The Paws That Refreshes

I’ve referred many times to our younger dog as Big Blake, about 85 pounds of rambunctiousness who’s never met a substance that he didn’t try to eat. He’s lively. He’s fun. He’s carefully watched at meal times.

He also, unknown by me until now, has an alternate identity as Doctor Dog.

No joke.

Case in point: I’ve had four gran mal seizures in my life. Blake has witnessed exactly one. But the other night when I sighed loudly in my sleep, my wife Heather saw him get up and place his head over mine, ready in case I started shaking again.

Feeling sore? I’ve had more than one migraine graced by his sudden presence, where he’ll climb up and plant himself on my legs. He’s done the same for Heather during a bad MS attack. Canine acupressure, applied by an expert.

Bad mood? I defy it to survive when you’re suddenly staring at soulful brown eyes. Or, equally likely, being thumped by a vigorous tail.

Doctor Dog is on the scene. And if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that a loving touch refreshes.

It’s a lesson more of us could be reminded of, frankly.

The author Spider Robinson once wrote about the hugs given and received by another science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon. Robinson noted that Sturgeon always graded the hugs he received as either “Letter A’s” or “Number One’s.” After a while, he and the other bystanders realized what Sturgeon was talking about – a Letter A hugger touched at the torso but separated at the waist, like a capital letter A, just leaning in. A Number One hugger gave a full-body hug, top to toe.

Given his own druthers, Sturgeon was a Number One hugger. For him, he told Robinson and the others, all of the senses were just extensions of the sense of touch.

“If you can’t touch with touch,” he said, “you can’t touch with much.”

These days, how much do we touch at all?

Oh, we like. We poke. We friend constantly across a spectrum of social media. But for all our fervent activity, the academics like to point out, most of us don’t generate a lot of cozy friendships.

The most recent study came out of Oxford. In it, Professor Robin Dunbar found that while the typical Facebook user has 150 friends, only 15 were “actual friends” and only five could count as “close friends.” It might just be, Dunbar concluded, that actual friendships needed at least a little face-to-face contact to cement them.

In other words, they need the common touch.

But let’s take a step back. What does face-to-face contact do?

It verifies who you’re talking to.

It grants instant accountability – if you act like a jerk (or like a saint), there can be an immediate reprisal.

And just like with Big Blake cuddling up, there’s a commonality born of proximity. You’re opening yourself up and receiving another who’s chosen to do the same. When all goes well, that can mean comfort and trust and welcome.

But here’s the funny thing. Contrary to the suggestions of Professor Dunbar, that sort of positive touch can happen without ever entering the same room.

In following up on the study, Newsweek talked to a photographer, Tanja Hollander. She visited 600 of her social media connections and found that 95 percent welcomed her in the door instantly. About 75 percent offered her a meal or a place to stay for the night.

That doesn’t really surprise me. I have at least three close friends I’ve never physically met. If I had the chance, mind you, I’d seize it like Von Miller going for a quarterback. But even without ever sharing an atom of space, we all qualify as Number One huggers with each other … we’ve let the other person into our space without holding back, sharing good and bad times alike, being there to comfort and celebrate.

That’s the real measure of a friendship. Whether physical, virtual, or both, the key is the same – be there. Whatever “there” may mean for the space you’re in.

Be the eyes that care. The pressure that comforts. The presence that heals.

Be Doctor Dog.

After all, there’s no better way to build a pack.