As I sit and write this, Hubert van Eyck is wrapped completely in a blue fleece blanket, cradled in my lap, making a satisfied sighing noise. He loves to have his head covered in a blanket, which I suppose I would too if I had to walk around naked all day long.
Hubert van Eyck (Eyck for short) is my five-year old Peruvian Inca Orchid, aka Peruvian Hairless—an extremely rare breed of dog, of which only around one-thousand are known to exist worldwide. In winter he is the color of over-ripe eggplant, but now he is pale, slate gray. His skin is completely hairless, aside from a patch of short, spiky red hair between his oversized desert fox ears, tufts of longer red hair between his webbed toes, and a tiny blond sprout on his right butt cheek. His skin feels like a baby elephant’s, and depending on who you ask, he resembles a young deer, a kangaroo, or a bat—anything but a dog. In truth he looks more canine than many breeds, the crushed-face pug or the mop-end Lhasa Apso. He has an elegant bearing, large dark inquisitive eyes, and a pair of shiny balls that swing when he walks like Christmas tree ornaments. Without fur, all of Eyck’s parts are in full view.
Being hairless, he loves to cuddle, and is always on my lap. This is exactly what I wanted in a dog, when I put in the request to my wife, who gave Eyck to me for my thirtieth birthday. She also very generously allowed me to name him after the mysterious brother of the famous Renaissance painter, Jan van Eyck, about whom I was writing a book when the puppy came into our life.
Having such a striking, exotic dog provokes some surprising reactions. In Rome, where I teach, he is universally adored. One woman pulled her car, screeching, over to the curb of a busy street to shout “Che bello!” and to ask the inevitable question, “What kind of dog is that?” So many people ask this, that we’ve considered printing a shirt for Eyck to wear with “I am a Peruvian Hairless” written in a variety of languages. In the remote Slovenian mountain village in which my wife grew up, where the definition of “dog” does not extend far beyond a German Shepherd, the reaction is normally “What the hell is that?” One neighbor was happy to tell us that Eyck is the ugliest dog he has ever seen, but then again he had said the same of his wife earlier that morning.
I can see why the ancient Incas used these dogs as bed-warmers. If I lie on the couch and throw a blanket over my legs, Eyck will have dashed under it and assumed a comfortable position before the blanket has floated into place. The Incas also used these dogs in religious rituals, and believed that the heat emanating from their body had healing properties. In fact Peruvian Hairlesses are no warmer than any other dog, but their body heat, unimpeded by a fur coat, makes them feel like four-legged hot water bottles.
I had wanted a dog for the pleasure of their company, for the endless loyalty and enthusiasm that has made them the preferred pet throughout human history.
But I also wanted a dog as a writing aide.
We writers function as soloists. Our conversations at work are with ourselves, discussions in our heads as we consider how a fictional wife might excuse an infidelity to her husband, or how a spy might slip away from his pursuers. Even for those of us with writer friends who live nearby, we almost always write alone, and then set our work aside to refresh ourselves through socialization, like submarines occasionally surfacing for a breath of fresh air and a caramel macchiato. We might be more sociable if we live in literary cities, like New York or London. But I live primarily in rural Umbria and in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Neither location is a Mecca of Anglophone literary culture. While I have writer friends in both places, most of my work week is between me and my laptop.
That’s where Eyck comes in. He provides wonderful companionship and warmth, in both senses of the world—there’s nothing like a Peruvian Hairless on those chilly Slovenian winter nights. He interacts with me, provides someone to talk to (that might sound slightly insane, but any dog lover will know what I mean), but he also gives me an excuse to take breaks. Hunched over a laptop for eight hours a day, it’s good to have a reason to stand up, stretch your legs, take a walk, or run around the house throwing pull-toys. Long walks in the Umbrian forests around my home give me time to digest what I’ve written that day, to sift through my ideas for the next chapter, to shake out plot points, or to simply rest my brain for awhile.
I am far from the first writer to feel a particular bond of both inspiration and companionship with a beloved dog.
In Shaggy Muses: the Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Bronte by Maureen Adams, the author describes how her Golden Retriever helped her through a bout of depression. This inspired her to research other women writers and their canine therapists. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s red-haired Cocker Spaniel, Flush, provided a welcome distraction after the death of the author’s beloved brother and, in a rather searing social commentary, she likened the lot of women in Victorian England to the life of lap dogs. Virginia Woolf wrote a biography of her dog, oddly also named Flush, in which she drew parallels between the unsettling event of having her dog kidnapped and held for ransom, and her own molestation as a child.
Male authors feel just as much a connection to their pets as their female counterparts. C. S. Lewis’ beloved dog, Jackie, died when Lewis was only four years-old. But that did not stop the adult Lewis from called himself Jacksie, in homage to his childhood companion. E. L. Doctorow used to take swims with his Weimaraner, Becky, while William F. Buckley was chauffeured in his limousine with a phone in one hand and Rowley, his King Charles Spaniel, draped across his lap.
Not only companions, dogs have inspired authors to write. Lord Byron’s Newfoundland, Boatswain, was the subject of his loving poem, “Epitaph to a Dog.” Stephen King’s Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Marlowe, inspired a character in the author’s Dark Tower series.
William Styron wrote of his Yellow Labrador, Aquinnah, in Havannas in Camelot: Personal Essays: “For the last few months, whenever I have been home—which has been most of the time—I have been accustomed to taking long daily walks with my dog Aquinnah. Our walks are for business and for pleasure, and also for survival—interlocking motives that have somehow acquired nearly equal importance in my mind. Without a daily walk and the transactions it stimulates in my head, I would face the first page of cold blank paper with pitiful anxiety.” I know just what he means.
Robert Penn Warren penned a poem about his Cocker Spaniel, Frodo, that crystallizes the endless love and sense of need that dogs gift their owners: “English cocker: old and blind/But if your hand/Merely touches his head,/Old faithe comes flooding back—and…/The paw descends, His trust is infinite/In you…”
From John Steinbeck’s Poodle Black Jack to Madame du Pompadour’s dainty Papillon named Mimi; from Sir Walter Scott’s robust Bloodhound, Nimrod, to Charles Dickens’ enormous Mastiff, Turk; from Amy Tan’s Yorkshire Terrier, Bubba Zo to Kurt Vonnegut’s Lhasa Apso, Pumpkin; from John Cheever’s Yellow Labrador, Flora to P. G. Wodehouse’s Dachsund, Jed, authors and dogs go hand in hand. Dave Barry even needed two: Earnest, his Golden Retriever, and Zippy, whom he referred to as his “auxiliary backup dog.”
Books about dogs seem to speak to us as much as the dogs themselves do. Americans love dog books, and they seem to come in two varieties. On the one hand there are books that help us understand how dogs function, like the recent best-seller, Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horwitz. While the title sounds like it might be a book on veterinary anatomy, the idea that we need to better understand our pets, that they speak a language that we can learn, is a powerful one. Television programs like Dog Whisperer and It’s Me or the Dog offer valuable lessons that really do help dog owners raise happier, less neurotic pets.
Which brings me to the other category of dog books: those that tell how dogs have helped us better understand ourselves. These usually feature a neurotic dog whose antics are cute, heart-warming, and occasionally infuriating, but which end with valuable lessons for the owner. This category is represented by the enormous best-seller Marley and Me by John Grogan and Jill Abrahamson’s Puppy Diairies, but forerunners may be found in How to Live with a Neurotic Dog by Stephen Baker and Eric Gurney, or even with Snoopy in the Peanuts cartoon, who dueled with his master, Charlie Brown, in a competition of neuroses.
I have received a lot of queries about a dedication in one of my books. After thanking my wife, I then wrote “and to Hubert van Eyck, who taught me the joys of gnawing on one’s own foot.” While the laws of physics and propriety prevent me from emulating Eyck’s astonishing naked leg-chewing contortions, the fact that he allows me to take a break, to smile at his antics, to relax with him in my lap, to let my thoughts breathe fresh air as we walk in the woods together, are a powerful gift that a dog can offer a writer.