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Some Days You're The Dog, Other Times The Hydrant

abstract: BREAKING WORLD NEWS… The promised US presidential pooch has been picked, US media reports say. The soon-to-be "First Puppy" is a six-month-old black and white Portuguese water dog that Mr. Obama's daughters have named Bo, The Washington Post reports. Churchill had Rufus, the Queen of England has her corgis, now America has Bo.

Why are we so in love with our dogs? What do we find so fascinating about something that slobbers, eats us out of house and home and requires us to pick up after it? And what encourages us to write about them?

Ever since my boyfriend and I got our puppy, our lives have not been the same. Before getting our little pup we borrowed books out of the library, watched training DVD’s, browsed You Tube videos and, of course, had the Dog Whisperer playing incessantly. We would discuss with each other the commands we were going to use, the techniques we would implement and we nearly blew a month's wages at Pet Smart. Now she's a fully fledged member of the family, if a bit of a hairy addition, and I can’t imagine my life without her. Like most dog owners I have a few stories to tell ranging from the funny to the cringe worthy. Most of the time whilst recounting these tales the audience either nods in agreement or cries with laughter. I recently reviewed a book called Queen of the Road by Doreen Orion (Broadway, 2008), which is the real life story of a couple traveling the states of America with their two cats and dog in tow, which also reminded me of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. "A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers. Many conversations en route began with 'What degree of dog is that?'" Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck (Penguin: 2002). In both accounts the dog plays a huge role in story, they are the companion, the friend, and often an ice-breaker in the most awkward situations.

article:

May 20, 2009
— I now have two very good friends who I met whilst my dog decided to go on an impromptu walk quite by herself. Whilst shouting her name at the top of my voice I came across the source of my dog’s sudden disappearance, two beautiful dogs, who embarrassingly were listening intently to their owners whilst mine was running round like a headless chicken with the excitement of it all. It is amazing how dogs can break tension, with the sniff of a crotch, the hint of a bum shuffle; they are comic relief for the most awkward of moments.

If you look into the history of the dog, researchers believe they were the first domesticated animals but exactly when this happened remains a bit of a mystery. There are cave paintings in Europe with dog-like creatures hunting with the cave men that are around 50,000 years old, although fossil remains that would substantiate this were not found until 10,000BC. One theory is that man tamed wolf pups enough to hunt with them, and then brought their puppies into their family circle. This is the rather Disney-like theory, but other suggestions are that they were domesticated to pull sleds, as a sacrifice in religious ceremonies and as a source of food. My Westernized mind likes to think that the latter of these options would only ever happen in an emergency, the first man to have reached both the North and South Poles, Ronald Amundsen, is reported to have eaten some of his sled dogs to survive.

It’s no wonder then that after years as our faithful sidekicks dogs start to appear in literature, but what role do they play? Appearing mostly in children’s literature dogs often emulate the role they play in real life, that of the loyal and helpful companion. I remember a story that has stayed with me till this day. It’s a Welsh folktale about a dog called "Gellert" who risks his life saving his master's child from a wolf, only to be killed by his master who misunderstands what has happened.

“Too late, Llewellyn learned what had happened while he was away. Gellert had stayed behind to guard the child and had fought and slain the wolf that had tried to destroy Llewellyn's heir. In vain was all Llewellyn's grief; he could not bring his faithful dog to life again. So he buried him outside the castle walls within sight of the great mountain of Snowdon, where every passerby might see his grave, and raised over it a great cairn of stones. And to this day the place is called Beth Gellert, or the Grave of Gellert.” From the folktales of Aarne-Thompson selected and edited by D. L. Ashliman 1998-2002
Other examples would be the character "Nana" from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan , left to guard the Darling children and Eric Knight’s Lassie, a loyal collie who saves her young owner numerous times. Over the last 200 years there has been an increase in literature for adults where the dog doesn’t necessarily take on the main role, as in some of the children’s literature, but they often provide a mirror for some of our actions. I remember a friend once bought me a card that said, "Be the person your dog thinks you are", and when I searched online for information on this subject I was bombarded by quotes that really pulled at my heart strings.

"He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion." -- Unknown
Caesar Milan who hosts the Dog Whisperer tells us not to treat our dog like a human. We need to be their leaders not their friend, but again and again the people on the show refer to their dog as their baby, their savior, their rock during depression or illness. New York Times editor Dana Jennings writes about coping with an advanced form of prostate cancer in this article posted online on March 31, 2009 entitled Life Lessons From the Family Dog
“I know now that Bijou was an important part of my therapy as I recovered from having my prostate removed. I learned that dogs, besides being pets, can also be our teachers. Human beings constantly struggle to live in the moment. We’re either obsessing over the past (”Gee, life would’ve been different if I’d only joined the Peace Corps.”), or obsessing over the future (”Gee, I hope my 401K holds up”). We forget that life, real life, is lived right now, in this very moment. But living in the moment is something that dogs (and cancer patients) do by their very nature. Bijou eats when she’s hungry, drinks when she’s thirsty, sleeps when she’s tired and will still gratefully curl up in whatever swatch of sunlight steals through the windows.”
St. John’s Ambulance service now trains our canine friends to become therapy dogs these calm creatures promote conversation, provide stimulus and seem to bring a smile to most peoples faces. I must admit that when I drag myself out of bed at what seems like the crack of dawn I silently curse having to take my dog for a walk, once out in the fresh air however, I love the fact that I’m out enjoying the morning.

Much to my boyfriend's disgust the other day I spent a rainy day on the couch with my dog watching Marley and Me (2008: David Frankel) a story reminiscent of Old Yeller (1957: Robert Stevenson), so my mum informs me. I am embarrassed to say that more than one tear rolled down my cheek as I watched this dog grow along with his family, and it occurred to me that I would be a similar age to the character who has to watch their lifelong friend struggle and eventually pass away. Much to my surprise, I found the film the topic of a heated debate in my work cafeteria. One of our male staff members was arguing that it couldn’t be classed as a feel good movie if it had left him in tears. Instead of the usual finger-pointing at the person who cried at the movies, people were nodding in agreement. It seems that even "the guys" accept that loosing a dog gives you a good reason to cry.

An article on MSNBC entitled, Dogs (Not Chimps) Most Like Humans and written by Jennifer Viegas explores the idea that dogs are a model for understanding human social behavior.

"Chimpanzees share many of our genes, but dogs have lived with us for so long and undergone so much domestication that they are now serving as a model for understanding human social behavior. Cooperation, attachment to people, understanding human verbal and non-verbal communications, and the ability to imitate are just a handful of the social behaviors we share with dogs. They might even think like us at times too, according to a paper that has been accepted for publication in the journal, Advances in the Study of Behavior."

So as our obsession with our favorite furry friends continue I can only imagine what literary greats will add a few doggie tales to their portfolio. In writing this project a few titles have crept onto my reading list that I can’t wait to get started.

You are a dog by Terry Bain A Fox Terrier's Life Story by Karel Capek White Fang by Jack London

You are a dog by Terry Bain; A Fox Terrier's Life Story by Karel Capek; White Fan by Jack London

 

 

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