Walking Toula through city streets is never dull. There are those who nod and smile, and move noticeably closer to the building side of her meandering nose: Toula’s resting face is anything but, and her hypomanic affect is not for everyone. And then, there are those who need to interact.
In a mountain town outside Greenville, South Carolina, we were walking a lot. And the more we strolled, the more people smiled when Toula pulled up alongside; after her initial phase of ‘Stranger Danger,’ my rescue Boxer’s become totally receptive to new people friends. It’s a joy to watch her formerly suspicious nose turn friendly.
The challenge is her level of excitement. So worked up when someone slows to say hi, Toula can barely contain herself. Insert frenzied posterior motion and wagging ‘nub,’ mad jumps, and furtive licking of random hands– if Toula were human, the neighbors would talk.
While I practice loose leash grip to curb any ‘opposition reflex,’ I still watch her closely during any impromptu meet and greets. I also learned dogs greet each other at an angle, versus a head-on hello. I try to facilitate this sequence with people-greetings too.
Once I determine her acceptance of a new friend—look for rapid-fire wiggles and sidelong sniffs–I allow the new friendship to blossom, but I always warn them: “She’s a jumper.”
“Feel free to nudge her head down,” I add, as we perfect the ‘Paws Down’ command suggested by my friend Barbara whose dog Louie, a Parti Poodle, is an expert counter surfer.
Occasionally, a gently uttered “Gentle” works too. Toula’s excitement level easily goes from zero to 60, so it’s important to catch her in first gear.
But every now and then, Toula restrains herself. These moments are few and far between, and they fascinate me. It speaks to the energy exchange between dogs and humans, I learned. When dogs sense care and calm are needed, they invariably fall in line.
We were on an afternoon sidewalk—enough action to hold an interest, but not so much that she’d be overwhelmed. It was a good backdrop to make new friends.
We pulled alongside a man walking in the opposite direction. He wore thick, hazy lenses that looked more like swim goggles than glasses—some sort of Covid barrier, I wondered?
The man was tall, Black, maybe mid-40’s, with a rumpled shirt and hard-worn jeans. This was a largely white town, I noticed. Was he from here? If not, was he OK here? Transient, possibly homeless—he looked down on his luck. I wondered about his path and possible next steps.
“Hello,” I said, with a smile, watching Toula express an interest.
“Hey there,” he replied, giving me a small nod. He was watching Toula watch him. “Does your dog bite?”
“Nah, she’s good,” I said. “She just gets excited sometimes.”
Toula was wiggling, but slowly, and carefully, and peering at the man with soft, questioning eyes. Feeling comfortable with demeanor, I let her approach.
Mirroring the man’s energy, she kept her natural enthusiasm in check. She seemed almost shy. Toula moved in from the side, then sniffed her way to a very loving greeting.
“Wow, she really likes you,” I said. The man smiled. “You wanna pet her?”
Unlike most Toula fans, he hadn’t offered his hand or reached out to greet her. He let her come to him. Upon seeing her happy nub, he finally offered his palm.
Ice officially broken, the man scratched her neck, then stroked her head. Toula licked his hand in gratitude. He rubbed the length of her back, and she wiggled in approval.
The man gave a low whistle. “That’s a nice animal,” he said.
I smiled. “She’s a fun one,” I agreed. “She’s a rescue.”
“Yes. She was really neglected, left on a chain in a yard and—”
“Things people do,” he said, his gaze to the ground.
We chatted a bit about nothing in particular, and I introduced myself.
“And this is Toula!” I said. “And your name?”
The man paused, then adjusted his posture. He cleared his throat. “My name is Devon Emmanuel Taylor, Jr.”
“Glad to know you, Devon Emmanuel Taylor, Jr.,” I said, with a smile. “Both of us.”
Devon looked pleased. He gave Toula’s ears another ruffle.
“Well now, you folks have a nice day,” he said. Out of habit perhaps, for he didn’t wear a hat, Devon touched two fingers to his forehead.
And then, as we made our separate ways down the sidewalk: “Hey, who cuts your grass?” Devon called over his shoulder.
My heart sank. Not only did I live 6 hours away, but I didn’t have a lawn. I have never had a lawn. I’m fairly certain my idea of a yard was not at all what Devon had in mind.
“You know, we’re just visiting,” I said, once again in conversation. “Yeah, from the coast! I know Toula would love a lawn, but we don’t have one.”
“OK, I gotcha…” Devon’s voice trailed off. He shuffled his feet. “Well, if you ever need your grass cut, just let me know. I’ll do a good job for you, only $20!”
He nodded, sealing the deal. The fact that I lived in another state didn’t matter, nor did my perpetual dearth of a backyard. I pictured my perfectly groomed lawn, one I’ll likely never have, all courtesy of Devon’s hard work. I pictured a Toula-Devon reunion across a freshly mowed yard.
“Thank you, Devon,” I said, nodding consent for hypothetical lawn care. “If we ever have a lawn, I’ll let you know.”
And then, during this time of Covid-19, I offered my strong handshake. “Good luck,” I said, meeting Devon’s gaze through his hazy goggles-glasses. Maybe they kept the world at bay, I thought to myself. “And thanks for being so awesome with Toula.”
I read some of the most obedient and loyal dogs belong to the transient. The dog knows who’s boss, they say; they know what’s required of them, and who to rely on. Those dogs follow the pack leader–their one constant in their ever-changing world.
As we parted ways, I marveled my dog’s behavior. She had melted into this man’s energy and just trusted him, no questions asked.
I was glad Toula showed Devon sincerity and respect. I wondered if he’s ever known either.