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.
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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.
Rex is not the only dog in the neighborhood carrying this kind of burden. When we go walking in the park—and our proximity to these 600 acres of trails is the primary reason I depleted my savings to buy a house here—we encounter many others like us. The dogs are overwhelmingly mixed breeds that, unlike Rex, have been rescued off the streets or from shelters. The owners are overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly single. Like me, they have purchased homes in this neighborhood not only for the disheveled charms of the overgrown vegetation and absurdly steep and narrow streets but because this is an indisputably “dog-friendly” place. Flyers advertising dog walkers, pet sitters, subsidized spaying and neutering, and lost and found animals are perpetually pinned to telephone polls. An organized alliance of concerned pet owners (though they prefer the term “human guardian”) maintains a lively online message board, gathers food and bedding donations for local shelters, and runs a “pet photos with Santa” booth every year at the neighborhood holiday crafts fair.
I call this group the Dog Squad. I suppose I’m one of them, though the extent to which I want to be swings on a sort of pendulum between my visceral love for animals and the remaining vestiges of my ability to be rational about the way the world works. It bears mentioning that in addition to being mostly female and mostly single, the members of the Dog Squad are overwhelmingly Caucasian and middle to upper-middle class. That is to say, we’ve bought or rented homes in this neighborhood mostly in the last decade, which is roughly how long it’s been since the neighborhood began to shake off its reputation for having some of the worst gang violence in the city. We are the ones paying upwards of $500,000 for small bungalows because we know more of us are coming and despite the shifts in the market, the values are only going up. We are the ones with the hybrid cars and the Democratic-candidate signs in our yards, the ones on whom no one will ever file a noise complaint, the ones who place a simple wreath on the door at Christmastime rather than an entire team of high-wattage reindeer in our yard. We are the ones who don’t care how crappy the public schools are because we either don’t have school-age kids or, if we do, make a second career out of finding private or magnet schools that offer German classes and diving teams.
This is a fairly standard portrait of gentrification, of course. You’ll find it from Brooklyn, New York, to Oakland, California, and minus a few regional specifics, it all looks pretty much the same. This neighborhood, for its part, has always straddled the line between the bohemian mythology of its radical leftist roots and the majority rule of the Spanish-speaking immigrant population that has dominated it since the 1960s. On balance, tensions around here don’t run as high as you’d think. The white people, even the recent gentrifiers (among whose ranks I have no choice but to count myself) define themselves in distinct opposition to the kinds of white people who live in L.A.’s pricier areas. Our combination of earnestness (we have a pottery studio and a weekly antiwar rally) and tough, urban-pioneer posturing (we have green-haired hipsters smoking outside the coffee shop) gives us a liberal, egalitarian sheen you tend not to see in quieter, more manicured communities.
But my status as both a white person and a dog owner (I’ll continue to say “owner,” if only to convince myself I haven’t joined the cult entirely) has made me complicit in a pernicious kind of bigotry. More than once I have found myself entangled in a “rescue operation” involving a dog whose guardians have been deemed unsuitable by the Dog Squad. Depending on which Squad member you ask, “unsuitability” can run the gamut from having a debris-strewn yard to not registering adequate concern when the dog is found to be wandering the neighborhood. Depending on how politically correct that Squad member is, the underpinnings of these issues will either be chalked up to vague assertions like “people are so irresponsible” or the thornier—and more honest—recognition that what we’re dealing with has less to do with animals than with a treacherous gulf between two cultures.
Though most Squadders won’t say it out loud, the majority of the pet owners who are deemed unfit are economically disadvantaged, Latino immigrants from countries where dogs run loose as a matter of course. Though most Squadders would sooner trade their Priuses for Hummers than admit to racism, there is little denying that their work load (or do I mean “our” work load?) would be significantly lighter if not for the fact that even though we live in the United States, a good portion of our neighbors are still playing by the rules of Central America. This begs the question of whether, when we rescue a dog, we’re really saving an animal or merely attempting to save our culture while disregarding someone else’s.
My best guess is that it’s a little of both. It would be entirely wrong to suggest that all or even half of the Latinos in this neighborhood are letting their dogs roam the streets. In fact, most are as responsible and loving (if not as self-congratulatory about it) as the Dog Squadders themselves. And to their credit, the Squadders go to great lengths to solve these problems without running roughshod over the humans who have ostensibly caused them. They will offer to walk neighbors’ dogs themselves, procure vouchers for free spaying and neutering, and assist in finding good homes for pets whose owners need to surrender them. They maintain relations with the Department of Animal Control, work with the dogs of homeless people, and build fences and dog runs for neighbors who can’t afford them.
But I cannot ignore the fact that every time I’ve joined forces with the Dog Squad to help an animal in need, I’ve found myself feeling less like a Good Samaritan than a crazy white lady who needs to get a life. I’ve provided foster care for dogs who needed homes, taken my neighbors’ dog to the vet for neutering, and jumped out of my car more times than I can count to scoop a wayward dog away from oncoming traffic. But when I look out my window, past the fence that confines my dog and into the valley of quiet streets below my house, I can’t help but see a free-running dog as a thing of fragile beauty. And every time I’ve assisted in the “re-homing” of one of these animals to a place that will offer a fence and stuffed toys and, I hope, a little love to go along with the amenities, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. I wonder if I’m making life better for this dog or simply preserving the value of my real estate.
To be honest about the conditions of any dog’s life requires being honest about the conditions of our own dogs’ lives. And as most urban dog owners know, this sort of assessment is little more than a series of small lies we tell ourselves so that we may continue to function as human beings in the modern world. I can tell myself that Rex’s quality of life is somewhere in the 90th percentile—he’s developed a taste for sushi, he accompanies me to the redwoods, he is the recipient of no end of tummy scratching and gooey declarations of love—but the truth is that any measure of his happiness can only be calibrated in relation to my own. I can tell myself that our happiness is symbiotic, that I take pleasure from his apparent pleasure so it all works out in the end, but that would be an insult to his truest essence, which is not that of a love object or even a pet but, simply, a dog.
How does one love a dog and respect it at the same time? The answer, I suspect, is that we cannot. As humans, we are genetically programmed to give love in a singularly human way. We can, of course, choose to extend that love to animals, but to presume that that affection translates into anything resembling the way we experience love is to cross the line between keeping our pets safe from harm and keeping our hearts safe from loneliness. There is a reason I fell (and continue to fall) so easily in step with the blurred logic of the Dog Squadders: Like me, they are women who live alone; who’ve make their own way in the world; and who, by choice or circumstance, have channeled their inherent nurturing instincts not on children or even men, but on dogs. As it has with me, the hard work of this kind of independence has made them blind to the privilege that bequeathed it.
There is no doubt in my mind that dogs should not be allowed to run loose in city streets. But I say that knowing that my own dog’s life changed for the worse the minute I brought him inside the farmhouse on that chilly afternoon seven years ago. Though it would be more than a year before I’d leave the farm, I knew then that his days as a free-range dog were numbered. I knew I’d eventually do not what was best for him but what was best for me, and that all the bed-sharing and doggie playdates and expensive groomers in the world would never give him half as good a life as he’d had when, like the dogs I now see fit to “rescue,” he lived in perpetual danger of getting run over on the road. I knew then, as I know now, that when he looked in the mirror on that first day indoors, he was seeing not himself or even another dog, but the reflection of insatiable human need. We call that love, but there is no love that doesn’t come at the cost of some degree of freedom. To love our dogs is to hope they love us back enough that it was worth their sacrifice.
This essay originally appeared in Howl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit, an anthology assembled by the editors of Bark and published by Crown (2007).