Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Friends and Family.

Back home from a two-week assignment in the lovely Fraser Valley, I'm basking in the attention of my two cats trying to climb on my lap from each side and confused about the laptop I've chosen instead. Maybe they just appreciate body heat now that it's cold and dreary, and maybe they do love me in some non-anthropomorphic way we'll never be able to fathom. They can't correct me even if I'm full of - something, so an animal's love is the easiest thing to assume and go on assuming. That's okay, because we're all human, or all animals, hence pretty weak and vulnerable, and we're going to insist we're loved even when someone in their meanness tells us otherwise. The anthropomorphism isn't going anywhere any time soon. So as a wise man once said, It's All Good.

What bothers me a bit is when a grown person says with perfect seriousness that their dog is their best friend. It's supposed to be a noble sentiment, right? It suggests this person is honest, pure, has had it with all the bullshit that exchanges hands between humans, and has turned to an honest and pure creature for companionship. The person becomes more noble by a sort of osmosis. (I was interested to find out that the phrase man's best friend was coined by George Graham Vest, a Confederate statesman and lawyer whose keen sense of justice as well as historical circumstances probably made him thoroughly disgusted with humans. The phrase was first used in Vest's courtroom argument that the killing of his client's hunting dog Old Drum constituted the loss of a true friend besides mere property damages.) I agree that dogs can often do a much better job at being people and that humans often suck at this, but I also think it's kind of a copout on our part to turn up our noses at fellow humans and pretend we're as honest and pure as dogs. But enough about us. Back to this alleged friendship, what's in it for the dog? Does the dog also think of the person as their best friend? Are we living up to our end of the unspoken bargain?

It's a huge act of arrogance to take a pack animal that thrives among its companions and put it among foreigners who don't speak the language, or speak a very broken version with a strong accent. It's just as arrogant as doing surgery. But you don't cut into a living body without meticulous preparation and taking precautions for healing afterwards, so why is it acceptable to throw a dog among humans and expect it to know what to do instinctively? It simply doesn't; it needs to be taught, and some teachers are much better than others. I've met rare and amazing pups who are very calm and dignified by nature, with the wisdom and near-indifference of grown wolves even at six weeks of age. They are deceptively low-maintenance because they don't yap or follow people around, but they need training and socialization just as much as any other pup. And most pups are not like this; most are exuberant, do not know what's expected of them, and will push the envelope to find out where they belong in the pack. Without training they get stuck in a groove of anxious and overactive childhood for the rest of their lives. In my perfect world it would be illegal to separate pups from each other and their mom until they are at least three months old, when they've had a chance to be educated as dogs through playing together and guidance from mom. In a less perfect world where consumerism rules and people insist on scooping up a pup as young as six weeks and raising it themselves, I'd make it a requirement to take that pup to dog kindergarten where it can at least observe other pups at play and learn the fine art of bite inhibition as well as getting the companionship of its own species. No offense, people, but we'll never do as good a job as the pup's own family. Training a dog can be a real bitch, so why not leave it to the real bitch, the dog's own mother and siblings? Back in the real world where veterinarians are often glorified janitors cleaning up genetic and behavioural messes we have no legal power to prevent, I do the best I can. I'm shamelessly over the top in my praise of owners who take their pups to kindergarten, or who have waited patiently and unselfishly for their new pup to grow with its own family before it was sold to them. I gently encourage breeders to make this a rule. It's a great joy to see a happy, well-trained dog whose owners have taken the trouble to learn its language and to speak it. Then I see a plethora of dogs for whom it may be too late because they've been smothered in completely misguided sentimentality, treated truly like the little fur people they are not. Some of these dogs cling in terror to their owners and cannot bear to be touched by anyone else; not only are they perpetual children, but perpetually unhappy and anxious children. There is hope for them if the owner realizes this is no way for a dog to be. But if they dote on the extreme dependence their dog has developed and see it as cute, there's not much to be done.

As I wrote this the sun started seeping through the fog, and I'm watching clouds being made on the slopes of Tantalus Range. The cats are asleep, exhausted by the effort of sitting and looking at each other across the keyboard. For now I will content myself with their companionship. Because although I would love the friendship of a dog, I'm not in a position to take one into my life at this time: I need to be much better prepared.