City Dog, Country Dog

The double life of a country/city dog. (Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/

Owning a city dog is very different from owning a country dog. For one thing, city dogs must be walked. A lot. My terrier, Lucy, gets three or four walks a day (the extra walk depends on my mood and the weather,) whereas country dogs head out unaccompanied through any open door and do their business where they please. No schedule. No leash. No poop bag.

I know this because Lucy is both a city dog and a country dog. Along with her human family, she spends weekends at our upstate house, morphing from urban pup to rural pup as soon as we pull in the driveway. One sniff of the piney air and she becomes practically lupine. All fifteen pounds of her turn into an amped-up mini-wolf — hunting, chasing, digging, swimming, and occasionally disappearing into the forest.

Lucy is not alone in leading a double life. I know plenty of people who wedge their pooches between kids, coolers and duffle bags as they head out on the Long Island Expressway or wind their way up the Taconic Parkway. How could we leave our best buds behind? Just as we relish fresh air, sandy beaches, and a change of scenery, we know our dogs do, too.

So how is city life different from country life for Lucy (and, by extension, for me)?

In New York, Lucy and I are automatic members of a dog community. We see the same faces and snouts every morning as we stroll east to Central Park or west through Riverside. Our meet-and-greet routine consists of dogs sniffing one another in rude places as their owners chat about humidity and squirrels. In order to minimize confusion and maintain boundaries, there is an unspoken agreement that both owners and dogs go by the dog’s name. That elegant lady with the springer spaniel? She’s Poncho to me. The muscle-man with the Yorkie? Both answer to Sweetie.

In the country, Lucy and I are loners. We rarely see other dogs, typically spending our days hanging around the yard or meandering through the forest behind our house. As much as I appreciate the cordiality of my NYC dog peeps, I welcome the solitariness of a walk in my woods with Lucy, never encountering another soul except a couple of deer or a chipmunk.

A city dog can be a royal pain. Who hasn’t had to whisk their whining mutt into the elevator and outside at 3:00 am for an emergency poop? Who hasn’t faced the eighth sub-zero morning in a row and asked their pet, “Why can’t you walk yourself? Or pee in the toilet, for crying out loud?”

I was getting frightened. But every time I looked at Lucy, her eyes held me blameless for getting us in trouble.

Country dogs can also drive us crazy. Unless you enjoy pulling a yard of rabbit intestine out of your dog’s throat. Or scrubbing some unidentifiable tar-poop from her fur only to have her roll in it again an hour later. Some of Lucy’s least attractive country behavior includes incessant barking during thunderstorms, whenever she hears gunfire (frequent during hunting season), and anytime someone jumps in the pool. Somehow, in the city, she sleeps through the blaring sirens that scream by at all hours. But in the country, the birds that sing at dawn signal her that it’s time to wake up and head out. That’s selective hearing, doggy-style.

City dogs are street smart. I know more than one hound who has bolted from the park and headed home leash-less, navigating busy avenues and eluding capture until they reach their lobby and plop themselves on the cool marble floor. City dogs know which buildings have doormen with treats stashed in their pockets. Lucy knows the fruit vendor on Broadway is good for a scratch behind the ears and a grape every afternoon, and she stops dead in her tracks in front of the bank until we go in and snag a biscuit from the counter.

Country dogs have no streets from which to gain such smarts. They rely more on their instincts and innate dog-ness, traits that can be useful to their owners as well. One steamy July morning a few summers ago, Lucy and I headed out for what was supposed to be a short walk through a neighbor’s woods. I followed a horse trail for a while, figuring it would eventually lead back to where it started. It didn’t. After an hour, we were lost. Every tree and brook looked the same as I struggled to find a familiar path. Lucy trotted along behind me without a care, loving every minute of what she thought was a grand adventure. After two hours of wandering, my feet were blistered and bleeding, my arms scratched and bitten. I was getting frightened. But every time I looked at Lucy, her eyes held me blameless for getting us in trouble. My dog was completely calm, which helped to calm me. With a tilt of her head she seemed to say, “Don’t worry, Mom. We’ll sniff our way out of this.” Soon after, I found my way to a road about a mile from my house and walked home barefoot, holding my bloody boots with my clever country dog beside me.

Lucy turns 14 this week. She still loves her walks along the Hudson when we’re downstate and her hikes to High Falls when we’re up north. But these days, it takes her a little longer to get around and to find me when I’m more than a few feet away. So I’ll be sure to treasure our time together in both locations — and even the car rides in between – for as long as my city-country dog is with me.

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