Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Friday, December 07, 2007

Dogs don't have existential crises. Lucky bastards.

Thomas the Dog stares at his mobile food dispenser,
who has inexplicably produced a camera instead of a treat.

On these issues, I'm with author Jon Katz*. I'm not one of those people who thinks of her dogs as her kids. That would be an insult to my kid. And, come to think of it, to my dogs. My dogs are one of the purest, simplest joys in my life. I don't have to worry whether my dogs are going to grow into empathetic, decent folks. I don't worry about whether they are going to inherit my neuroses, or whether they will still call and visit in twenty years. Yes, I want to make sure I train them well, and teach them to live and get along in a human world that often doesn't understand their animal nature. But they do not carry my heart around in the way that my son does, and I have never awakened in the middle of the night wondering whether I'm doing right by them.

Perhaps I adore them so much precisely because they are not a part of me in the way my son is. They are a thing apart. Parenting the Kid is something that runs as deeply as anything can go. It's complex, rich and often frightening in its intensity.

I would do no service to my animals by trying to place such a framework on my interactions with them. To do so would be to project my own thoughts and feelings onto them. But they are different creatures, and absolutely not human. And thank goodness for that.

I try not to anthropomorphize my animals, at least in a way that can hurt them. People can and do hurt their pets by assuming they think and feel like humans. (No, your dog did not destroy your living room while you were out because it was angry with you for leaving.) Now, its probably impossible not to do that a little bit, because the line is so unclear -- animals clearly have their own characters or, to use the anthropocentric term, their own personalities. And they clearly do have emotions, though perhaps not of the same complexity as people, and their emotions do not interact, like ours do, with an established sense of cause and effect.

Make no mistake. My dog arrived at his "love" for me through the fact that I take care of him. He views me first and foremost as a mobile food dispenser.

But so what? Too many people would decry that statement as minimizing the depth of the human-animal bond. I don't think it does. After all, that's how my son thought of me for the first year of his life. And I don't think that's the sum of the human-animal interaction, of course. I've seen too much to the contrary to believe that.

But my dogs are not people. That's what makes them so wonderful.

*If you like dogs, farm animals, rural anything, art or life, start reading this guy. I'm thrilled because he just stated on his blog that his next book will be about his border collie, Rose, who is the dog of his that fascinates me the most. You may not end up liking him, or the decisions he makes (though I don't feel that way), but you will love his stories. I talked about Katz's work briefly here, and go here to see what his book A Good Dog did to me.


Anonymous said...

Yeah I guess it depends if you have kids or not. To me, my animals are like my kids. When Rascal died I wasin't right for four months. And only was I better afterwards because I got a Tootinheimer. But of course it would hurt more to loose a child don't get me wrong. I'm just saying that for people like me, animals take the place of a kid.

True they are different and I'm still figuring out my cat. Not to mention I have never had a cat before. I had dogs and ferrets and Cats are totally different. But mayby I'll be an expert in a few years. I certainly haven't figured him out in a few months.

Have you ever seen Year of the Dog?

Sometimes I wish I were somebodies pet. You don't have to worry about things like "Where am I goign to be At 60? What have I accomplished in life? Why am I here?" or any other questions like that. ALl you know is someone will take care of you. But then again I would want to be a pet that was well taken care of. Because if you were an abused animal I think that would be the worst! And there would be nothing you could do about it. Just love your master and get beaten in return.


Trailhead said...

Yeah I guess it depends if you have kids or not. To me, my animals are like my kids.

I get what you're saying. My point isn't even really that either relationship is somehow inherently more valuable, or that the loss of one hurts more than the other. Or even that a relationship with an animal can't be one's primary relationship. I think that happens for many people in many different situations.

It's that those the relationships are ultimately different. The relationship I have with my dogs is actually free of a lot of the anguish that comes with my relationship with my kid, and that's what I mean by the purest, simplest joy.

In my own awkward way, this is actually a tribute to my dogs: Thank you, guys, for not being human. I adore you.

Trailhead said...

I've never seen Year of the Dog. Good?

And the first part of your last paragraph is a better way to say what I was saying in the post title!

Anonymous said...

I loved "Year of the Dog." But I also saw it after Rascal died. It was thereputic for anyone who has ever lost a pet, oops I just gave away the whole movie but I believe the mention this in the preview. I'ts with Molly Shannon and it's basically the way this woman changes after her dog died. She found herself where as before her outlet was taking care of this dog. It's, in my opinion an origional movie. I've never seen a movie about the loss of a pet. It's funny too! And the guy she almost hooks up with? He is SO UGLY it's painfull! That was one of the funny things because her girlfriend tells her "Maybe your dog died for a reason. So you can find true love with this man? Is he good looking?"

Molly Shannon ( or her charecter)"Well.." while twisting her face.

I recommend it! I also bawled my eyeballs out, had to put them back in, over that Disney Pixar movie about the Rat who wanted to become a French Chef? I forgot how you spell it but he reminded me of Rascal. Even thought Rascal was a ferret different breed I know. But he looked like him. I'm the only one who cries over this happy Disney cartoon

Have a great weekend!


kris said...

This may have hit a little close to home. When my kids were younger I think I felt the same way you described. I loved our animals, but certainly not to the extent that they were on the same level as our sons.

However, now as an empty-nester, yes, I have woken up in the middle of the night worried about something I did or didn't do. I do lay human behavior on them when they are just being themselves.

I agree with you, however - and I think I need to realign my thinking. Our dogs are treated very well - but they deserve to be just dogs - faithful companions - fed on time - walked - played with. They seem to be pretty happy just being dogs - lucky buggers don't need all this other stuff laid on them!!

Kristy said...

I'll have to check him out. I haven't read Katz. I read the comments on your older posts tonight, and was surprised to see you were married to him at one time. I hope he didn't euthanize anyone on your watch. I'll keep an eye out for the book about Rose. I'm pretty new to the dog stuff myself, so any education is helpful.

Trailhead said...

Kristy, go out ASAP and purchase "Katz on Dogs." It's really informed my thinking. I don't agree with everything Katz does or every outlook he has, but he has a remarkably relaxed yet common sense approach to things.

Kris, I'm struggling with this, because you're making the same point as Toots did above, and I don't really disagree with either of you. I don't think there's anything wrong with nurturing dogs closely and warmly in a way akin to parenting, as long as, like you said, you're not laying things on them they're not prepared or able to deal with.

Trailhead said...

And Kris, it's funny. I don't think I know of anyone who's as close to his dogs as Jon Katz is. But I think the reason he's able to have such a profound relationship with his animals is that he tries very hard not to treat them like people. It's remarkable, really.

KCB said...

I like Jon Katz' work. I've read a few of his books and just checked out "Dog Days." The book that affected me most was "The New Work of Dogs" where he probes the variety of emotional bonds that people have with their dogs.

I second the notion that even babies view mama as a mobile feeding device. One time I came home from a class and my hub told me our 1-year-old nursling had asked for me while I was out. Not by asking for 'mommy' but by asking 'are boobies home?'

Trailhead said...

Your kids are hilarious, btw. I'm definitely Rocketboy and Hurricanehead groupies.

I haven't read the New Work of Dogs, but I'll get there. I really want to read Running to the Mountain, which is about the mountain cabin he had before the farm. Considering that I run to a mountain house myself, it's on my list.

Anonymous said...

As long as we are talking about animal minds,

My friend came over and told me my cat was depressed because he was on low movement that day. I think he could have just been upset that she was in my seat. He sat in his seat, which is right next to the spot I usually sit on the coutch and just stared at me.

How do you know when a cat is depressed? She told me I need to buy him another cat. I'd rather not. My allergies, he's 8 and I don't know how they'd get along, its a gambel.

I mean, he's eating, he sleeps with me, he plays, sometimes he just lounges all day, what are signs of Kitty depression?

It's not like he lays back on the sofa, with his little paw over his eyes Sigh Meow...

I think sometimes she just feels the need to fix something, broken or not.


Trailhead said...

That sounds to me like a case of projection or anthropomorphizing, one or the other. Or maybe both.

You know your cat better than anyone else. And if you don't think Kitty T. is depressed, then I wouldn't worry about it. I mean, we're talking about a cat. Cats aren't always active or effusive.

And sometimes, getting a second cat can be a dicey proposition. I think often it's a lot harder to get a good match with a second cat than with a second dog.