when they were out with their own dog.  He learned their dog was sick.  Then we stopped seeing their dog at all.

I have to confess I’d never had a real conversation with these neighbors in the eight years we’ve lived here.  My husband had, and he conveyed to me what he knew about them.  She was a preschool teacher.  Her partner was perfectly nice.  We’d missed seeing them at a few neighborhood gatherings.  I’d say “hi” on the street, but that was it.

So when we were scrambling to find a dog-sitter after Christmas, we thought they’d be perfect.  We knew our dog loved them, from their interactions on the street.  They said yes.  And a social relationship took a small step forward.  I was thrilled finally to be connecting with them, to have them in our home, and to feel the trust of giving them our key.  After we returned home, we met them on the street.  It was a tender moment.   We laughed at their stories.  And when they began to leave, our dog tried to follow them home, quite ready to relinquish us and move in with them, the couple who had doted on him for those few glorious days we were gone.  When we held him back and his tail drooped, we got that message loud and clear.

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Dogs play a fascinating role in the social dynamic of suburbia. The anthropolgist Scott Vandehey writes about how a suburban resident’s obligation to clean up after one’s dog — among a number of other community obligations — represents  a facet of suburban citizenship, where residents display a set of rights-claims “based around maintenance of a perceived ideal lifestyle.”  This entails the duty to maintain clean, safe, healthy neighborhoods, an inclination toward NIMBYism, as well as a sense of belonging to a community.  While Vandehey tends to emphasize the obligatory aspects of dog ownership — especially the duties to keep dogs contained (on leashes) and to clean up after them —  a more positive social dimension seems alive and well in our corner of suburbia.

After the holidays passed, I pulled up to our house one morning and noticed a spash of pink on our front porch.  I approached the front door and found a lush hydrangea, left with a note:  “Thank you for rescuing our silly dog.”  It was a gesture that made me appreciate the ways our dogs have helped thicken neighborly bonds and build trust.   It’s not always a perfect dynamic, but right now I’m appreciating the goodness that’s coming out of our dog days.

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