Wednesday, May 30, 2007

something beautiful

Fly and Solo at Crissy Field, summer 2006. Nikon D70s, 55-200mm AF-S DX kit lens.

Fly came “over the water” to live with me and Solo in February 2002. I wanted a trained sheepdog, one who could teach me, a novice and enthusiastic handler with one green and hardheaded dog, to handle. Solo, my green, hardheaded, and psychologically disturbed dog, needed a friend, and I decided that after living with me for two years, he was ready to share me with one. Fly arrived in a big wooden crate on a Continental Cargo flight, with her neat tidy white stripe, her great brown eyes and large, upstanding, white-flecked ears, surprised at her new circumstances, unsuspecting. I expected so much of Fly. Could she possibly measure up?

Fly was born in Wales, honed her trade in North Yorkshire, and came to live with me in downtown Philadelphia, the city that, several years ago, was declared “The Most Hostile City in America” by USA Today. She had to take a crash course in traffic, crowds, large expanses of concrete, walking on lead, and CSX freight trains that periodically thundered through the local park. She had everything pretty much under control right away – with the one exception that she apparently considered the area within a two-mile radius of my apartment building to be unacceptable for peeing. I spent those first few days wandering the streets with Fly on an extending lead, chanting, “Please pee. Please pee. For the love of God, Fly, please pee.”

Because of Fly’s little problem, I found myself taking her and Solo to the fenced dog run near my apartment during the wee hours one night. It probably isn’t advisable to wander around the city after midnight, but with two dogs, and at least one who certainly would attack anyone who tried to harm us, I felt pretty safe. I hoped Fly would empty herself so she could sleep loose instead of crated.

We had the place to ourselves, of course. I stood in a corner of the run looking determinedly nonchalant, hoping that Fly would eventually wander off and pee somewhere. Solo was (and still is) not used to unstructured outside time – we’re usually doing something like playing ball, or doing fake agility on playground equipment – so it took him a while to stop staring expectantly at me and wander off as well.

It was a cold night, with a dim, hideaway moon and a couple of yellowish streetlights casting long shadows over the dry, flyaway mulch that served as footing in the run. Solo and Fly made white puffs in the air as they panted. Fly trotted purposefully back and forth, sniffing everything, but not peeing. Dammit. My feet drifted off to sleep. Slowly, Solo left his independent trajectory, and began to follow Fly. What she sniffed, he sniffed. When she walked, he walked, she trotted, he trotted. Both of them carried their tails in easygoing Cs up in the air, over their backs.

Solo spied a deflated, abandoned basketball and leapt to snatch it from the ground. He tossed it into the air to get a better grip on it and then surged off with his prize, hindquarters tucked for extra speed, white teeth clenched on the flapping rubber, eyes wild with that Crazy Running Look that dogs get. (You know the one I’m talking about.) He left a cloud of mulch dust behind him and I thought about all the little pieces of wood I’d have to pull from the plume of his tail when we got home. (Solo has quite a magnificent tail – it resembles a flag, or one of those big fuzzy things people dust window blinds with. Debris loves to hide in it.) It dragged on the ground as Solo continued his butt-tucked run.

Fly wheeled and sped after Solo, a compact, efficient, black and white blur. Solo skidded to a halt, dropped his deflated basketball and spun to face Fly, startled, clearly believing that he’d offended her somehow and ready to defend his toy. I held my breath. But Fly danced like a cat. She tucked her chin demurely, pranced before Solo, and dropped into a low curtsy.

Solo just stared at Fly in blank confusion. He all but looked around behind him for whoever she was really talking to and then cocked his head. You mean me? Really?

Fly grinned, waggled her tongue, and smacked Solo gently on the shoulder with one of her oversized white forepaws. Then she curtsied again. After a stunned second, with an expression of pleasant disbelief, Solo returned the favor, and dropped into a low, formal play bow. If he’d had a hat, he would have whipped it off for more effect. Fly flipped her tail, and ran off, daring Solo to chase her. He did.

They played for almost an hour, a pair of dark shadows with white flashes flying back and forth, laughing, growling, wrestling, tackling, hip-checking, and I stood there watching, thinking, I did the right thing! I did! I got Solo a friend! I was so happy to see them playing together, I started to cry. Embarrassing, huh? It was so beautiful, you see? So normal.

The thing you have to understand is, no one ever wants to play with Solo. Other dogs think he’s weird, unpleasant, “not from around here,” wherever “here” is, he is an outcast. Solo is diffident with other dogs one on one, and worse around groups of dogs. Even mixing with dogs he knows well, he is always on the outside of the scrum while everyone else plays with preferred partners that are never him, his eyes blazing, circling, stiff, awkward, trying to dart in and being rebuffed. When the other dogs get sick of playing with each other, they never decide, “Hey, why not play with Solo?” They just leave the field, while Solo stands there like the last kid to get picked for the kickball team, the hopeful grin dying on his face and his gallant tail tentatively waving back and forth, watching them trot away.

But Fly – she sees the Solo I see. A big, handsome, sweet boy, just a little rough around the edges maybe, standing over in the corner. And she, the forward little minx, thinks nothing at all of asking him to dance. I would love Fly anyway, but I love her for this.

Some of my friends wondered why I would go through the trouble of getting a trained bitch and flying her all the way from Britain. They teased me and referred to Fly as Solo’s “mail order bride.” It would have been simpler to fall for the girl next door, it’s true, but nothing Solo and I do is simple. He fell for the gal with the Welsh accent and bless her heart, she fell for him. I fell for her too.

Solo and Fly at Fort Funston, summer 2006. Olympus 35 SP, Tri-X 400.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

eulogy for Harley

With Harley on Discovery Beach, Seattle, 1999. Olympus Stylus Epic. Photo by Jim Schlenker.


Harley: May 1993 – 1 September 2000

My girl is gone. The skin biopsy they took the last day of August revealed the root of her puzzling illness: lymphangiosarcoma, a cancer that cats get sometimes, and dogs, almost never. It’s true; life really isn’t fair. Just three days before we had toured the halls of the vet hospital, Harley happily skipping along, thinking that it was just another day at school, greeting everyone we walked by and trying to duck into every room or office to see if she’d missed anybody. The last three days, she was so tired, she mostly just followed me with her eyes. She was so weak, she would take a treat into her mouth and only hold it there. In some ways, she was already gone.

When I knew there was no hope it wasn’t a hard decision to make. I think that maybe she didn’t even notice – she was merely trading one state of being for another quite similar. I only wanted to make sure that she never had any bad days. Harley was a fighter, or maybe she was just incapable of comprehending evil, or even plain bad luck. She had never in her life known pain, or fear, or anxiety, or defeat – only that terrible lassitude of the last three days – and all that mattered to me was to keep it that way until the end. She was such a good girl. She went easily, in my arms. It actually wasn’t so hard for me to be there, and I want everyone who reads this to remember that: it is the last act of love you can do for them. If I who loved her so much could be there for her then, anyone should be able to find the strength. What I have to go through now is the hard part.

There are a thousand stories I could tell about her, every single one of them about her beauty, her wit, her brilliance (did I ever tell you that she would unwind herself if her leash got tangled around a tree?), her athleticism (you read that right!), her honesty, and none of them would even begin to explain why I loved her the way I did. Who would have ever thought that someone who weighed ten pounds could leave such a hole in my heart? Some dogs have one-note personalities; hers was a richly layered composition. She was often pensive, always mulling over something – I never caught her with a blank look on her face. She was such a beautiful creature that everyone loved her on sight, and she returned that love a thousandfold. She was supremely confident: she knew that the world adored her, and because she never questioned that love, she gave it back to everyone with love to spare. All of us should be so lucky. If she had a funeral, hundreds of people would show up. More, I am certain, than would come for me!

Because she was always with me, there is nowhere that she shouldn’t be, nowhere that I don’t expect to see her, and nowhere I am safe from missing her. I see her everywhere – laughing at me from the top of the stairs. Toddling busily ahead of me as I walked to campus (she always had to be ahead, even if she had never been there before and had no idea where she was going). I ran home to my mother’s house in Virginia and still she is everywhere. A glimpse of russet fur in the passenger seat of the car. Peeking out of the dining room, where she liked to hang out under the table. Squeezing herself into her favorite space under my bed. I walk through her as I traverse the second-floor hallway. Harley loved liminal spaces, like doorways and halls. I hear her tags jingling. I hear her nails clicking on the floor. (She submitted willingly to all manner of grooming with the one exception of having her nails done. She hated it. I would have to hold onto her paw and she would lean in the opposite direction to get the rest of her body as far away from the evil nail clippers as possible. So, her nails were always too long.) In some ways I am glad that I keep seeing her, because she is as she always was, not as she was during her last days. Maybe it’s her way of saying goodbye. Maybe it’s mine.

I loved her, I loved her and now she is dead, so much sooner than she should have been. Maybe dogs are only allowed so much happiness in their lives and Harley used all hers up. Because every day, she felt joy. You could see it in her eyes. Harley, my good girl, I miss you. You were everything a dog should be and nothing she shouldn’t and you were perfect in every way and I was so very lucky to have you. As much as I hurt now, I wouldn’t trade a second of it. And if I had it to do all over again, I would, in a heartbeat, even all the bad parts. Except this time I would let you eat jerky treats and forget all that low-sodium diet nonsense. I’m sorry about that. I love you. I love you.

a dog of middling talent

Solo fetches the sheep back to me, December 2006. Nikon D70s, 55-200mm AF-S DX kit lens.

This is the story of Solo’s first sheepdog trial, which took place in the fall of 2004.

While Solo is a brilliant dog, recalling in his looks, charisma, intellect, and psychoses the famous John Nash, he is not a brilliant sheepdog. Although he sometimes displays working genius, it tends to be highly situational. Unfortunately, many of these situations are not of the sort that are rewarded in sheepdog trials. Solo is a dog who needs to be able to reason his way out of difficult situations, and when working stock, things happen so quickly, and involve so many variables, that when his lack of innate talent lands him in such situations, even a dog of his mental abilities cannot think fast enough to succeed. (Imagine trying to think your way through a stadium jumping course if you’re a rider of middling abilities – it won’t be long before you’re breeches-up in the dirt, even if you’re a Nobel Prize winner.)

For many dogs, even the entry-level class of your typical sheepdog trial (and I mean real sheepdog trials, as in ISDS-style "Border Collie" trials) is prohibitively difficult. Most trials require that novice dogs be able to do an outrun of at least 100 yards while the handler remains at the post, and be under sufficient control to negotiate freestanding obstacles (unlike in some other venues, where you can wear around the perimeter of a pen in beginning levels and therefore always have a fence to guide you), including a freestanding pen. Solo has it in him to do all of these things, and he has done all these things, but we find it difficult to reliably replicate the performance in practice, never mind with a judge, timer, and audience. This is why for four years, whenever someone at a trial (where I’d be running Fly, my trained, imported, talented dog) asked me if I was “ever going to run that red dog” I’d merely laugh nervously and change the subject.

I decided to take the plunge on a beautiful fall weekend. The novice outrun at the trial I chose was less than 50 yards and the entire field was small enough so that if the sheep ran, they couldn’t go too far. And many of the other novice dogs at the trial were, er, quite green, so I figured no matter what Solo did, he would fit in. At least, I hoped so.

It felt odd to be grabbing my crook and walking Solo, not Fly, to the post. Solo was preternaturally calm. I, on the other hand, was nervous like I never am when I am walking to the post with Fly, but with Solo, my favorite dog, at my side, I was happy in a different way, too. We stood at the post. I asked Solo to lie down at my left while the sheep were set where they needed to be for him to go out and lift them. I took Solo’s leash off. He gazed up at me, eyes feral with excitement. It was the moment I’d dreamed of for years. I said to Solo, very quietly, “Come bye,” a command meant to send him on a grand, sweeping outrun clockwise to the left.

Solo ran straight up the middle of the field.

The sheep took off in the opposite direction from the way they were supposed to come (i.e., to me), heels kicking up and tails going around like pinwheels. Solo widened out, too late (instead of a pear, his outrun looked like a keyhole) and then stopped, and looked at me, and tilted his head.

“What do I do now?”

This surprised me, because what he normally does when sheep run from him is run even faster, and then try to grab one, and then spit the wool out from between his teeth, and look back at me, and say, “Oops.” But where I thought he might be out of control on the trial field, instead, he was over cautious.

So I did what they always tell novice handlers with novice dogs to do when their dogs are in trouble – I left the post and helped my dog.

Technically you retire if you leave the post early, but I figured we’d try to make something out of it anyway. We got the sheep collected up again and brought them down the field, turned two out of three of them around the post the correct way (the other one was floating around out there somewhere) and then did a pretty decent (relatively speaking) assisted drive through the wear panels. (A wear is when you proceed leading the way with the dog holding the sheep to you, a drive is when you and the dog are on the same side of the sheep and the dog takes the sheep away from you. An assisted drive is when you walk along behind the dog so that he is never too far from you even as he moves away.) We got the sheep through the panels and then lost them when we tried to turn them for the pen. That’s when I decided to quit while we were (figuratively speaking) ahead. We took the sheep back toward the exhaust, which was easy because it was where they wanted to go, and then Solo called off of them like a very good boy and we left the field.

Solo’s probably not cut out to be a trial dog. Maybe someday in the future, when we have more time and maybe our own sheep we’ll get to the point where I can send him from the post and he’ll run just like I imagined he could. Or maybe not. I might never learn to handle him and he might never be better than he is now. I do think he could have been a dog in the right hands. But all novice handlers say that about their first and favorite dogs.

I’m not sorry, though. It wasn’t a glorious run, but no one can take that moment – the one where I looked down at him, and he looked up at me, and I sent him – away from us. You know, the moment right before he ran straight up the middle of the field. Hey, it’s my memory, and I can edit it any way I want to. At least he didn’t grab anything.

Solo's Got Day

Solo enjoys the wind in his face in Zamora, CA, winter 2006.

Written for Solo on September 11, 2001.

This is the one-year anniversary of the day I got the dog I didn’t want.

It was a scant ten days after my heart’s dog died and he was nothing at all of what I was looking for in a dog. He was too big, the wrong color, the wrong gender – the wrong dog – but when the leash was offered to me, without thinking, I took it anyway. I named the dog a name I didn’t even particularly like. It was just the first one that came to me and it didn’t matter, it was as good as any other. It didn’t feel like he was my dog anyway.

As the days went by Solo’s issues made themselves manifest one by one. I realize now that in a weird way I started to see Solo as an adversary. There was a part of me that just couldn’t believe the best dog ever was taken from me only to be replaced by a dog like this.

Oh, I got so much advice. Most of it excellent. Some of it questionable. I solicited opinions from everyone I knew about what I should do with this dog. I solicited opinions from people I didn’t know -- rescuers and trainers and Border Collie folks. The contacts I made then, I value still.

Deep in my heart what I wanted them to tell me was that I couldn’t keep him.

I didn’t want him. I wanted permission from someone I respected to replace Solo with a “good” dog; I wanted to be able to mouth with perfect conviction that “it was the right thing to do” and “he would be better off somewhere else” and “he was the wrong dog for me.” More days went by, one week, two. Solo would not sleep and he wouldn’t eat hardly anything, either. I threw away so much uneaten canned food that I ended up with a maggot problem in the kitchen garbage. On trash day, after being paralyzed briefly with disgust, I hauled the entire trash can out to the curb wrapped in three plastic bags, hoping the garbage guys would forgive me. I bought a new one.

I made the decision to try and find a rescue that would take Solo. That day, when I went out to get my lunch I bought Solo an entire hamburger with cheese and mayonnaise and fed him the whole thing. (Despite the hunger strike he was on, he couldn’t resist a hamburger.) I figured, he’s not my dog, it doesn’t matter anymore and how nice I am to spoil him. All the rescues were full. I amended my decision. I would keep Solo until a space at a rescue opened up. Another week went by. I realized slowly that I could end up keeping Solo for a very long time.

I remember the moment I decided to keep Solo, no matter what. We were at Petco, in the food aisles, and I couldn’t find anything with ingredients I was willing to feed him (or that I thought he would eat). I turned from a bag of kibble to look at Solo and he was standing there like a dead dog – head and tail hanging limply, eyes glassy and blank. Drooling. Sides heaving, dry, dull hair. Every rib showing. He looked like he was waiting for someone to come and kill him. My heart finally opened. I dropped to my knees and wrapped my arms around him and put my face in his ruff. He wagged the tip of his tail, this little, tentative wag, like he was afraid to commit to it. And he leaned against me. I think I remember this, but I probably made it up because it sounds too perfect. Probably what he really did was just keep standing there, drooling. I can’t remember. I was too sleep-deprived.

That was when I started putting him back together.

It has been a year now. He is the same dog he was then. He is a different dog than he was. Both of these statements are true. Solo has come a very long way – you may not be all that impressed, given what he is now, but regardless, it is true. In the past few months, in particular, he has improved dramatically, to the point that most of the time I can almost forget that he ever had problems. He’s coming to events with me and going to school and running errands and really seems to be getting it as far as the sheep thing. He’s making friends with men he’s been scared of for months. He can be left alone for several hours, loose, without panicking. He’s happy and he smiles a lot. Like a normal dog.

Will he ever really be normal? I doubt it. But I think he is capable of approaching normalcy – maybe asymptotically, but even so.

I am no longer sorry that I have this dog. I am thankful for all he has taught me. Solo has taken me places I never thought I would go. He has introduced me to people I would never have met. All of the things I wish I hadn’t taken for granted with my last dog, I treasure with Solo, because we had to fight so hard to get all of it. I would not trade him for another.

Happy Got Day, Solo.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

My dissertation: Middle Pleistocene Systematics

Saint C├ęsaire, Bordeaux, France, 2002. Nikon Coolpix 950.

NEANDERTAL ORIGINS, MIDDLE PLEISTOCENE SYSTEMATICS, AND TESTS OF CURRENT TAXONOMIC AND PHYLOGENETIC HYPOTHESES

A DISSERTATION in Anthropology and Biology

Presented to the Faculties of the University of Pennsylvania in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
May 2005

Melanie Lee Chang

Harold L. Dibble, Chair (Anthropology)
Arthur E. Dunham, Chair (Biology)

To download the acknowledgements, abstract, and table of contents of my dissertation as a pdf, click here.
To order a copy of my dissertation, click here.

ABSTRACT

The “Neandertal problem” is paleoanthropology’s oldest question. Although the debate over the position of the Neandertals in human phylogeny has historically considered their fate rather than their origin, recent discussions focus on the composition and relationships of European and African Middle Pleistocene fossil taxa that precede them chronologically. These taxa, previously referred to as “archaic Homo sapiens,” include H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis. Researchers who accept these named paleospecies as valid taxa also elevate the Neandertals to specific status (H. neanderthalensis). There is, of course, disagreement about these taxonomic hypotheses. This discourse reflects the broader debate over the pattern of evolution that culminated in the origin of modern humans and the place of the Neandertals in that pattern.

The purpose of this study is to evaluate systematic hypotheses concerning the Middle to Late Pleistocene fossil sample from an explicitly phylogenetic perspective. Discrete and continuous characters, emphasizing those previously identified as taxonomically or phylogenetically significant, were recorded for a diverse fossil sample that consisted primarily of European, Middle Eastern, and African specimens. Individuals and site samples (“exemplars”) were employed as operational taxonomic units (OTUs). By using only “natural” groups as terminal taxa, it is possible to explicitly test taxonomic hypotheses because conspecifics should reflect their close relationship in the results of a phylogenetic analysis. Phylogenetic analyses were conducted using cladistic methods that yield hypotheses about relative recency of common ancestry and order of divergence. Clades that were supported across a wide range of analyses that differed in terms of taxa, characters, and coding schemes, were identified. The composition of these clades, and their relationships to each other, were evaluated for congruence with taxonomic and phylogenetic hypotheses concerning these fossils.

The results of these analyses support the taxonomic unity of Neandertals. H. heidelbergensis is identified as a probable grade taxon. The hypothesis that Neandertals played a major role in modern human ancestry is not supported. The present study yields explicit, testable hypotheses about the natural groups present in this enigmatic assemblage. This information will allow paleoanthropologists to better understand the nature and pattern of human evolution during this important time period.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Solo's pedigree

Solo (registered as Franklin ABC 147618)
Breeder: John Noerpel, Gardners, PA


My apologies for the tiny size of this pedigree. I'm in the process of moving content from my old Earthlink webpages (I hate Earthlink, they do not deserve a thin dime of my or anyone else's money) and some things just don't move well, like this pedigree that was originally a nifty bit of html generated by the nifty Pedigree Generator at Sitstay.com. I'm still figuring out the best way to do this, so this page will hopefully change in the future.

ode to Fly


Fly is not a pretty dog, but since she is usually in motion, most people don’t realize that. Some strange alchemy occurs through which her rat face, chicken legs, and large, splayed feet become something entirely different when she runs: true, guileless, joyous. Fly’s natural gait is a rollicking gallop – she only trots when on lead or indoors, and rarely, if ever, walks. She hurtles around the park where I take her and Solo, my other Border Collie, to play, and people watch her flash by, a black and white smear of pure momentum, and they smile.

“Wheeeeeee! Yay!” Fly says as she goes. She runs like a kid who hears the ice cream truck coming, white forelegs reaching in great ecstatic bounds, spindly back legs with clown-shoe paws doing an enthusiastic swimmer’s kick, tongue flailing from the side of her laughing, Cheshire mouth. Fly slaloms this way and that, dodging trees, giggling over her shoulder at other dogs, who struggle to keep up, and trying to anticipate where Solo and I will walk next so she can beat us there and hunker down, waiting, waiting. As we approach she does the mental geometry required to predict the next part of our trajectory, and she’s off again.

Fly is innocently humorless: she’ll throw herself with abandon into any sort of fun activity (she’s a fun junkie), but is incapable of understanding a joke, least of all a joke that involves her. Solo loves to tease her, picking up a toy, giving Fly a narrow sidelong glance, and then squeaking the toy for all its worth. This, Fly can’t stand. Her body tenses, she dances, she spins, squeals erupt involuntarily from her. Solo redoubles his efforts. “Squeak squeak squeak squeeeeeeeeeee!” His white teeth flash, his yellow eyes crinkle in an evil grin.

“YARK!” Fly screams, dashes in, and nips away with the toy. (She’s got the most awful bark anyone ever heard. It’s really more of a shriek.)

Any other dog would pay dearly for stealing Solo’s toy, but he merely sits back with a self-satisfied smile and licks his feet nonchalantly. It’s a side of Solo I never saw before Fly came along, and remain grateful to Fly for revealing. Fly, for her part, has no idea she’s just been made the butt of Solo’s joke and settles on the bed with her soggy prize clutched between giant forepaws. Since the toy is not self-animated, it quickly loses its appeal, so Fly decides to leap atop Solo and drag him around by the facial hair instead. He thinks this is just fine. Solo’s got this grin on his face like being dragged around is the best thing ever. They take turns biting each other’s heads. “Now you.” “No, it’s your turn now.” “OK. Ha! I got your ear!”

My silly black and white dog is truly beautiful working sheep. She creeps like a commando behind them, chin skimming the grass, hindquarters in the air, one foot after the other, purposeful, steady. Her white-flecked, prick ears cant forward slightly, like devils’ horns. The sheep, like everyone else who meets Fly, are enthralled, and happy to march along quietly at her command. She is the consummate professional in this milieu. The only token of the headlong girl I live with is the look of maniacal glee she wears on her face as she takes her sheep along.

I call Fly and her head shoots up. “Really? Oh well. OK!” And she comes bounding over, tail flying, oh so pleased with herself. She screeches to a halt at my feet and rolls over shamelessly. I like to make fun of her as I rub her belly. “Oh Fly, poor Fly, ugly Fly. So ugly, look at you,” I croon. “Ratty face. Ugly feet. What good are you? You aren’t even soft.” And she wags her tail.

“Yay!”

Fly makes people happy. She makes me happy. She makes Solo happy. How lucky Solo and I are, to have a dog like Fly. Shouldn’t everyone?

Monday, May 21, 2007

an analytical dog

Solo on the trail in Larkspur, CA, fall 2006. Leica M3, Summicron 50/2, Tri-X 400.

Solo was born on May 5, 1999, spent his first year locked away from the world, and every year after that trying to make sense of it, to make up for what he’d missed. Cinco de Mayo is an incongruous birthday for a dog with Solo’s characteristic mien. Solo has gravitas. It’s impossible for anyone who meets him to miss it: this is a dog who thinks too much. Dogs were not meant to ponder the mysteries of the universe, but that’s what Solo does. He ponders, and he worries. How do those airplanes hang in the sky like that, why don’t they fall down? That guy coming down the sidewalk, what are his intentions? Light, is it a particle, or a wave?

Shepherds are wont to say that a Border Collie isn’t really mature until he has as many years as legs under him. And I think they’re right, and I think Solo has changed a lot in the time he’s been with me (he seems to have grown out of his tortured artist phase, for example), but at the same time he’s always been a little world-weary beyond his years. Solo has ancient eyes: tip-tilted, deep-set, a pure, feral amber, shot through with bright yellow at their centers, deepening to antique gold at their edges. I’ve seen Solo’s eyes gazing at me from countless wildlife posters. They hold the relentless, unwavering regard not of an observer, but of a judge.

Most people talk to their dogs using baby language. I speak to Solo in complete sentences. I have perfect faith that he understands me, and that if it weren’t for the bothersome fact of anatomy, he would answer me in complete sentences, too. I only wish that he would believe everything that I tell him. “This man wants to be your friend.” “That train is not thunder, and it does not want to kill you.” “Just because I am running water in the tub does not mean that I plan to give you a bath.” He trusts me, but he is an empiricist, and a skeptic. He believes things when he sees them with his own eyes.

Solo pads down the sidewalk with a muscular, leonine gait, shoulders sliding easily under the mantle of auburn and white he wears over his withers, head down, eyes forward, tail slung low and businesslike between his hocks. I don’t lead Solo anywhere; he walks with me. It’s not the same thing. People invariably stare when Solo goes by, and often hold themselves very still, the way they might if they encountered a large and beautiful predator in the forest, watching until it slipped off between the trees. Solo has star quality. It’s ironic, and unfortunate, because I think if Solo could have just one wish, it would be to be completely unremarkable – to pass through the world unknown, hidden in the shadows, never subject to display.

Although his tastes can at times be quite rustic, Solo has the heart of a poet, and the intellect of a scientist. He appreciates clearly outlined parameters. If he were a musician, he would undoubtedly be a master of some expressive yet regimented form, like jazz. But really, I think he would like to be an engineer or a mathematician – engaged in finding underlying principles and rules, and using them to understand the structure of the world around him. He delights in manipulating objects, in determining all their properties, their smells, their weights, whether they can be easily disassembled, whether they roll. When he figures them out, they get assigned to a category and filed away in his brain and he never forgets them. When he encounters things that don’t fit into his categories, it vexes him. And then he ponders them, and he worries.

His favorite games have lots and lots of rules.

Solo has opinions about everything, and he is extraordinarily unforgiving. The things he likes, they are the Best Things Ever. The things he doesn’t like, they are Dangerous and Should Be Avoided. There’s not a whole lot of in-between with Solo.

The people he loves he would die for.

How could I not be totally, hopelessly enamored with this dog?

Solo is not what most people expect in a dog. He is a cipher, carefully blank, impassive, and wary, lest he make himself vulnerable. I only wish everyone could know the dog I know.

Everyone should know a dog like Solo at least once. I know, and regret already, that I will never know another dog like him again.

Solo and me in Golden Gate Park.