Dogs are good for us

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


How does anyone live without a dog?  I can’t imagine.   Adam Gopnik  writer and regular contributor to The New Yorker

The New Yorker has long been one of my ‘must read’ magazines.  In fact, on my first visit to Manhattan, the Algonquin Hotel* was at the top of my ‘sights to see and places to go’ list.  For many years between the wars, the Algonquin was a virtual back-office for contributors to Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.  They included Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S Kaufmann and Robert Sherwood among the many top-flight writers, critics and lyricists of the East Coast of America at that time.  I sat at the famed Round Table around which they all sat for so many hours and later had supper in the Oak Room, the famous and intimate venue for some of the worlds finest singers.  I listened to Susanna McCorkle, one of the most creative, innovative and beautiful jazz singers of the last century and still have the CDs she graciously signed for me.  She was an extraordinarily intelligent woman, a linguist and writer as well as a singer.  She was educated in America and lived in London during the 70s after a spell in Paris but like so many gifted people she suffered from depression and committed suicide in 2004.

I like to think that I can express myself reasonably well but I recognise that there are many with a greater facility and quicker understanding – probably of almost everything!  One of these is Adam Gopnik.  I feel a certain rapport with him for he was bitten by a German Shepherd when he was eight years old which, although the bite was not serious, led to him to avoid dogs as far as possible.  Coincidentally, that had been exactly my experience although my change of heart came when after four years of marriage, Angela insisted that the time had come for us to get a puppy.  It would not have been my choice but you know what wives are!  Adam Gopnick knows what daughters are.  He and his wife, who was on his side for she didn’t think much of dogs either, tried to fob off their 10 year old daughter Olivia with a fish, which died, and with a singing blue parakeet which she named Skyler – to no avail.  They felt, he writes, ‘as the Queen must when meeting a new an unpleasant Prime Minister: it isn’t what you want but it’s your constitutional duty to welcome and pretend’.

Olivia wanted a Havanese and nothing else would do.  He writes, ‘with the diligence of a renegade candidate pushing for a political post, she set about organising a campaign: quietly mustering pro-dog friends as a pressure group, introducing persuasive literature (Marley and Me) and demonstrating her reliability with bird care by looking after Skyler properly’.

Adam tells the story in a recent issue of The New Yorker and I have been thrilled (I use that word advisedly) with his seven page article which has encouraged me to believe that the media and nationally recognised and successful journalists cannot be all bad.  I have seldom read a more enjoyable, positive and understanding piece of writing about dogs.  In the year since Butterscotch was purchased (from a New York pet shop) she has not just taken over their lives but has encouraged Adam to really undertake some in-depth research to try to discover what it is about dogs that makes them so close to people.  And the result is a staggeringly good read which is balanced, thoughtful and sensible.  ‘Why was it’, he asks, ‘that all the creature wanted to do was to please?  ‘Butterscotch wanted to know what she could do to make you happy…   a child starts walking away from you as soon as she begins to walk – on the way out from the very first day… Butterscotch, though, seem to be designed to please people at any cost for she… lived in and for the immediate short-term exchange: extra food for performing tricks, kisses for a walk.’.

In the article, ‘Dog Story’, Adam delves deep into the history and development of the relationship between man and dog and comes up with some extraordinary and interesting conclusions.  He has read very widely and does not take what he is told as gospel but brings a pleasing and refreshing intelligence to the evolutionary stories and speculations with which we, who have been so deeply involved with dogs for many years, are all very familiar but which, perhaps, have so insinuated themselves into our minds that we no longer question them.

As you all probably know, the Origin of the Species by Charles Dawin begins with dogs and the way in which they have developed and changed over the years.  It was fundamental to Darwin’s thesis because the fact that man could change the characteristics of an organism deliberately within a few generations was the springboard which suggested that evolutionary pressures over many years could also make such changes.  But dogs are different.  They are not only different in the enormous range of sizes and shapes that have been developed from the basic ‘wolf’ DNA, there is no really satisfactory explanation as to why they have changed into an animal which is so anxious to please its human master.  The physical evidence from fossils and paintings as yet does not match with the fundamental and immense changes in behaviours that there are between dogs and all other animals nor does it explain their unique closeness to man.  The speculation surrounding the various theories (dogs are scavengers gradually becoming closer to man; mutations which made for small amenable animals; the use of dogs for hunting along with many others) are all unsatisfactory to Adam because he feels that each has a fundamental flaw.  He is reluctant, he says, to put forward his own ideas when he has ‘the full authority of 14 months of dog ownership’ but believes the theorists and scientists have left something out of the equation.  That is that people love pets.  It is not in dogs that we should look for the explanations but in us.

In fact he says that the range of evolutionary ‘just-so’ stories and speculations is itself proof of the way dogs have burrowed into our imaginations.  But we should understand, appreciate and recognise that pet ownership is part of the human condition.  There is a marvellous science-fiction story written back in the 50s of a group of humans marooned on another planet who are rounded up and collected by the aliens, with whom they are unable to talk, and placed in a zoo where they are studied by their scientists.  There they remained until one of their number find a small animal in their cage which responds to his petting and for whom he builds a small bedding area.  Almost as soon as the scientists studying them realised what was happening they were removed from the zoo and placed in more suitable accommodation while the scientists began a serious attempt to communicate with them.  Only intelligent beings have pets.

Adam’s view is that this innate caring element of our humanity is what was important in the development of the dog.  As man developed, his instinct would have been to have pet companions just because they were ‘cute’ and even though, in the first instance, once the animals had matured they could not be kept within the domestic situation, eventually one species did have the qualities which retained their amenability into maturity.  Dogs, he says, took an evolutionary bet that they would be better off and more comfortable as a human companion being fed and looked after rather than stay in a life which was harsh, short and brutal and out in the wild world, red in tooth and claw.  He writes. ‘Where we are creatures of past and future, she lives in the minute’s joy: a little wolf racing and snorting and scaring; a small ingratiating spirit, doing anything to please.  At times, I think that I can see her turn her head and look back at the ghost of the Wolf mother she parted from long ago, saying, “see, it was good a good bet:  they are nice to me, mostly” … ‘How does anyone live without the dog?  I can’t imagine.’

*Coincidentally, I went to a concert last night featuring Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and Claire Martin.   Claire told the story about when she first performed at the Algonquin.  She had just finished her first song and the door to the supper room opened and man came in late.  She was about to give him a glare and make a sarcastic remark when she realised it was Tony Bennett!  That is the sort of place it is.  Now leaving to judge the Pastoral Group at SWKA – it’s a wonderful life.

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