My dog doesn’t think snakes are animals. He’s confused by their slinky, scaly s-shape. Whenever he sees one slithering through the grass in our garden, his long floppy ears perk up. His nose vibrates with strong sniffs. He follows the snake around as it attempts to zig-zag out of his view, but they are never fast enough. My dog usually grabs them by their midsection, thinking that they’re a stuffed toy that’s escaped his toybox, or from the bush where he buries all of his most prized possessions which my Mom and I have nicknamed his “closet.” He then proceeds to shake them as if they’re a stuffed toy. Needless to say, our garden has been covered in snake guts and chunks this past spring, similar to how he rips the eyeballs out of any stuffed animal we give him.
Despite deconstructing snakes, he’s a gentle, lazy, fluffy dog who’s very afraid of children. I’m not really sure why, since he’s 100 lbs, but if we’re on a walk and he hears the voices of little kids he whimpers until we turn back the other direction. It might be because they’re about the same height as him and they can make direct eye contact with him. When we first adopted him, a family friend came over with their five year old daughter and our dog backed up into the corner of our sitting room and peed himself. He’s gotten slightly better as he’s five years old now, but they still scare him a lot more than snakes do.
Once when my family and I were getting ice cream together last summer, a little girl around four or five with Down Syndrome approached my dog. Being around the same height as him, she ran up to him and hugged him, as if he were a toddler as well. Instead of flinching or whimpering (or peeing himself) like he usually reacts when little kids are in the same general area as him much less engulfed in his fur, he stayed still and let the little girl pet and hug him as much as she wanted to. The little girl’s mom was amazed by his patience and kindness towards her daughter and asked my Mom if our dog was a therapy animal. We didn’t give the comment much thought after it occurred, except for acknowledging how much of a good boy our dog was temporarily getting over his fear of kids to provide comfort to a little girl.
However, encounters like this kept happening over the course of the year. Despite being terrified of other little kids, any child or person with a disability who approached my dog received full love and attention from him. My Mom and I recalled what the initial woman had asked, and have enrolled our dog in therapy training classes. Whereas service animals are trained to assist people with disabilities, therapy animals are trained to provide affection and comfort to those in hospices, retirement homes, schools, and various other places.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, my dog hasn’t been able to start volunteering yet. But as restrictions begin to gradually ease, I can’t wait to receive photos of him in his work uniform beside people who need his affection and fluffiness the most.
My dog’s name is Dega. Not Degas, like the French Impressionist painter, but Dega as in short for Talladega, Alabama, where we adopted him from. Whenever someone asks for his name when we’re out for a walk, they always guess the Impressionist painter. But as it’s come up more often, I’ve seen the correlations between Degas’s work and Dega my dog. Both are composed of gentle, fluffy brushstrokes, and are interested equally in being aloof flaneurs, scoping out the city or my back garden, as well as celebrating the joys of life, whether that be dancing in Paris at the turn of the century or enjoying a pet from a stranger. Both Degas are gentle and soft, as long as there are no snakes in sight.