Several weeks ago I saw a happy dog jumping around a playground, running up and down the stairs of one of those conglomeration of slides and bridges and climbing walls. I completely enjoyed watching the dog enjoy himself. But not simply because the dog was following the inscrutable dictates of joy. I enjoyed watching the dog because of the swath of terror he left in his wake. The dog didn’t frolic by himself around an empty playground. It was occupied, and nearly full. Children screamed. Mothers screamed. Children and mothers together fled in terror. It was a scene like something. A grown man pointed and shouted and shooed. “Go away, dammit,” he said, in shaking voice. He tried other line readings. “Go away, dammit. Go away, dammit.”
Nothing about the situation looked dire to me. But clearly no one on the playground owned the dog. His enthusiasm was upsetting for everyone. If you’re interested in keeping things humane, as everyone on the playground was, there’s not a lot you can do to discourage a happy dog from his happiness. Dogs are notorious for their disregard of strong language.
The man eventually stepped his game up to stomping. He blocked the dog’s path across the bridge leading from slide to another. He stomped at the dog in imitation of violence. This heightened the dog’s experience of the moment. The dog popped himself onto his hind legs and then brought his front paws on the bridge, in mimic of the man’s stomping.
The dog’s unswerving interpretation of every act of discouragement as an act of play made the man’s hostility ridiculous.
The dog bolted for the ground. The man ran down the stairs. He blocked the dog’s progress again. The dog stomped for him again. The man made throwing gestures at the dog. The dog followed the motions. The man yelled and pretended to throw handfuls of nothing right at the dog’s head. The dog snapped its head around to catch the nothing. The man began to change the arc of his throw. The dog continued to follow it, first with his eyes, then, as the man began to pretend to throw nothing further, the dog ran a little ways toward where he judged the nothing would fall. Then he ran back to the man and dropped nothing at his feet. The man pretended to pick it up. He threw it again. As the dog ran out it happened across a stick. He picked up the stick, assumed that this is what they’d been pretending to throw. He brought it back to the man. The man threw it and the dog brought it back. Eventually the dog got tired of this and left.
The dog saw the situation as play. The man saw it as conflict. The dog’s view of things won.