Hello. My name is Chelsea.
You’ve already met Bill. He’s the main character in a novel called Just Bill. His mister is named Fred Vinyl. Most of the story’s human characters have names like that, to tell readers something about them. For instance, Fred used to be in the vinyl siding business. There’s a family called the Telecoms, and a lady known as Trust Fund. The dogs also have names that say something about them: Chiffon, Emma (named after a character in a story written by Jane Austen), Luger, Wolfi and Stanzi. They all live on a golf course in Florida.

The writer thinks of Bill as his collaborator. He thinks of me that way, too, in life. But unlike the dogs in the story, my given name doesn’t come from a place or line of work. Or from a famous person. like Chelsea Clinton. Even if it did, no one I live with could know about it. That’s because I am a rescue dog, Barry and Barbara Knister's actual dog.

True, the dogs my mister made up are also “actual,” but in a different way. He imagined them. He’s strange about that. He spent so much time with Bill and his other characters that he pretty much thinks of them as real. Not real the way Barbara and I am real, but real enough.

He says that, for good or ill, what takes on life in the mind is real. In the same way dreams are facts. You can’t see or measure dreams, but they exist. They're real.

Before she died, my mister had a good friend who thought the same way about her cats, and also about an antique teddy bear. Charlie is the bear’s name, and the friend and her mother wrote about him, the way the mister wrote about Bill. The mother got this bear years ago, at an antiques auction. She brought him home, and came to think of Charlie as a companion. A friend. She made clothes for him, and saw to it he had other teddy bears and stuffed animals for company. She thought of each of them as having a distinct personality.

So, was this nice old woman crazy? Maybe. I never met her. But I met her daughter who published a book about all this. And although she was different from most people, I don’t think she was crazy. Her husband had died, and she lived alone with her cats, and Charlie and Charlie's friends. So she treated her pets and stuffed animals as people--so what? They kept her company in an empty house. Maybe, they kept her from becoming crazy. That seems the best way to think about it.

Anyway, it's how Barry Knister thinks about his dead friend, and also how he thinks about the characters in his story. How he thinks about me is different. He created a history for Bill, so he knows the made-up dog better than he knows me. He can’t know a thing about my parents, my puppyhood, or my previous two families.

 And it bothers him. He says I exist outside history, floating in the space-time continuum. I came into his life like an apparition, a postage stamp-sized photo on a rescue-dog website, along with a two-hundred word description. Then, weeks later, I appeared on a hill overlooking the river that separates Covington,Kentucky from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Adopting a dog never before met, on a hillside being visited for the first and last time, then driving hundreds of miles to reach home changed him forever. For someone who lets things like that get to him, it’s quite a story. Especially when he wonders about what must have been going on in the mind of his new dog. Me.

P.S. For reasons I don't understand (and neither does Barry Knister), I am afraid of cameras. There are almost no photos of me, but the one at the top was taken of a sculpture in the Naples, Florida Botanical Gardens. We hope you like it.




In my last entry, I promised a quote from well-known psychologist and dog expert Stanley Coren, taken from his excellent book, The Consciousness of Dogs: Canine consciousness and capabilities.

But first, what is consciousness?

If you look in the Random House College Dictionary, you get this: “the state of being conscious; awareness. the thoughts and feelings, collectively, of an individual or of an aggregate of people. full activity of the mind and senses. awareness of something for what it is: consciousness of wrongdoing.”

“Awareness of something for what it is” strikes me as the key. To have consciousness, I have to know what I am, and what isn't me. You don’t have consciousness unless you can make this distinction. I've read that children are only partially conscious until sometime around the age of five. At that point, they have lost their sense of the world as an extension of themselves, and are now individuals. (you probably know adults who never actually reach "that point").

Asking most dog owners whether dogs have consciousness is a no-brainer. They answer with stories to illustrate how smart their dog is, how “good” or “naughty,” etc. Hearing such stories, those who  don't like dogs will react by rolling their eyes and sighing. They see dogs and no doubt all animals as pure instinct, acting on genetic programs that don’t include decisions or knowledge of the world.

So, for those who aren’t impressed by anecdotes about your dog’s consciousness, here’s a story from an expert:

Nearly a week had gone by without any noticeable sunshine. That particular afternoon, though, the clouds seemed to part, and a burst of afternoon sunshine shone through the window, forming a big golden patch on the hardwood floor. Completing my work, I was moving toward the kitchen to get a cup of coffee when I noticed my Cavalier King Charles spaniel Wiz standing in the circle of light. He looked up at the window and then down at the floor as if he were contemplating something, and then he deliberately turned and ran from the room. Within a matter of moments, however, he reappeared dragging a huge terry-cloth towel that he had stolen from the bathroom. He pulled the towel into the center of the patch of sun, looked at it, and then pushed at one lumpy section with both front paws. Having arranged the towel to his satisfaction, he then circled around and settled down for a nap on his newly created bed in the warm afternoon sun. If my young child had done this, I would have said that he felt the warmth of the sun and thought that it would be nice to take a nap in it. Then, remembering the towel in the bathroom, he went and retrieved it so that he could sunbathe more comfortably. All this requires consciousness, intelligence, and planning. Does my dog Wiz have it? It is easier for me simply to recognize that my dog’s behaviors in this situation were similar to behaviors that are accompanied by consciousness in a human faced with the same situation. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I will presume that I am dealing with consciousness and intelligent behavior in my dog as well.

There it is—“awareness of something for what it is.” In this case, sunshine as a source of pleasurable warmth, a way to make lying in the sun more satisfying, a place where the “equipment” for doing so is located, going there and getting this equipment, a return to the sunny locale, manipulation of the equipment to make it serve better—then the nap.

Tell your skeptical friend to put that in his pipe and smoke it. If Dr. Coren’s story confirms what you know to be true about your own dog, the odds are good you’ll enjoy Just Bill.



In this instance, both name and dog are Just Bill, the title of my novel for adults about a rescued Lab. If you read the blog entry before this one, you’ve already heard from Bill. Because he’s a dog, it wouldn't occur to him to speak ill of anyone, or to hold a grudge. 

True, it would not occur to him to speak, period.  But if he could speak, Bill wouldn’t bring up certain painful facts. That’s left to me, to describe how a dog devoted to his master is given up. How this happens and what it leads to dramatize the book’s theme—that lives are better, and sometimes even saved through the relationship between a person and a dog. My own life is certainly better because I live with a dog, and I hope Just Bill makes the case for this partnership.

What’s in a dog? 

When I was preparing to publish Just Bill, I asked Dr. Stanley Coren for permission to quote a story from his landmark book, The Intelligence of Dogs. Here’s the letter I wrote to him:

Dear Dr. Coren:

This is two things:  a fan letter, and a request for a favor.

First, as one who admires dogs, let me thank you for having done so much for them.  Obviously, you have done a great deal for humans as well, by raising people’s awareness of canine consciousness.  But in so doing, you have improved—I’m sure of this-- the lives of countless pets, and many abandoned animals and shelter dogs. They gained good homes in the climate of improved awareness and understanding that THE INTELLIGENCE OF DOGS and your other writings have helped to foster.

Here’s the second shoe.  Until recently, I served as a tenured faculty member in the department of humanities at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. I am also a fiction writer, and have written a short novel for adults called JUST BILL. In this work of magical realism, I wanted to trace, through various trials and tribulations, the career of a dog rescued in his first year by a retiree.  

Human and dog characters alternate in the narrative, and the story's conclusion is full of hope and renewal.  It is unapologetically a story of sentiment, but by no means sentimental.  Throughout the writing, I have done my best to capture what I understand to be reality as experienced by dogs.  

No passage from The Intelligence of Dogs has served me better in my own work than the story of your “Cavalier King Charles spaniel Wiz standing in the circle of light” on your kitchen floor.  For me, this anecdote makes a perfect case for speaking of dog consciousness.  It captures the essence of what my story hopes to dramatize, without resorting to the cartoon anthropomorphism that so often figures in dog stories.

For this reason, I am convinced that the meaning and intent of JUST BILL can’t be better introduced than by your story about Wiz.  Appearing at the beginning, before the story proper, it will prepare readers for what is to follow. The length of the quoted passage—291 words—far exceeds the “fair use” clause for copyrighted work, so I am hoping you will grant me permission to use the passage.

Dr. Coren granted me permission. But instead of using his story at the beginning, my publisher and I decided to use it on the back cover. From a publishing perspective, this turned out to be a big mistake. Intrigued by the jacket photo, people wanted to read a description on the back, not a story from a different book. That's the main reason for this new edition.

In the next post (Wednesday), I’ll provide Dr. Coren's story. It doesn’t have directly to do with Just Bill, but it does express the point of view at the heart of my short novel.


                                       INTRODUCING A DOG-MAN COLLABORATION

My name is Bill, and I’m a four-year-old Lab mix. Of course I can’t talk or type, but I’m on good terms with my mister. He’s decided to speak for us both.

Why doesn’t he just speak for himself? No idea. After all, I’m a dog. But maybe speaking for both of us frees him in some way. Maybe imagining that I understand him helps him to think and type what’s on his mind.

Is he exploiting me? If it makes him happy, fine with me. He’s done a lot for me. I was born a mistake, at a puppy mill. I wasn’t supposed to even be, let alone grow up, but here I am. The breeder didn’t drown me with my littermates. He let me grow up, out of curiosity. Then, when I was nine months old, I escaped into the pine forest.

That’s when my mister came along. I was in the woods I don’t know how long, but one day I came out on the road, and followed the man who’s typing all this down. You could call it my leap-of-faith day, an act of intuition. I was sick with parasites, couldn’t keep food down. I’d lost a lot of weight and would be dead soon.

But I didn’t die, and I was right to choose that moment to come out on the road. This man—no
other--decided to stop on his morning walk, turn around, and wait for me. He put out his hand, I touched it with my nose. Years, later, here we are.

Maybe thinking of his dog as a co-writer has to do with how disgusted he is these days with humans. He talks about it mornings while reading the paper, evenings when he checks the TV. He never watches long, just checks. Sure enough, the same dough-colored, yammering heads are still at it. Especially he talks about the dough heads if he has an extra rob roy before dinner.

“Dough heads” and “yammering” don’t sound much like a dog, do they? Chalk it up to life with the mister. He’s always coming up with stuff like that.

Clicking up there at the table, he stops to think, reaches down and scratches my head. As we look at each other, he speaks a word. I know the sound if not the meaning, but it doesn’t matter. His voice is soft and his eyes are friendly, the way they are when we walk in the woods. Collaborate is the word. My mister really does believe we’re doing something together. He’s convinced by the way I return his gaze, knowing I’m ready at any time to go anywhere with him. That’s what makes me his partner. His collaborator.

Other times, he says words I do know. Old Bill, old timer, good dog, fetch, walk, down, here buddy, no, come, attaboy. Mostly, I understand what he means from his voice and eyes, how his smell changes when he's happy or mad. Or drinking rob roys.

The way I trust him--to feed me and not forget to fill my water bowl, to crack the van windows when we go shopping--that's how you should trust him. You won’t be sorry, I’m sure of it. Because my mister knows me almost as well as I know him.



Nostalgia figures big with me on holidays, and this season is no exception. I don’t remember what year it was, only that our border collie Chelsea was still with us. I can hear her nails ticking behind me as I enter the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning.

I think the stage had been set the day before. Driving somewhere with my dog next to me in the passenger seat, I had listened to the first two or three minutes of a Funk-laden version of The Messiah. It depressed me, the way it would to learn of a Zombie Apocalypse version of Bambi, or a Quentin Tarantino remake of The Wizard of Oz. It just put me off my white-boy, suburbanite feed.

I was glad my dog was deaf, because I knew the same influence would soon figure with Christmas carols.  Here in Detroit--Motown—we are always treated during the Yule season to a competition of sorts. R&B artists deliver up aural flights, risking serious voice-box medical complications in their efforts to stamp Jingle Bells or Oh Holy Night with filigreed excess.

Anyway, Thanksgiving morning I enter the kitchen for more coffee.  On the counter is a small TV. I am pouring from the carafe, half watching and listening as our Local 4 anchors provide color for the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade working its way down Woodward Avenue.  I turn to go, but hear the unmistakable voice of Karen Newman. 

She’s singing “It’s the Best Time of the Year,” and I turn to watch.  Karen, you see, is a local, small-pond version of Vanna White.  Both women have made lengthy careers out of a single, highly specialized gesture.  Whereas Vanna has done well on prime time by revealing letters of the alphabet and then congratulating herself by clapping, Karen Newman has prospered as a result of having made The Star Spangled Banner her own at Detroit Red Wings hockey games.

That’s it, the National Anthem.  For years, over and over at Joe Louis Arena, glittering and blond under intense lighting at center ice, Karen has belted out the Anthem for the thousands assembled in their Red Wings paraphernalia.  When she finishes, they explode.  By once again nailing the Anthem with every grace note and cadenza she’s fixed to it over the years, Karen again reasserts the power of memory and tribal consciousness for her fans.  With the last ringing high note and roar from the stands, the players can now put in their mouthpieces, and skate out for the first face-off.

But this is something different--Karen in the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Always well turned out at hockey games, today she is presenting herself in a seasonally adjusted costume: black tights, and a Santa sweater designed to suggest a micro dress.  Even though she’s athwart a motorized float--or because of it—the effect hints at the arresting possibility that her panties lie just north of the sweater’s hemline.

But Karen’s tireless commitment to excellence in singing the National Anthem is here being brought to an arpeggio-laden rendering of “It’s the Best Time of the Year.”  This song is the last and only reason left in the world to remember Andy Williams.  But listening, I think Karen has decided to make Andy a forgotten collectible, stored down in the basement with his vinyl recordings. 

Her powerful, stadium-trained voice is drawing on the many sonic influences afforded to her by life in Motown.  Fascinated, I watch.  Her slender legs in black tights are now spread wide against the Woodward potholes under her float, in preparation for the song’s conclusion.  She’s almost there, straining up in every pop singer’s fellatio-inspired signature move with the mic. 

And Karen delivers!  It’s something I don’t think had ever been seen by her fans at the Joe. With “best time of the yeeeeeeear,” a stake is driven through the heart of Andy Williams. And in that moment, Karen, in apotheosis, delivers a rapid-fire series of pelvic thrusts into her skimpy hemline.

You had to see it. I remember looking down at my deaf border collie, thinking how it had all come together for me in that moment. The holidays were at last upon us. 

Happy Thanksgiving!


Almost certainly, most of us who love and admire dogs have asked ourselves this question: Given what I know about him/her, how would Waldo/Fifi vote in the latest election? Would my dog base the decision on the scent of the candidate? The character of his or her eyes? Voice? The degree to which the candidate cares for registered voter dogs as reflected in the quality of treats handed out at rallies?

Being a border collie, my dog Chelsea would I believe place her paw on the straight-ticket button next to Democrat. Not because I’m a Democrat, and not because she never hears anything from Fox News or Rush or any of the other fantasists cooking up fictions for their watchers and listeners.

No, Chelsea would paw the Democrat straight-ticket lever after considering the issues. She’s issues-oriented, plain and simple. Very focused. True, smell matters to her most. She’s almost blind and totally deaf, so a candidate’s smell probably would matter more to my dog than to other members of the canine electorate. But once she was actually in the voting doghouse/booth, I’m sure an off-putting aftershave, or too much garlic eaten at last night’s spaghetti-dinner fundraiser would not weigh heavily with my dog,

She’d vote Democrat for reasons related to self-interest. Take for instance health care. Republicans want to torpedo Obamacare. They want vouchers instead. How would this play out in my dog’s thinking?

Eliminating Obamacare would be the equivalent for Chelsea of serious cutbacks in drug benefits and physical therapy. Or walks. Her caregivers would need to devote more time to entrepreneurial efforts, less to strolls and trips to parks. Besides, parks are themselves luxuries that from a Republican perspective should get the axe. People without jobs hang out in parks, when they should be looking for work. Republicans would probably want to get rid of them (both the parks and the people), along with health-insurance reform. Or, if they kept the parks, they would do so in order to “drill baby drill” on public land, for more of the fossil fuel needed to juice entrepreneurial initiatives.

As for drug benefits, this would mean getting rid of the prescription canned food and probiotic powder we feed our senior dog for her aging GI tract. Chelsea’s staff—my wife and I—are no one-percenters, so in a Republican world, buying this stuff for Chelsea would be out of the question.

Speaking of stuff, Republicans dubbed Obama “the foodstamp president.” In fact, Bill O’Reilly said people like my wife and me just want “stuff.” That’s why we voted for Obama, because he kept us happy by giving us things. Things like a recovering economy, an auto industry, a monster terrorist’s head on a platter, and real hope that medical attention can become a basic right for all, not a perk for the privileged.

Since Chelsea has been pretty much on the dole since day one, I’m sure criticism of those who benefit from food stamps, and who extend the benefits to more people would not sit well with her. She would reflect on the neighbor’s cat, the one constantly scheming to kill birds and mice to supplement his diet. Not having run after anything in years, Chelsea would no doubt cast her vote for the candidate willing to keep the safety net in place for senior dogs, and for dogs down on their luck. Abandoned, abused and neglected dogs, or the ones you see sitting next to people at intersections who hold hand-lettered signs, the dog apparently the last friend they have.

Chelsea is a Democrat, I’m convinced of it. Without getting too specific, it may be that certain breeds of dogs, sadly conditioned to be vicious and aggressive, would apply their paws to the Republican lever. But that’s brainwashing—like listening all day, every day to Rush or Fox News--not basic dog nature. Given a real choice, free of nasty browbeating, I’m sure all dogs would side with Chelsea.

Barry Knister lives in Michigan. He encourages comments, and can be reached at JUST BILL, his short novel about dogs and owners is available through all major outlets.


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