How To Draw A Dog

And maybe become a better person

I love drawing dogs. When drawing any character, it’s inevitable that one momentarily embodies the creature you are drawing.

There have been dogs in my life as long as I can remember, and for as long as I’ve been drawing. First there was Sassy. A springer spaniel, she was a bright light, consistently greeting me with intense wiggling when I came home from school. Sassy went with us when we skated on the canal in winter, walked the streets on Halloween, joined us as kids when we played “Beatles” in the grassy field (otherwise known as “dog doo alley”). Sassy loved food and became a rather rotund springer. One day we found she had gotten into a neighbor’s trash, and was deep into a can of Crisco, which she was reluctant to relinquish. Sassy was my confidant and my rock in difficult times; she maintained her enthusiasm for all of us during family drama and heartache.

As a shy kid, I related to animals, real or fictional. I didn’t talk much, but talked to my animals — Sassy, Kiki my cat, and my stuffed animals. I was influenced as a budding cartoonist by Charles Schulz’s strip Peanuts. The character I bonded with was Snoopy. Snoopy did not speak, nor did I. Snoopy was a realist and an optimist; this was my young approach to the world (and still is). Later in my professional work, I was influenced by the work of New Yorker cartoonist James Thurber, a humorist known for his drawings and writing about dogs. All created with a few pen lines. Both Schulz and Thurber understood: when drawing dogs, it’s all about the eyes.

My choice to live in New York city after college was not conducive to having a dog. However, dogs were with me in my work. My first cartoon printed in The New Yorker in 1982 was about a dog, and I authored a series of children’s books with a dog as one of the central characters.

There have been four dogs in my life after I moved out of the city. Babar was my husband’s dog from a previous relationship, and I only knew her a few years. She helped our oldest daughter learn the importance of dogs in her nascent years as a human being. Her first word was “Babu.”

When my husband and I decided not to have a third child, we chose— obviously — to get a dog. Our youngest — and second daughter — was only sixteen months, so we scoured the dog breed book to find a dog breed that would be good with kids. That’s how we ultimately found Oliver, a Spinone. As we brought him into our home, he was scared — nothing a bowl of ice cream couldn’t fix. Oliver soon became the most wonderful dog; he was our son, our third child. Oliver’s afternoon revolved around our walks together. He would studiously pay attention to my movements and when I reached for my sneakers he would bound up and dance around me, putting his nose to my feet until I put him on the leash. Oliver’s eyes said he understood everything, and that all would all be okay.

In retrospect it’s not entirely clear, but at the time it seemed important to us to add two more dogs to the mix. At any given time, we had two kids, three dogs, four cats, two guinea pigs, a snake, hamster, and then some horses. We had a rabbit and a mouse at one point too.

But our dogs were the main event. With Oliver a few years old, we found a basset hound. Sophie was the “middle child,” and it is hard to know if that was her personality or a result of her order in the dog hierarchy of our house. She always wanted to please and always wanted attention. And food. Once, she lept up and grabbed a visiting friend’s sandwich — in its entirety — from her plate on the table. Sophie loved to sit on your lap, which was painful — basset hounds have very heavy bones. Her eyes asked for and gave love constantly.

The week after 9/11, like the rest of the country, we found ourselves searching for something. We went to the animal rescue near our home and found Bernie, a Jack Russell terrier. Bernie soon became our second “son.” A sparkplug nature, Bernie could literally levitate repeatedly when enthusiastic. Bernie had faint spots on his skin, but he looked mostly white. He was the icing on the cake of our menagerie. He ate ice cream with us late into the night, chased rocks on the shore, would scamper around the house after a bath. Bernie was funny. Bernie was our companion when our daughters left for college, and he bonded even more closely with us than before. Our empty nest was not empty. Bernie’s eyes gave us hope.

Now we are without a dog, for the moment . But after years of having them as partners, I can still have a dog in my mind and I can of course create one on paper. I can conjure up the spirit and unconditional love. Drawing cartoons about dogs helps me remember their loving and life-affirming humor. I can draw their fuzziness, their warmth, their slobber, their hugs, their energy, their enthusiasm; I can draw their eyes. I can perhaps for a moment become them.

That’s how you draw a dog.

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Liza’s new book, Be The Person Your Dog Thinks You Are, is published by Flatiron Books