How does one own a dog without becoming a dog person? The answer, I suspect, depends upon whether or not you have a dog and the degree to which you’re inclined to buy into the idea that pet ownership, like child rearing, isn’t what it used to be. Of course, most things aren’t what they used to be, but when it comes to the relationship between helpless creatures and responsible adults, many of us aren’t in Kansas anymore. In my case, I mean this literally. When I got my dog, a Collie/St. Bernard mix named Rex, I lived on a farm in the central plains. He slept in the barn, flanked by a horse on one side and a pig on the other. On frigid mornings I’d come in with his food and often find him curled up with the cat. He was just eight weeks old when I got him, a squiggly fluff ball of black and brown fur, and he knew nothing of the inside world for several months.
I remember the winter day when I first brought him indoors. Negotiating the strange new surface of the polished floors, he actually slipped and fell down several times as though he were on another planet. I remember the combination of alarm and delight he seemed to take at spotting his image in a full-length mirror on a closet door. He lurched back, startled, then looked behind the door in search of the strange dog lurking there. He soon grew restless, so I led him back outside and watched as he trotted back to his familiar environs, a 10-acre pasture where he convened with horses and pheasants with such obvious pleasure that even my fear that he’d be hit by a passing truck was not enough to make me do anything but let him run free.
Now, seven years on, I live with Rex in Los Angeles. His world is a 900-square-foot house and a small fenced yard he can access through a dog door. He has a microchip implant in case he gets lost, an assortment of stuffed toys so he won’t get bored, and eats prescription low-calorie dog food because he’s gotten fat. Every day, I put on his leash and take him to a wilderness area where he can run free for 45 minutes and socialize with other dogs who have microchips and follow prescription diets. Whereas I used to give him baths in the river, he now goes to a groomer who hoses him off in a giant sink and then sets a fan by a cage to dry him. Whereas he used to spend his nights in a nest of hay, lulled to sleep by the secret world of the barn, he now sleeps with me in my bed, sometimes with his head on the pillow next to me.
I am not so far gone that I don’t recognize that Rex’s life, albeit safer than his life on the farm and better than the lives of the vast majority of animals in the world, took a turn for the worse when he stopped being a dog and became a pet. At the same time, I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that having a pet brings a level happiness to my life that I wasn’t able to experience by merely having a dog. Having an animal, like having a child, is the kind of pursuit to which you can ascribe the world “selfless” only up to a point. There are the obvious hassles—feeding and sheltering and the handling of excrement—but once you put aside the logistics, you are looking at a relationship that is almost entirely wrapped up in the need for unconditional love.
When I lived on the farm (and I lived there with a man who’d no sooner let a dog in the house than invite a mountain goat over for drinks), the love I felt for Rex was intense, unqualified and respectful. Here in Los Angeles, where it’s not unheard of to take your dog to dinner parties, that love is intense, unqualified and more akin to the kind of affection traditionally reserved for romantic partners. Since leaving the barn, Rex’s responsibilities have increased dramatically. No longer simply my dog, he is my friend, my confidant, and my greatest solace. Though he no longer has to keep himself warm at night, he’s been charged with the far weightier task of keeping me warm.