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Color of Joy

Lisa seemed to respond positively enough to this line of thought—“right,” she said at one point, “they are good companions”—but I was aware as I talked of a gnawing frustration, a sense of my own compulsion to hold back when I talk about my dog and to offer up what’s in effect a watered-down and fairly stereotypical view of the attachment: dog as man’s best friend, dog as a loyal and faithful servant. There are elements of truth to that view—dogs can be wonderful friends, they can be enormously loyal and faithful creatures—but those factors represent only one part of the picture, a limited and really rather arrogant fragment that concerns only the way dogs serve us, not the ways we serve them or the ways we serve each other. Finally, I shook my head and said to Lisa, “You know, it’s been really important to me to learn not to pathologize my relationship with Lucille. People have very powerful relationships with their dogs, and that doesn’t mean they’re crazy, or that they’re substituting dogs for humans, or that they’re somehow incapable of forming intimate attachments with people. It’s a different kind of relationship, but it’s no less authentic.”

Alas, Lisa looked across the table and said, “You’re still scaring me.”

Dog love, popular wisdom suggests, should be limited love. Let on the depth of your true feelings about a dog—how attached you are, how vital the relationship feels—and you risk being accused of any number of neuroses: you’re displacing human love onto the animal, which is perverse; you’re anthropomorphizing, which is naive and unsophisticated; you’re sublimating your unconscious wish for a baby or a spouse or a family into the dog, which is sad and pathetic. Children are allowed to harbor deep affection for dogs: that’s seen not only as cute and normal but as morally acceptable, as caring for a pet can teach a child about compassion and responsibility, even about loss, given a dog’s relatively short life span. The elderly and the infirm are permitted some degree of attachment, too, thanks in recent years to widescale acceptance of the use of therapy dogs in settings like nursing homes and hospitals. But the rest of us are expected to keep our feelings about dogs somehow contained and compartmentalized, in the box labeled “Just a Dog.” And if we don’t—well, as my friend Lisa said, we’re a little scary.

In fact, more than one third of all Americans live with dogs today—by most reliable estimates, that’s about 55 million dogs—and it’s safe to say that a good number of us don’t contain or compartmentalize our feelings nearly so effectively. Suspect though dog love may be in the public eye, Americans are in the midst of a veritable love affair with dogs: we’re spending more money on our dogs than ever before (the average owner can expect to shell out a minimum of $11,500 in the course of a dog’s life); we’re indulging them with an ever more elaborate range of goods and services (doggie day care, doggie summer camp, gold-plated Neiman Marcus doghouses); and in many respects we’re treating them far more like members of the human pack than like common household pets. Depending on which study you look at, anywhere from 87 to 99 percent of dog owners report that they see their dogs as family members, figures that are certainly borne out by behavior. The American Animal Hospital Association conducts an annual survey of pet owner attitudes. In 1995, 79 percent of respondents reported that they give their pets holiday or birthday presents. Thirty-three percent said they talk to their dogs on the phone or through an answering machine when they’re away. If they were stranded on a desert island and could pick only one companion, 57 percent of owners said they’d choose to be marooned with the dog rather than a human. A more telling number: the following year, 48 percent of female respondents reported that they relied more heavily on their pets than on their partners or family members for affection.

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By
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