What I Learned About Life From A Howling Dog

The spirit of the commons works in mysterious ways
©Toshihiro Gamo, FlickrCC

When I have writing or very focused work to do, I work from a studio behind my house. Generally it is quiet and I have the added benefit of being able to take breaks and sit in my backyard.  

Recently I started to hear a dog howling, as if in great psychological pain or loneliness. He would start with a low mournful howl and gradually progress up the scale to a full-throated cry of anxiety. This would give way to a few actual barks, then he would settle down to moan. This went on all day and sometimes into the evening. I began to not be able to concentrate because I was so upset for this poor dog. 

Back up: My partner and I had a dog for almost 17 years. Brooklyn would bark incessantly and mindlessly if left outside and we faced neighbor complaints more than once. I knew that Brooklyn was not being mistreated or neglected. She loved to bark and we tried many methods to get her to stop. Ultimately we left her inside when we were gone so at least her barking would be muffled by the walls of the house. 

So I have a lot of sympathy with dog owners and I like dogs. I also know that I tend to make up stories about what animals are feeling and thinking based on their behavior. “Your cat just wants to sit on the couch and look out the window.” Or “Your dog is so sad you are going on vacation and didn’t pick a place you could take her.”  This drives people around me crazy and I do my best to keep my stories to myself.

Coming back to the howling dog: I knew that I could be making up the story that the dog was lonely although all the neighbors who heard him came to the same conclusion. I also concluded he was neglected, which led me to conclude his owners were terrible people. Fortunately I live with someone who challenges me on my big leaps from one opinion to another.  

“Maybe they work all day and don’t know that he howls,” she said. “Remember Brooklyn?” 

I knocked on their door a couple of times but never found them home. I thought of calling the authorities. I decided to write them a letter. Channeling my partner and remembering the rule I have for myself (not strictly enforced),  “assume good intent,” I wrote a very nice letter and asked them to call or e-mail me with their response.

An e-mail came very soon. “The dog belongs to our son and his wife, who is in the hospital. I am attaching a video to show that the dog moans and whines even when he is with us. He simply misses his owners and he has to stay with us until she is out of the hospital. I am so sorry he is bothering you.” 

I felt a wave of relief and shame. I had a made an entire movie starring a noble dog living with self-absorbed narcissistic creeps rescued by yours truly, the hero. I resolved (again) to follow a rule of a commons based life: “Do unto others…”   

Kim Klein is a trainer, author and speaker. She is co-founder of Oakland-based Klein and Roth consulting, which helps organizations build strong mission-driven fundraising programs. In her blog Kim Klein and the Commons, she explores the ways people’s lives connect in many ways from economic policy to social movements to everyday life.