American Life in Poetry: Column 470


Considering that I’m a dog lover, I haven’t included nearly enough dog poems in this column. My own dog, Howard, now in his dotage, has never learned a trick of any kind, nor learned to behave, so I admire Karla Huston for having the patience to teach her dog something. Huston lives in Wisconsin.


The cruelest thing I did to my dog
wasn’t to ignore his barking for water
when his tongue hung like a deflated balloon

or to disregard his chronic need for a belly rub
but to teach him to shake hands,
a trick that took weeks of treats, his dark eyes

like Greek olives, moist with desire.
I made him sit, another injustice,
and allowed him to want the nuggets enough

to please me. Shake, I said. Shake?
touching the back of his right leg
until he lifted it, his saliva trickling

from soft jowls, my hand wet with his hunger.
Mistress of the biscuit, I ruffled his ears
and said good dog until he got it. Before long,

he raised his paw, shook me until he got
the treat, the rub, the water in a chilled silver bowl,
the wilderness in him gone, his eyes still lit with longing.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2013 by Karla Huston from her most recent book of poems, A Theory of Lipstick, Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 2013. Poem reprinted by permission of Karla Huston and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2016 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.