Van Ogtrop is the author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom.
I’m not sure about you, but even after a dizzying few weeks of national news, I’m still obsessed with Lulu, the would-be CIA explosive-sniffing dog who broke the Internet in October when the agency kicked her out. In its solemn statement, the CIA explained that, after some training, it was clear that the black Labrador retriever puppy “wasn’t interested in detecting explosive odors.” And so, the CIA said, “we are sad to announce that Lulu has been dropped from the program.”
“Dropped from the program.” As if! Dear CIA: You’ve been hoodwinked. When I am sad or bored, I imagine the CIA statement written from the perspective of Lulu, who has been adopted by her handler. “Hello world, I am SO psyched to announce that after sniffing for explosives for an eternity, I am over it. Why should I look for bombs when I could be napping on wall-to-wall carpeting at home and rolling in dead things at the park? Peace out, Cub Scouts!”
But that’s just me and my overactive imagination. Why did the rest of the Internet care about Lulu? Was it because, as the New York Times wrote, “her story just sounds familiar to any American who has experienced workplace ennui”? Or was it because, for Lulu’s 15 minutes of fame, the shades fell from our eyes and we realized that it’s the dogs who are in charge? That they’re just pretending to obey, while getting exactly what they want? It’s like that moment at the end of The Usual Suspects when you realize the dopey guy who was sitting across the desk for nearly two hours may actually be Keyser Söze, elusive mastermind. And then the earth shifts on its axis, just a smidge.
We all have encountered souls–real and fictional–who object, drop out, declare “I would prefer not to,” like Melville’s unforgettable Bartleby the Scrivener. From Bartleby to Jerry Maguire to Senator Jeff Flake, there is something heroic in “I would prefer not to.” Is it passive? Maybe it seems that way; look closer and you see that it’s a seizing of control.
This fall my family adopted our fourth dog: our fourth Labrador retriever, our fourth snap decision that has resulted in a giant, lasting responsibility. Our fourth shedding bundle of unconditional love–floor soiler, grass destroyer, indoor-plant chewer, area-rug demolisher. The fourth creature who has brought a little bit of headache and a huge amount of joy into our lives after saying “I would prefer not to” to the life she was meant to lead. Our Labs have all been service-dog dropouts, though “released puppy” is the official–and kinder–designation that Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the wonderful organization that breeds these dogs, gives to its lovable failures. When we were contemplating whether to adopt this one, there were a few issues to consider: She was female. (We’ve always had males.) She was 4 months old. (We’ve always adopted at 2 months.) Her first adoptive family was giving her back (!). She had, well, a lot of personality: rumor was that when you gave her a command she didn’t like, she would just look up at you. And bark.
Oh, how my children and husband and I laughed when we heard that. That little willful detail is probably what sealed the deal. And now here she is, lounging underfoot with her 5-year-old refusenik brother, exercising control over my schedule and understanding of the world. To wit: this morning I left the kitchen for all of 10 minutes and returned to find the puppy’s previously sealed dog food bag wide open. The dogs were lying together on the floor three feet away, feigning nonchalance. I asked them who had opened the bag and just how much they’d eaten. They both looked at me indignantly. As if, their eyes were saying. As if we would actually tell you.
If there is such a thing as a canine conscientious objector, my dogs are it. Like Lulu, my guide-dog dropouts all decided, for various reasons and in their own ways, to reinterpret the call of duty. And like Lulu, they know they have a higher purpose. Lulu may just be the pacifist putting the carnation in the rifle: she wants to make love, not war. My own dogs’ higher purpose is to provide moments of pure joy, whether it’s with a head in a lap, a lick of the palm or the crazy-happy sight of them chasing one another around the dining-room table, our own domestic demolition derby. To provide us with the steady sense that they understand what really matters in life. Even if they prefer not to tell us.
Van Ogtrop is the author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom
This appears in the November 20, 2017 issue of TIME.