Every dog lover must wonder what it is like to be inside a dog’s head. But I, almost alone among our species, have actually had that experience.
Over the holidays, my son’s school held a fundraiser at a local bakery. All profits from that day’s sales went to the school. To lure traffic in, human volunteers were asked to dress up in semi-realistic animal costumes, like sports mascots, and parade around outside the bakery.
You know how it is, when you see someone in an animal suit, and you just want to whip out your checkbook. The last thing you would do is cross the street to avoid the strange person/animal.
I was volunteered for this operation (“We thought you would be perfect for public humiliation,” one of the moms told me). The suit I was given was of a husky dog.
It was a good suit. The fur looked real, and the head, though oversized, was naturalistic. No sooner did I slip the enormous outer head over my inner one, and peered out the gauze eye-windows, than I felt different. And I don’t just mean unable to breathe. No, I began to feel like the creature I looked like.
It was a slushy day, and it had begun to snow when I slunk out to my appointed post along Summit Avenue. Altogether I spent two hours on that corner, and in that period I went through a series of transformations.
First, I was: the man in a dog suit. New to the concept, I imagined myself as a cartoon dog. When cars would go by I would wave my hand in a friendly way, like the girl in the Mickey Mouse suit at Disneyland. But after a minute or two, that started to seem insipid, so I began to experiment with other modes of behavior. Like lifting a leg at the stop sign to make my mark.
Some people, passing by, made me want to look away — they were cold and distant — cat people. Others ignored me. I wanted to shout at them, repeatedly and insistently, as if there were some point to my bellowing. Other people seemed sympathetic. I whined — you know how dogs whine — when they passed by me, hoping they would pity me and take me home. I zeroed in on a family with only one child, a little boy about six. I sensed a vacancy in their hearts, and I yearned to fill it. But they, unsure about a six foot, one-inch, bipedal husky dog, walked right on by.
But I grew tired of that and became: the man who did not know he was a dog. Now I was just an ordinary man, but one wearing a dog suit. The fact that I was in a dog suit was of no consequence to me. I pretended I was waiting for a bus, glancing at my paw-watch to check the time. I rocked on my heels, and whistled a tune. When a car drove by too quickly and splashed slush onto my feet, I made the Italian fungoo sign at them as they sped away, laughing.
Then I became: the man who awoke to find himself changed into a dog. Like Gregor Samsa in the Kafka story, only I was a dog, not a cockroach. I paced around frantically, pretending to pull my head off, only to discover it was my real head. It was a horror story, but no one showed the slightest sympathy. I waved at passersby signaling that I needed help in the most urgent way. I even stepped into traffic a bit, as if I might stand in front of a car to get it to stop. You should have seen people’s expression, delight fading into concern.
But the metamorphosis deepened, and I became the most frightening apparition of all: the man who really was a dog. All human perspective was gone now. I was a tall dog standing on its hind legs, teetering close to traffic. This was serious. I could bolt into an oncoming car, or nip a passerby in my confusion. I looked around me at the world of people, orderly for them but incomprehensible to me.
Soon, my coat was blanketed with wet snow, and my mask was damp inside from perspiration. I trudged lock back to the bakery, undid the dog’s head, and felt the cool human air rush to my slick face. Things began making sense again. Our team wound up raising $7,000 from sales of bread for the school.
But I felt changed for having been a dog. It made me realize dogs in human society feel almost constant terror. I remembered my last thoughts on the boulevard:
If I was a real dog, then I wasn’t on a leash, and what did that mean? That I was lost, or somehow emancipated. If so, I was in deep trouble — alone in the city, confused by traffic, stimulated by my freedom but unsure what to do with it. I appeared to be grinning, as dogs in danger do. But I was at my wits’ end.
I controlled nothing in this environment. I understood nothing. Everyone else seemed to have a direction to their behavior, but not me. One wrong move and I was a dead dog.
My only defense against this confusion was to latch onto a human who could protect me. But who — who?
I put my head back into the falling snow and I howled .
Cover image courtesy of byronv2 via Flickr