What Dogs Mean to Us
From the beginning of human memory, dogs have been living with virtually every human society on earth. Some Native American myths take the associate back even earlier. The Creator God of the Chahto people of Californica took along his dog as he went around creating the world and humans and constantly talked to it. Apparently the Chahtos could not conceive of a (quasi) human going around without a dog. It promptly asked for a companion, and the god created the first man and pronounced him “Pretty good.” “He’s wonderful!” said the dog. When the man started to move and laugh, the dog “jumped up on him and ran off a little, and ran back and jumped on him…the way dogs do today when they are full of love and delight.” For more than ten thousand years, humans have depended on dogs to help them hunt, herd their flocks, and guard their homes. During this time, the social primate and the social carnivore have formed the deepest emotional bonds. The dog became a member of the human family; the human felt a more intimate companionship with the dog than with any other animal.
The dog found a pack that fulfilled its emotional and physical needs, with a wise and powerful pack leader who could offer it more effective care and protection than an alpha wolf could. The human found a child who remained dependent and admiring and never grew up to criticize or abandon its parents, a servant who cheerfully accepted a state of servitude and was grateful for a pat or a plate of scraps, a companion who could be relied on to delight in the company of its human friends. Carlotta O’Neill remarked that the family Dalmatian, on whom Eugene O’Neill wrote a tender epitaph, was “the only one of our children who has not disillusioned us.”
We count on a dog’s love and trust; we are confident that we understand what it is feeling and thinking and that it sympathizes with our feelings. And yet at the same time, it offers a connection with the natural world outside of human conventions and human interpretations. It responds directly to sounds and scents we cannot even perceive, without attempting to fit them into human intellectual or cultural frameworks. Dogs offer Mark Derr “a certain calm, a connection to the broader world we call nature, a world beyond human control. They remind me that the human way of viewing reality is circumscribed by our senses, our bipedalism, our brains.”
Humans are bound by egotistical self-consciousness and by their need to apply standards of rationality or sophistication, morality or social appropriateness. We find release in the company of dogs, who are happily oblivious to such inhibitions. Sigmund Freud normally would not sing because he knew he could not carry a tune. But while stroking his beloved chow Jo-fi, he often found himself humming an aria from Don Giovanni. When we need to talk to someone even though we have nothing significant to say, we can prattle on to our dog and know it will not think we are silly. We can caress and murmur sweet nothings to it without suspecting ourselves of mawkishness. We can reach out and touch a dog when we feel an impulse for physical contact, as we would never think of doing to a human. We can relax with dogs as we cannot with other humans, except small children. “Our need to self-censor vanishes in their company…in a sense, we are allowed to enter the physical world the way they do: openly, without self-consciousness.”
By their amiable obliviousness to human reservations and sensibilities, dogs can dissolve human tensions. Jerome K. Jerome describes an unfortunate party where the six ladies invited belonged to different sets. They sat in two antagonistic groups until the family Newfoundland barged in. He saw that one group was sitting on one side of a screen, one on the other, thought, “That’s not a neatly arranged drove by people,” and forthwith knocked down the screen. After the resulting confusion, laughter, and apologies, “those six ladies were hopelessly herded together, the dog sitting eyeing them with contentment.” Then “he went in and out among them; he literally bullied them into friendship.”
Untroubled by the human need for critical evaluation, dogs can single-mindedly enjoy their dinner or their walk without fretting about higher or more important things or being bored by pleasures that happen the same way every day; the same how and field are new and exciting each time. Dogs can focus totally on the smells and sounds of their surroundings, without thinking of what happened two months ago or what might happen two months hence. With your dog, “You find yourself exercising two skills that are so elusive in the human world; the ability to live in the present, and the ability to share silence. Snapshot of peace.” Although we cannot simply delight in the pleasure of the moment without thinking about it, as dogs do, their enthusiasm can make us forget our preoccupations for a while and share their pleasure. Harold Monro watches his dog running joyfully ahead of him on a walk and regaling itself with the exciting smells, and tells it, “You carry our bodies forward away from mind / Into the light and fun of your useless day.” Dogs are loving and beloved friends whose company we can enjoy free of the artificial conventions and complicated demands of human society.
The fact that we cannot communicate with dogs through words can actually improve our rapport. Dogs respond intensely to our feelings without even expecting an explanation, as a human listener inevitable would. W.H. Auden appreciated his dog’s absolutely unquestioning sympathy, given with no need to know the dreary details of an unhappy situation or who is to blame for it.
Jerome playfully explained the advantages of an inarticulate companion over the most congenial human: a dog will “not quarrel or argue with you. They never talk about themselves but listen to you while you talk about yourself, and keep up an appearance of being interested in the conversation. They never make stupid remarks,” or tactless or unkind ones. “They never tell us our faults…a dog…never makes it his business to inquire whether you are in the right or in the wrong, never bothers as to whether you are going up or down life’s ladder.”
Dogs are not troubled by the ambivalence that plagues almost all human relationships; as Freud said, they love their friends and bite their enemies. They offer us love that is not complicated by the calculation and critical examination engendered by human thought processes. And therefore we can feel the same simple love for them that they do for us. Cathy, the young businesswoman in Cathy Guisewite’s comic strip, has only one totally unambivalent relationship in her life; with her dog, Electra. She and her sometime beau Irving cannot avoid quarrels and misunderstandings, but they have no problem feeling and expressing love to their dogs. When Irving is going away for a few days and leaves his dog, Vivian, with Cathy, he hugs the dog, assures her he will call her twice a day, and tells her how very much he loves and will miss her. To Cathy, who stands expectantly with open arms, he mumbles, “Sorry. I’m just no good at goodbyes.” On his return, Vivian sits in a chair and resolutely ignores him. Cathy explains, “She’s punishing you for going away…She actually thinks that if she just lies there glaring and sulking, you’ll come groveling!” “Of course I’ll grovel! Come here, Baby!” I’m groveling!” he responds, while Cathy thinks, “So much to learn from our animal friends.”