|This article was written for the December 2009 issue of Dogs Today.|
Dogs are truly maddening.
Think about it.
We call them "Man's Best Friend," but if any other friend pissed and crapped in the house, yelled loudly early in the morning, stole our food, humped our leg, ate poop, and then tried to kiss us, we would brick them in the head in short order.
And yet with dogs we pay good money for veterinary care and fencing. We pay extra money so our houses will have yards that are big enough to accommodate them, and we let the dogs determine not only what time we get up in the morning, but how quickly we return home at night.
If this is not the definition of madness, I don't know what it.
If the big drug companies would make a pill to cure this, you know our spouses would buy it in bulk!
So what is it about dogs? What is the hole in the soul that they seem to fill? And why does this infatuation with dogs seem to be an affectation of modern "Western" culture not shared the world over?
What? Modern western culture?
Yes, I got that right.
Look around the world to Africa, Asia and Latin America, and you will find far fewer dogs in the kitchen or sleeping at the foot of the bed than you do in Europe or North America.
Go through the Bible, and you will find little mention of dogs, and what is said is almost entirely negative.
In Islam, keeping dogs as pets is prohibited, and if dog saliva touches your skin, that spot must be washed seven times.
In many Asian countries, dogs are still treated as an occasional food item.
Can any of this be a great surprise?
Think about it.
Before we had sewage systems, fenced yards, and curb-side trash removal, dogs were seen -- on a daily basis -- as feral animals scavenging in dumps, plagued by fleas and ticks, and carrying the possibility of rabies.
Who wanted any of that?
Yes, dogs might be kept as pets by the elite who could afford another mouth to feed, but the poor did not have pampered pets, did they?
Yes, there were village and farm dogs to keep rodents at bay, and to hunt, herd, or ward off petty thieves, but these animals had very hard lives.
Dog food? It was whatever bit of fatty meat, old bread, or kitchen scraps that could be poached or begged.
A place to sleep? A porch, barn, or old barrel would do.
The real heyday for dogs, then, has occurred in the last 300 years, and only in Europe, North America, and Australia.
The driving force in the ascent of dogs has been rising incomes, a burgeoning middle class, increasing amounts of public services, and basic advances in health care.
With the advent of a rabies vaccine, dogs have become less of a terror.
With the rise of the middle class, more and more people had the financial means to acquire and feed dogs.
With the start of organized bureaucracies came street-side refuse collection, and animal control officers.
Feral dogs were no longer seen scouring the edges of dumps, and hydrophobia was no longer a pressing concern.
A real breakthrough for dogs occurred about 130 years ago when really effective flea and tick preventatives came on to the market. Now dogs were starting to make it past the front door and into the parlor.
The advent of fenced yards and dogs doors were real game-changers.
Fenced suburban yards, meant every family could have their own dog without worrying about it running off, biting a neighbor, or getting pregnant.
Dog doors -- a very recent phenomenon -- meant dogs were no longer out of sight in yard, garage or kennel -- they were right at our feet as we watched TV and ate our dinner.
Is it any wonder the human-dog connection has become so strong in recent decades?
Overlaying all of this, of course, has been an increasing sense of anomie in Western society as extended families have shattered into smaller units, people have become more mobile, and jobs have become more temporary.
In this increasingly anonymous and less stable world, dogs have given many people the sense of connection and emotional stability they crave.
And how could they not?
To our dogs, we are never just one more face in the crowd, and we are never boring.
After we come home from work, our spouse and friends are just as drained as we are. But the dog? He's bouncing out of his skin to see us.
HELLO! So HAPPY to see you! You are the KING of my world. Let me give you a wet wiggly KISS!
How could anyone say no?
Dogs, it turns out, are like a universal spanner for the human psyche; they fit every type of nut.
Are you feeling powerless at work? Has your teenager told you, that you are not the boss of him?
No matter. With only a little training, your dog will return a ball, roll over, climb a ladder, or "speak" on command. You can be the boss of him!
Are you new in town?
Not a problem. Take your newly trained dog to the local park, and you will meet all kinds of people in short order.
Are you without children?
No worries. Your dog can be your "fur baby," and you will never need to save for college, or pay a weekly allowance.
Do you long to be creative, but have no real talent?
No problem. You can become a dog breeder. No talent is needed to do that, and not much knowledge.
Feeling a bit common?
Not a problem. You can get a Borzoi or some other exotic, rare or storied breed, and associate yourself with royalty, romance, or an intrepid lifestyle.
Are you a frustrated hair dresser?
Perfect! There are dozens of breeds for you, from Yorkies to Standard Poodles, and from Rough Collies to Gordon Setters.
Do you long for a "sport" to call your own, but you are so out of shape you get winded reaching for a cigarette?
Not a problem. Dog showing is for you! You can buy a dog, pay a groomer, and hire a "handler" to walk it around the ring.
Do you need to get away from the family a few hours a week?
Easily done. Get a hunting dog, and disappear into thickets and fields for hours at a time.
Do you have trouble with communication?
No problem. A human with a 500-word vocabulary is a veritable Shakespeare to a dog.
And so we come, full circle, to the madness of dogs. It seems we put up with the difficult parts of dog ownership because we need the other things that dogs provide -- a sense of belonging, connection, communication, importance, and command.
At so, at the end of our lives, many of us will look back and measure our life in dogs.
We will not remember the names of the people we worked with, our neighbors from a decade earlier, or anyone we dated in grade school.
But we will remember the names of every one of our dogs.