My Dog Is Bored in Philadelphia

A lesson in pet care: vacation can be just as good for your pup as it is for you

I was on Cape Cod last week. Despite the beautiful blue ocean, the bobbing seals that looked right at me, the Wellfleet Oyster Fest and the quiet of the off-season, I was thrilled to get back to Philly, as always. I’m aware that it’s irrational to prefer a grimy city filled with bitter people—one of whom called me an asshole on the bus the other day—to pebbled shores, rolling dunes and cloudless skies, but I do. I’m especially glad to have the prepositional annoyance (you’re not in Cape Cod, you’re on Cape Cod) of the vacation behind me.

Hannah after her week of sprightliness

My only regret is for my dog, Hannah, who is less like me than I previously believed. Though we’re both small, anxious creatures who dislike the cold, it turns out that, given half a chance, the essentially inert being who sleeps 20 hours a day at my feet is actually sprightly.

Because I can’t let her off-leash nearby, I rarely get a chance to see her gambol. I’ve taken her to dog parks, but she’s afraid. There always seems to be some overeager Dachshund, its bronze ears flapping and its little legs speeding toward her with unbelievable force, who falls in love with her. She flees in terror until she’s cowering in a corner surrounded by a crew of smallish-but-not-that-small dogs—the Dachshund, maybe a Westie, a Jack Russell terrier with an attitude problem. Untenable.

But on the Cape, there was a huge house to zoom around in, and a big yard with tall grass and a large hill—perfect for the tumbling down and then bounding up that Hannah pursued with great enthusiasm 0.1 seconds after her leash was off. As she ran in ever widening circles, tail wagging, she cast glances at me as if to say, Is this okay? I gave her the go-ahead in our sophisticated patois (“Yes, pookie bear! Take a run-run!”) and she became even more animated. After several minutes, she was bunny-hopping more than running, but it was still breathtakingly impressive. At the top of the hill, worn out, she flopped over on her back and wriggled, her miniscule paws poking the air frenetically.

I was laughing so hard, I was almost crying—and then I was actually crying a little because of how striking it is to see a creature so happy like that. It’s so pure. So unencumbered. So … unfamiliar. I wanted her to be able to feel that way forever.

Some of you—the animal-attuned, let’s say—are reading words like “anxious” and “cowering” and thinking I’m one of those small-dog owners who have ruined their Chihuahuas’ wild, wolf-like natures by treating them like Hello Kitty plush toys. But I never carried Hannah in my purse: even when she weighed less than 2 pounds, I had her walking on a leash and learning to heel. I’ve consulted behaviorists and breeders and read every book you can imagine—from Jon Katz to Cesar Milan to Chihuahuas for Dummies—to ameliorate her fearfulness and lethargy. No dice.

Not long ago the vet told me she was a “senior,” so I could blame her increasing indolence on age rather than owner-induced neurosis. But on the Cape, she was young again. And she felt so good about herself—which I could tell from her confident posture and her lively little trot at my heels—that for the first time in her adult life, she was able to make friends with another dog, a genial Corgi named Homer, whom she sat next to as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

When we left the Cape, I felt sad for her. Not sad enough to leave her there with another family, but sad that she was stuck in Philly when she’s clearly a Cape Cod-er at heart. At home, she immediately returned to her old tricks, which is to say, nothing. But whereas before I saw her penchant for nothing as a delightful corollary to my own nothing, I now see it for what it is: a lack of options. Give a dog the space and–unlike some humans—she’ll run