Paws gathered together in a bunch, draped over the edge of the couch like a bouquet of flowers tossed carelessly. Rounded head pushed into the crook where the armrest meets the couch back, black furry body flattened across seat cushions, breathing deeply, almost snoring. Murdoch the couch dog could be mistaken for a cuddly family pet, if you didn’t know any better.
He is eight years old now. According to a chart on the wall at our vet’s office that makes him a senior dog. This is unfathomable to me. Murdoch, though he has changed immeasurably over the years he’s lived with us, still has plenty of attitude to spare and will always be wild and untrainable in my mind.
In some ways he still is that crazy dog I found on the side of the road. He is not completely trustworthy, and when we have people over we always have to prepare them to meet the “beast”. “Just ignore him and you will be fine,” I always say. “He has personal space issues.”
We are quick to shut him in his kennel or shuttle him outside to the fenced-in run we made for the dogs a couple of years ago, depending on who is visiting, whether they are dog savvy or not, whether they are nervous or not. But mostly after people are around for a while, Murdoch relaxes into a pose that could almost pass for a regular dog, as long as no one looks him directly in the eye.
Mostly we have spent our time with him redrawing boundaries every day. The problem, most likely, is my desire to treat him like the dog Bear was. Perfect in every way, trustworthy and trusting, cuddly and personable. Murdoch is not really any of these things and if I mistake that for even a second he is quick to correct me, with a growl or a snarl or, when I am particularly insistent that he should be someone he is not, a snap of his great, wide, jaw.
It was his domineering personality that decided it the day he showed up in our lives that he would not be allowed on the furniture, at least not on our current, human-use furniture. The old couch, decked out in candy-wrapper orange stripes, that was relegated to the dog zone when we moved to our house was an exception. Murdoch had a hand in destroying that couch along with every other animal who traipsed through our house, treating it like a throne to be defended or a trampoline to be enjoyed.
But the green couch in the living room was for Bear and myself and the cats. We would often pile on in a heap of fuzzy warmth. A classic couch dog, Bear completely relaxed in to snuggles, pink belly at the ready for a warm rub, obliged hugs and cheek pinches and showers of kisses. She even shared the space with Chestnut with minimum complaint, flopping her legs carelessly across his neck or moving as far back on the couch as possible to distance herself from his affectionate head-butts and jack hammer purr.
Murdoch never really showed much interest in getting on the green couch anyway, as though he chose this one thing to be reasonable about. It was Bear’s domain always and when she passed away, that didn’t change.
And then it did.
Somewhere in the couple of weeks leading up to Christmas Murdoch promoted himself to “couch dog”. I don’t know if Murdoch finally started to feel his age (which makes me unbearably sad) but one day we came home and heard the lazy clomp of clawed feet hitting hardwood after leaping from the couch. I know that sound very well. And then he was down the stairs and in the kitchen, wagging his tail widely, as if he had always been there, ears pinned to the side of his head, his roundest-eyed cute-dog mask firmly in place.
The next time he didn’t even bother to jump off the couch but stayed there until I wandered upstairs to find him splayed out, tail thumping sheepishly against the cushions as if awaiting his fate. ‘If she’s mad, then I guess it’s over, but if not… I am now a couch dog.’
Of course I wasn’t mad. He knows me well enough to know I wouldn’t be. “Look at you,” I said, my voice dripping, I’m sure, with sentiment and mushiness. And I sat beside him, wagging tail and all, ran my hand over his head, and was greeted with his customary growl.
“No!” I said. “No grumpy dogs on the couch.”
And so it has gone since Christmas, Murdoch and I sharing the couch. He on one end and me on the other, although occasionally he does flop his head in my lap or roll on his back, all four feet in the air and let me rub his belly. He snores and stretches and sleeps and sometimes growls and sometimes doesn’t.
I explain to him every day as he watches me wearily, his brown eyes brimming with his own thoughts on the matter that the couch is not for growly dogs. “If you are going to be a couch dog,” I say as I lay my head on his shoulder and listen to him grumble and complain. “You are going to be hugged.” He seems to agree, albeit reluctantly, that it is not such a terrible price to pay.