Stories & Lit
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Imagine a scaled-down, delicately boned German shepherd dog, black and gray and tan instead of black and sable like a purebred, her face the color of ink with a faint gray mask. This is Lucille, a most ordinary-looking dog. She does have some exceptional features—her two forelegs are white, one halfway up from the paw, the other about a quarter of the way, which create the impression that she is wearing ladies’ gloves; there is also the tiniest bit of white mixed into the fur at her chin, which makes her look vaguely like Ho Chi Minh if you catch her at the right angle. But for the most part, she is the kind of dog you might see pictured in the dictionary under “mongrel” or, if you happen to own a more politically correct edition, “mixed breed.” Unremarkable, in other words, but no matter.
When you study a dog you love, you find beauty in every small detail, and so it is with Lucille: I have become enchanted by the small asymmetrical whorls of white fur on either side of her chest, and by her tail, which she carries in a high confident curve, and by her eyes, which are watchful and intelligent, the color of chestnuts. I am in love with the dog’s belly, where the fur is fine and soft and tan, and I am charmed by her jet black toenails, which stand out against the white of her front paws as though they’ve been lacquered, and I am deeply admiring of her demeanor, which is elegant and focused and restrained. I seem to spend a great deal of time just staring at the dog, struck by how mysterious and beautiful she is to me and by how much my world has changed since she came along.
Before you get a dog, you can’t quite imagine what living with one might be like; afterward, you can’t imagine living any other way. Life without Lucille? Unfathomable, to contemplate how quiet and still my home would be, and how much less laughter there’d be, and how much less tenderness, and how unanchored I’d feel without her presence, the simple constancy of it. I once heard a woman who’d lost her dog say that she felt as though a color were suddenly missing from her world: the dog had introduced to her field of vision some previously unavailable hue, and without the dog, that color was gone. That seemed to capture the experience of loving a dog with eminent simplicity. I’d amend it only slightly and say that if we are open to what they have to give us, dogs can introduce us to several colors, with names like wildness and nurturance and trust and joy.
I am not sentimental about dogs, my passion for Lucille notwithstanding. I don’t share the view, popular among some animal aficionados, that dogs are necessarily higher beings, that they represent a canine version of shamans, capable by virtue of their wild ancestry or nobility of offering humans a particular kind of wisdom or healing. I don’t think that the world would be a better place if everyone owned a dog, and I don’t think that all relationships between dogs and their owners are good, healthy, or enriching. “Dogs lead us into a kinder, gentler world.” Honey Loring, a woman who runs a camp for dogs and their owners in Vermont, said this to me about a year after I got Lucille, a statement that struck me as rather flip. No: dogs lead us into a world that is sometimes kind and gentle but that can be frightening, frustrating, and confusing, too. Dogs can be aggressive and stubborn and willful. They can be difficult to read and understand. They can (and do) evoke oceans of complicated feelings on the part of their owners, confusion and ambivalence about what it means to be responsible, forceful (or not), depended upon. They can push huge buttons, sometimes even more directly than humans can, because they’re such unambiguous creatures, so in-your-face when it comes to expressing their own needs and drives: if you’ve got problems asserting authority, or insecurities about leadership, or fears about being either in or out of control, you’re likely to get hit in the face with them from day one. In my view, dogs can be shamanistic, can be heroic and gentle and wise and enormously healing, but for the most part dogs are dogs, creatures governed by their own biological imperatives and codes of conduct, and we do both them and our relationships with them a disservice when we romanticize them. Writes Jean Schinto, author of The Literary Dog, “To deny dogs their nature is to do them great harm.”
That said, I also believe that dogs can—and often do—lead us into a world that is qualitatively different from the world of people, a place that can transform us. Fall in love with a dog, and in many ways you enter a new orbit, a universe that features not just new colors but new rituals, new rules, a new way of experiencing attachment.
Everything shifts in this new orbit, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Walks are slower: you find yourself ambling up a city street instead of racing to a destination, the dog stopping to sniff every third leaf, every other twig, every bit of debris or detritus in your path. The clothes are different: pre-dog, I used to be very finicky and self-conscious about how I looked; now I schlepp around in the worst clothing—big heavy boots, baggy old sweaters, a hooded down parka from L.L. Bean that makes me look like an astronaut. The language is different, based on tone and nuance instead of vocabulary. Even the equipment is new and strange: you find yourself ordering unthinkable products from the Foster & Smith catalog (smoked pigs’ ears, chicken-flavored toothpaste), and you find your living-room floor littered with sterilized beef bones and rawhide chips and plastic chew toys and ropes and balls, and you find your cupboards stocked with the oddest things—freeze-dried liver cubes, tick shampoo, poop bags.
The internal shifts are bigger, sometimes life-altering. When you speak to people about what it’s like to live with a dog, you hear them talk about discovering a degree of solace that’s extremely difficult to achieve in relationships with people, a way of experiencing solitude without the loneliness. You hear them talk about the dog’s capacity to wrest their focus off the past and future and plant it firmly in the present, with the here-and-now immediacy of a romp on the living-room rug or a walk in the woods. You hear them talk about joys that are exquisitely simple and pure: what it’s like to laugh at a dog who’s doing something ridiculous, and how soothing it is to sit and brush a dog’s coat, and how gratifying it is to make a breakthrough in training a dog, to understand that you’re communicating effectively with a different species. Above all, you hear them talk about feeling accepted in a new way, accompanied through daily life and over the course of years by a creature who bears witness to every change, every shift in mood, everything we do and say and experience, never judging us when we falter or fail.
Of course, not everybody gets this. Fall in love with a dog, and among non-dog people, you will see eyebrows rise, expressions grow wary. You’ll reach into your wallet to brandish a photograph of a new puppy, and a friend will say, “Oh, no—not pictures.” You’ll find yourself struggling to decline an invitation for a getaway weekend—to a hotel or a spa or a family home, somewhere dogs are not permitted—and you’ll hear the words, “Just kennel the dog and come on down.” You’ll say something that implies profound affection or commitment, and you’ll be hit with a phrase, dreaded words to a dog lover, “Oh, please, it’s just a dog.”
More commonly, you’ll get vacant looks. A married friend who lives in Los Angeles, someone I don’t often see, was in town recently and came to my house for dinner. At one point, sitting in my living room, he looked around and asked me, “So what’s it like living alone? What’s it like getting up alone every morning and coming home every night to an empty house?” I was on the sofa, Lucille curled against my thigh. I pointed to the dog and said, “But, I’m not alone. I have her.” He said, “Yeah, but …” He didn’t finish the sentence, but he didn’t have to. He meant: Yeah, but a dog isn’t the same as a human. A dog doesn’t really count.
Attitudes like this can make dog lovers feel like members of a secret society, as though we’re inhabiting a strange and somehow improper universe. Not long ago, over dinner with a non-dog friend named Lisa, I started talking about Lucille, and how important her presence had been to me during the breakup of a long-term relationship. The breakup was recent, and it was long and painful and scary, as such things are, and at one point I said quite candidly, “I’m not sure I would have been able to face the loss if I hadn’t had the dog.”
This seemed like a perfectly reasonable statement to me—I tend to take my attachment to her for granted these days, as a simple and central fact of life—but Lisa’s eyes widened a little when I said it. She said, “Wait a minute. You’re scaring me.”
Scaring her? I looked at Lisa, aware of a sudden sense of dissonance, as though I’d just exposed too much. It was an uh-oh feeling. Uh-oh, she doesn’t live in that world, she probably thinks I’m wacko.
So I took a deep breath and tried to explain. This is a complicated task, trying to describe how a relationship with a dog can be healthy and sustaining and rich. It’s hard even trying to explain that the attachment does, in fact, qualify as a relationship, a genuine union between two beings who communicate with, respect, and give to one another. Unless you fall back on the one or two pat explanations we routinely trot out in order to explain the canine place in the human heart—dogs give us unconditional love, dogs are “good companions”—it’s hard to talk about loving a dog deeply without inviting skepticism. A lot of people, quite frankly, think intense attachments to animals are weird and suspect, the domain of people who can’t quite handle attachments to humans.
So there was a good deal I didn’t tell Lisa. I didn’t talk about what a central force in my life Lucille has become in the years since I acquired her. I didn’t talk about how I basically structure my life around the dog, organizing the day around the morning walk, the noon walk, the evening outing. I didn’t tell her how much I think about Lucille, how much I hate leaving her alone when I have to go out, how I’ve either written off or vastly reduced my involvement in activities that don’t include her—shopping, movies, trips that involve air travel. I didn’t use words like joy or love or affection, although it’s safe to say that Lucille has given me direct and vivid access to all those feelings.
Nor did I tell Lisa how much I need the dog, which might have been the most honest thing to say. Lucille came into my life in the aftermath of a period of enormous upheaval. In the three years before I got her, both my parents had died, my father of a brain tumor and my mother of metastatic breast cancer. Eighteen months to the day before I got her, I’d quit drinking, ending a twenty-year relationship with alcohol, and opening up a third abyss in my life. So I was wandering around at the time in a haze of uncertainty, blinking up at the biggest questions: Who am I without parents and without alcohol? How to make my way in the world without access to either? How to form attachments, and where to find comfort, in the face of such daunting vulnerability? Lucille has been a fundamental part of my answer to those questions: in her, I have found solace, joy, a bridge to the world.
But I didn’t go into all that with Lisa. Instead, I used safe descriptions, clinical terms. I talked about loneliness, and how Lucille’s presence had helped ease the fear and emptiness that accompany a major breakup. I gave the dogs-as-pack-animals speech, explaining how dogs’ need for social structure really does turn them into family members of sorts, highly relational creatures who look to their owners for leadership and guidance and companionship. I talked about what a comforting presence she is, how much pleasure I get out of walking in the woods with her, watching her play, even just sitting beside her while she’s curled up on the sofa at home.
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.
I understand the temptation to pathologize such behavior, or at least to poke fun at it (dogs in birthday hats?), but I don’t believe that dog owners are unilaterally engaged in displacement, sublimation, or rampant anthropomorphism. Nor do I see this apparent depth of attachment as a sad commentary on contemporary human affairs. This is another common view, that people turn to pets for love and affection by default, because “real” (read: human) love and affection are so hard to come by in today’s fractured, isolated, alienating world. I think there is a kernel of truth to that—we live in lonely times, and dogs can go a long way toward alleviating loneliness—but I think the more important truth has to do not with modern culture but with dogs themselves, and with the remarkable, mysterious, often highly complicated dances that go on between individual dogs and their owners.
That dance is about love. It’s about attachment that’s mutual and unambiguous and exceptionally private, and it’s about a kind of connection that’s virtually unknowable in human relationships because it’s essentially wordless. It’s not always a smooth and seamless dance, and it’s not always easy or graceful—love can be a conflicted, uncertain experience no matter what species it involves—but it is no less valid because one of the partners happens to move on four legs.
“Love is love. I don’t care if it comes from humans or from animals: it’s the same feeling.” Paula, a forty-seven-year-old children’s book author who lives in Los Angeles with three Maltese dogs, said this to me with such simple candor the words stuck with me for days. She continued: “When I’m feeling bad or thinking about something I can’t handle, I pick up my dogs and it helps for that moment. It may not be the perfect relationship we all hope to have with a human, but it’s a relationship. And love is love.”
Indeed. Just this morning, I came into the house after being out for an hour or so and found Lucille nestled in a corner of the sofa, her favorite spot when I’m away. She didn’t race across the room to greet me—she’s sufficiently accustomed to my comings and goings by now that she no longer feels compelled to fly to the door and hurl herself onto me as though I’ve just returned from the battlefield—but when I came into the room and approached her, her whole body seemed to tighten into a smile: the pointed ears drew flat back, the tail thumped against the sofa cushion, the eyes gleamed, the expression took on a depth and clarity that suggested, Happy; I am completely happy. A friend says her dog seems to wake up every morning with a thought balloon over her head that says, Yahoo! That was precisely the look: All is right with the world, it said, you are home. I crouched down by the sofa to scratch her chest and coo at her, and she hooked her front paw over my forearm. She gazed at me; I gazed back.
I have had Lucille for close to three years, but moments like that, my heart fills in a way that still strikes me with its novelty and power. The colors come into sharp focus: attached, connected, joyful, us. I adore this dog, without apology. She has changed my life.
From Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs © 1998 by Caroline Knapp; published by Dial Press. This essay also appears in Dog Is My Co-Pilot, an anthology compiled by the Editors of Bark and published by Crown.
Photo by Mark Morelli