Lizbeth is going on nine now, and she is slowing down a bit.
Yet, she makes it as plain as ever that it is a very boring thing
to be a writer's dog. At any rate, I got the impression that she
thought so even before we hit the road, when we still lived in the
little shack on Avenue B. Then she would sit up late into the
night, her paws hanging off the sofa and her head between her paws,
and every time I looked up from my typewriter she would still be
awake and watching me, and sometimes she would sigh.
A dog sigh is a piteous thing, for I do not suppose they do it
for effect. A dog sigh must be a sincere sigh.
Now we are cramped in this little apartment and there is no
comfortable place where she can sit to watch me while I fiddle with
the Dumpster System 2000, or play with it, or use its modem to call
electronic bulletin boards, or sometimes work with it. But she will
sit up for a while anyway, on the other comfortable chair, even
though she cannot watch me because the chair is on the other side
of my desk. Eventually she will wander to the bedroom to sleep with
Clint or to sleep on our pallet once Clint rolls her out of the
She also has a place which we call the Dog Cave which is just a
few throw pillows on the floor under the end table. I had heard
somewhere that a dog ought to have a place all its own, which does
not have to be surrendered to whoever else might want it—a
place, in other words, where the dog has a perfect right to be. A
lot of pet theories do not work out as they are supposed to, but
Lizbeth seems to have got the idea of the Dog Cave, and she does
make some use of it.
As an adult I had never wanted a pet. In fact I had rather
distinctly wanted not to have a pet. In my materialist frame of
mind I was disgusted by the pookum-ookums-snuggum-uggums sort of
affection that I imagined granny ladies lavished on their cats and
their little dogs, and acid-etched in my mind was a spit-out
mocking line from an early Janis Ian album: "You get your love from
dogs and cats." Or something like that. I don't believe the point
of the protest was really to disparage pet ownership, but the line
stuck with me. If the idea of having a pet had ever occurred to me
I would have thought it impractical in view of my lodgings, though
I suppose in any of the cheap apartments and old houses I might
have kept a cat of the outdoor sort.
(I guess it is not so boring a thing for a cat to be a writer's
cat. There is the problem of someone always wanting the dictionary
or the notes or the manuscript a writer's cat is sleeping on, but
that is another matter.)
Even a bad man can be good to his dog, but a man
who is mean to his dog is bound to be mean in other ways
Jerry wanted a dog. The theory was it would be his dog, and as
we were in the shack on Avenue B I could hardly object that the
place was unsuitable. Lizbeth was not our first attempt at having a
dog. Jerry had got a little yellow puppy in the spring. He had
insisted I name it—the object being, I am sure, to make me
more attached to it. I had named it Calli, for a Muse. We had it
only a short time before it escaped or was stolen. Afterward we
inspected the fence around the backyard more closely and discovered
many small breaches.
The experience of losing Calli left me with even less enthusiasm
for the idea of having a dog. But Jerry devoted many hot summer
days to digging post holes, mixing Sakrete, and putting up hogwire.
I knew there would be another puppy.
In August I was working the nightshift at the state lunatic
asylum. I never got enough sleep. If I came directly home from work
I might get five hours sleep in front of the fan before I was
awaken by the heat. In the afternoon I would rest on the bed,
mostly in that state of in-between, neither asleep nor fully awake.
On one such afternoon something tickled my face and I brushed it
away without opening my eyes. The screens were as inadequate as
Calli's fence had been, and in the afternoon we had flies. But
whatever it was persisted and at last I opened my eyes.
It was a puppy. It was about to become Lizbeth.
But then it was Oreo. She was black on her back and sides,
except for a handsome blaze on her crest. Her underside was white,
with little faded black spots. Although the reason for her litter
name was obvious, both Jerry and I thought it was slightly gauche,
and so he named her Lizbeth—a name I would not have chosen
because my mother's name is Elizabeth.
Curiosity is an attribute most often ascribed to
cats, but as a puppy Lizbeth's curiosity seemed insatiable.
She was six months old. Jerry had got her because the owners had
determined she would be a bigger dog than they wanted. Indeed her
paws seemed enormous. She never grew quite to fulfill the promise
of those paws, but this may be a trick of perspective for when I
first saw her she was mostly pink puppy tummy, long legs like
stilts, and paws. She was perfectly housebroken by the time we got
her, and this made it all the easier for me to like her. Jerry told
me endlessly how much Lizbeth loved me. I assumed this was meant to
manipulate me into loving her, but even as discounted Jerry's
remarks, it seemed clear that Lizbeth favored me.
Given the condition of the shack and it's furnishings, I agreed
it was pointless to insist on Lizbeth's being an outside dog. At
first I tried to hold the line at no-dogs-on-the-bed. But she would
hop onto the bed once I was asleep. My next line was: no dogs under
the covers. In the summer, of course, I slept on the spread. When I
woke around noon I would often leave her fast asleep on the
bed—for nothing gets quite so tired nor sleeps so soundly as
a puppy. After I had done this a number of times, she began to
sleep with her head on my ankles. I suspect this was to assure she
would not be left abed alone while I was up and doing interesting
And everything I did seemed to interest her. Curiosity is an
attribute most often ascribed to cats, but as a puppy Lizbeth's
curiosity seemed insatiable. One whole afternoon she sat in the
backyard watching a neighbor construct rabbit hutches—which I
would have understood except that the rabbits had not yet arrived.
"When you don't know nothing, everything is a learning experience,"
By the time the first cold front of fall moved through I had
rotated to swing shift. I made Lizbeth a dog bed of old clothes
next to the people bed, and I topped it with an unlaundered shirt I
had worn so it would be olfactorally correct. But as the sunlight
did in the summer, the autumnal winds came through the walls of the
old shack. I put my hand on Lizbeth as she lay on the dog bed. She
shivered. And that was the end of no-dogs-under-the-covers.
I got a book with the thought that I would train her. I didn't.
For a week or so, and at intervals afterwards, I'd walk with her to
the school grounds in the next block, and I'd go over and over
"Heel" and "Halt." The first time we went, I put the choke collar
on her, as the book recommended, but I was rather quickly convinced
that she would choke herself unconscious before she would stop
pulling on the leash. I don't suppose even if I'd continued to use
the choke collar I would have succeeded in training her, for I am
irregular in my habits, and the day-in-day-out, slowly progressing
projects are the ones that I will never master. Perhaps it is sour
grapes, but once I had Lizbeth and began to notice other dogs with
their masters, I always cast a jaundiced eye on dogs that seemed to
me to be too well regulated. I don't think it is cruelty to train
an animal well—and certainly there have been times I wished
Lizbeth knew this or that command—but I do think there is a
spontaneity in Lizbeth that I value and that I do not see in the
Jerry had an all-purpose command "Settle," which Lizbeth seemed
to learn at one time, but has since forgotten. Now she knows "Sit,"
"Stop," and "Come." If she is not distracted, she cannot help but
sit when so commanded, yet she seems to be surprised at herself for
doing it. A snap of the fingers serves to dislodge her from a chair
or the bed. In the meanwhile I have managed to acquire a like
amount of dog language. A raised forepaw means "let's play," or in
the context of a walk means "hold up a minute." Exposing the belly
is an old wolf sign of submission, although Lizbeth has more
occasion to use it to mean "you may rub my belly." The ritual of
the first pellet I do not understand. She always brings the first
pellet of her dry food to crunch at my feet, before she will eat
the rest of her food. I cannot fathom this, for it does not seem to
be the same thing as when a cat will bring in the corpse of a
freshly killed mouse, lizard, or sparrow. One authority has told me
this is her expression of gratitude, but while I do not disbelieve
that she may have something in her like gratitude, I cannot accept
that she could invent this way of expressing it.
"She's the doggiest dog I ever saw," Jerry would say. And so it
seems to me. This helps prevent me from anthropomorphizing her, or
at least prevents my anthropomorphizing her more. I can't help
feeling that sometimes, sometimes there is a thought in her head,
though it be a particularly doggy thought.
The summer after she came to us, Jerry left and she stayed. I
kept her out of sentiment as much as anything, but I still had work
at the asylum and I was glad to have a dog at the house while I was
at work. She was nearly three when we became homeless. Again I kept
her out of sentiment. But when I decided to take her with me I did
not think I was becoming homeless. I thought it would be
troublesome hitchhiking to Los Angeles with her, but I thought I
would find a situation soon. By the time I knew we were homeless
and likely to be so for a long time, or forever, I had come to see
Lizbeth's value. I suppose she did something, if it was no more
than to smell like a dog, to keep away raccoons and possums and
rats and such when we slept in places they might have frequented.
But the idea of critters in the dark never bothered me much. It
was, of course, in urban places that I was happy to have her to
wake me when people approached us at night. This happened often
enough to convince me that I wanted never to be both homeless and
Now it seems to that affection for a pet is really a
fairly second-rate emotion by comparison to appreciation for an
animal that may be a pet, but also serves a purpose. I had always
thought that dogs were domesticated and bred away from wolves, but
I have since been informed that the line of wolves and the line of
dogs diverged before domestication. However that may be, I now
suspect, as I did not before, that dogs were not domesticated to be
In some things Lizbeth seems rather dull. Fetch never much
appealed to her, and always turned into keep-away. It is perfectly
sensible, of course, once she has found something not to return it
to someone who will merely throw it away again. Yet other dogs
somehow overcome this objection. She has her flashes of brilliance.
Once when she wanted a walk, she brought me her leash. Once she
pointed in perfect form at a bird in a bush. Once when she was
thirsty, she brought me her water bowl. Once when I had dropped
some money she found it. Once she licked me awake at an unusual
hour, about half a minute before we experienced an earthquake. And
once she found a five-dollar bill that I had not seen on the
sidewalk. The trouble is the "onces" were all just
once—although I must admit that we have not been in enough
earthquakes to make that a fair test.
For her services as watchdog alone, she was easily
worth whatever extra trouble it was to keep her
It is said that animals are good judges of character, but
Lizbeth seems to have not such talent. She is happy to be
introduced to anyone, and will act as if anyone to whom she has
been introduced is her buddy forever. What is true, and I would
have done better to learn it sooner, is that some defects of the
character of the master can be deduced from the behavior of the
dog. I suppose even a bad man can be good to his dog, but a man
that is mean to his dog is bound to be mean in other ways as
In spite of her shortcomings, as a watchdog Lizbeth has failed
only once. She did sleep as we were approached by a mounted police
officer when she was under the covers where we were bedded down in
a park. Even then I was awake, so I was not surprised. Otherwise,
if there was something to detect, she detected it, and when she
detected something, there always was something, if only a possum or
a cat. The few times I thought she was mistaken, I was proven
wrong. Almost every time she detected a human interloper while I
was asleep, she had him on the run before I was fully
awake—not that she attacked, but she made a good show and he
could not be sure she would not attack.
A few experiences like that and I think anyone would have to
stop to think if forced to choose between his dog and his own arm.
And I am not talking about a Lassie, a fictional dog who knows,
somehow, to go for a doctor in case of illness and for the sheriff
in case of criminals. I am talking about a rather ordinary dog
doing as any ordinary dog might. To say I trusted Lizbeth in
matters within her purview would hardly express it. Do I "trust" my
fingers to hit some key (if not precisely the right one) as I type.
After a while I relied on her, without really noticing that I was.
I did not hear with her ears, but I read the indications of what
she heard from the fur on the back of her neck without having to
think about it.
One morning we returned to a camp I had in a stand of bamboo. On
my bedroll I found what appeared to be a snake. Yet, my heart did
not miss a beat. I knew instantly that whatever my eyes told me, it
could not be a living snake because Lizbeth was utterly oblivious
to it. Although I have explained it here, I did not have to reason
it out at the time. I knew, and I knew as soon as I saw it. It
proved to be a rubber toy snake that had been placed there by a
malevolent companion. He was not in camp when I found the rubber
snake, but afterwards he laughed long and hard and said he wished
he could have seen my reaction. He never did believe that there had
been no reaction, so I too wish he had been there.
For her services as watchdog alone, she was easily worth
whatever extra trouble it was to keep her while I was on the
street. Beyond this I know some of the help I received while I was
on the streets is owing to Lizbeth. Some people clearly cared more
for Lizbeth's welfare than my own. Several times I received
unsolicited handouts that consisted only of dog food—this
always happened when I still did have food for Lizbeth, but was
going hungry myself. Many more people seemed to think I was
trustworthy—or at least more worthy of
assistance—because I had Lizbeth. I hesitate to write this,
because as I do, it does seem rather likely that Lizbeth and I will
be on the streets again, but I worry some about the welfare of
people who trusted me only because I had a dog: A child molester,
rapist, kidnaper, or serial killer could hardly do better than to
have a dog as a lure and a cover.
Short of descending into pookum-ookums-snuggum-uggums, I can
hardly over-emphasize the psychological benefits I derived of
having Lizbeth with me. Her companionship was worth something.
Doggy companionship is no substitute for human companionship, not
even for bad human companionship. But it is a great improvement
over utter solitude.
Although I had no rural background, I had somehow absorbed the
idea that one should care for the livestock before caring for
oneself. For people who live by the animals they keep, of course,
this principle is not a matter of unalloyed altruism, and it had
its practical benefits for me. In caring for Lizbeth I cared for
myself. In thinking of taking water to camp for her, I remembered
to carry water for myself. Some times that I would not have done so
otherwise, I went digging through the Dumpsters to find something
to feed her and turned up also something of value to myself. And
nearly always I used the rationale of providing for her—later
it was of providing for her and Clint—to deflect the
humiliation and the shame so that I could do what I had to do.
For months at a time Lizbeth and I were leash-length from each
other almost constantly. Those times that we had been camping in a
particular place with some regularity, she would soon learn the way
to that place, and if because we were being observed, I wanted to
avoid our secret path, she would invariably try to pull me toward
our campsite. At first I supposed this meant she missed having a
home. This was anthropomorphizing, and I paid for this error of
thought in my feelings of quilt over not being able to provide her
Yet, she had her other habits, too. When we had been
hitchhiking, for weeks afterwards she thought any car that stopped
nearby was stopped to give us a ride, and any open car door seemed
to her to be an invitation to hop in. Eventually I began to see
that her pulling toward our campsite was a habit of this sort.
Within six months of our having left it, I had occasion to walk
with Lizbeth past the shack on Avenue B, which had been home to her
for more than two years after Jerry had passed a fifteen-dollar hot
check to get the money to buy her. Yet, Lizbeth was utterly
indifferent to the place.
She did not know she was homeless. She did not know there was
such a thing. She was dog. For all her dog brain knew, she was the
dog of a hunter or a nomad. She was permitted to sleep behind her
master's knee, and to lick his face in the morning. The truth was,
most of the time she was perfectly happy, so far as a dog can be
She did not know she was homeless.
Now she greets Clint when he comes in. It is an elaborate
routine. She tries to sit, because she knows this is something that
pleases us sometimes, but she cannot contain the energy in her
tail. She jumps and whirls and stands on her hind legs with her
tongue extended, and will do it all again and again until Clint
lets her lick his face.
She seems to know still that she is my dog—for when the
thunder comes in the night, it's me she tries to crawl under. But
she may be unsure whether it is Clint or I who is the alpha of the
pack. At any rate, Clint's face has the particular advantage of
being sweaty when he comes in. And sometimes Clint will take her
for a little run, a run suitable for a dog her age—and this
relieves a little of the boredom of being a writer's dog.
This essay was written before I had realized any profit from
Travels with Lizbeth. Lizbeth had a few good years in
a house with a yard after that. We were homeless again for a couple
of months, but we were back in an apartment near the Colorado river
before she died in September of 1998. She has a memorial page here.