As you may have noticed, I love my dog to bits. In fact, if I were to be perfectly honest here, I would have to say that I can count the number of people I love as much on the fingers of one hand, and I would probably have quite a few fingers to spare. It is an uncomplicated relationship. I love him, he loves me back, end of story. There is none of that monkey business that seems to characterize human relationships, but there is one part of that statement that sometimes gives me pause: the fact that I still refer to him as ‘my dog’. Is that possessive the same as the one in ‘my friend’, or ‘my mom’, or is it fundamentally different? One thing losing Terri made abundantly clear to me is that, as far as the law is concerned, my dog remains a thing, that he is my property, nothing more, and nothing less. It is a thought that makes me deeply uncomfortable. It is also one I can’t honestly say I am entirely above.
I still remember being nine and going on vacation with my parents. There were two cabins on the same plot, sharing a yard and a swimming pool, my family and I were renting one, and there was a guy I had never met before renting the second one. I think he was a college student, or something like that. He was young, but still clearly ancient by my nine-year-old standards. Anyway, the guy had a black mutt named Nile with him, and I asked him if that was his dog. His reply was one that has stayed with me all these years. He said ‘he is my friend, and he is my companion, but he is not my dog, not like you are thinking, because you don’t own your friends.’ At nine that answer went zooming right over my head. Today I can understand what he was trying to tell me, the problem is that I also realize that, well meaning as that answer may be, it is not that simple.
Whether we like it or not we have certain expectations with regards to our dogs’ behavior, and there are also a whole bunch of legal requirements we have to satisfy. Failure to do so can literally cost our four-legged friends their lives. They live in the world of men, and those are the rules they have to follow. They are not rules that were written with a dog’s best interest in mind. That means we have to train them so that they can function in our world, only training a dog is not the same as raising a child.
For our dogs many of our rules are anathema to their nature, and yet they must be made to obey. We have to break them to our will, whether we like it or not, and no matter how gentle we try to be, there is always a degree of violence implicit in that act.
I see it with my boy every day when it comes to something as basic as walking on a leash.
Oh, I realize that when it comes to that one part of the problem is that he is a born stray, and as such he was not confronted with that particular torture device until he was fully grown. For a puppy things are unlikely to be quite so bad, but my dog hates that leash with a passion. In fact it is something that causes more problems than it solves, as while he is usually very laid back, he is also leash reactive. It is only natural. He used to be free, and in his mind now he is trapped. He has a fight or flight response that is deeply ingrained, and he knows it can’t be flight. I have taken that option from him, so the one he is left with is fight. From a dog’s perspective that response makes perfect sense. In fact a behavioral expert once told me not to put him on a leash until he learned to associate me with safety. He said that the moment he came to me when scared would be the moment I would be able to leash him without stressing him because he would feel secure by my side. Try explaining that to a cop. The law is the law, and the law says dogs must be leashed, end of story.
It is not my choice, but I have no way of letting him know that, and that leash, it does so much more than keep him firmly attached to my wrist (and to threaten to have my arm torn from my body, but that’s a different story). It is a constant source of tension we could most definitely do without… and I do mean literally. It also means that I am in charge, that he is not free to go sniffing wherever he pleases. Our walks become my walks. I set the pace –one that most definitely doesn’t suit him– and he is reduced to being a mere passenger. It is a process neither one of us is particularly keen on, but again, it is the law of man, and we have no choice but to comply.
And that brings us back to the question of my dog, because as much as I don’t want to claim ownership over my best friend, as much as I wish I could live by that guy’s maxim (sorry, I was nine, I may remember his dog’s name, I certainly spent enough hours playing with that mutt over the course of that vacation, but he was just another human, another boring adult, and as such he was nowhere near as memorable), the truth is that I can’t. In fact at times I find myself claiming ownership over my dog without even realizing it, and that is not just an issue with Latte, but also with all the dogs I’ve had before, especially Terri… or maybe it was an incident that happened the evening before I lost him that really got to me.
He had been misbehaving that day, to the point that I lost my temper with him. A few hours later I went down to the beach to watch the sunset as I always do. There was a guy there with a puppy, maybe five months old. I was not a fan of the way he was treating her. It was not abuse, not quite, but in my mind it came close. Still, what really bothered me was what I heard him telling his friend, about how the dog had to learn who was in charge, how she was old enough to be broken to his will. Those were his words, and I knew he would do just that. That as far as he was concerned that was the most natural thing in the world, and the mere thought of what that truly entailed left me absolutely horrified, to the point that it made me almost physically sick. When I got home I looked into Terri’s eyes and apologized, realizing that whether I wanted to or not, I had been doing the same thing to him all along. I had spent years effectively trying to bend him to my will, and I promised I would do better. I don’t know if he understood me. I do know I meant it at the time. I do know I was determined to show him, but I never got the chance, so I try to do better with Latte, but it’s a struggle. I find my patience being stretched thin when he pulls on his leash, when he wants to go chasing after scents I can’t even begin to comprehend, so I yank him back, I yell at him… I go back to trying to bend him to my will, to make him my dog, and then I think about it, promising myself that I will do better… until the next pull comes.