Friday, January 02, 2015

The New Role of Pets

When I was a child, I grew up with dogs. We always had a dog of some kind, and frequently we had more than one. We also had cows, chickens, exotic birds, and other pets. (We never had cats, though. My father hated cats.)

The dogs were dogs. The poodles came in the house sometimes but also stayed outside. They did not go on vacation with us, nor did they stay in motels. They did not go into Lowes when we went shopping. They stayed home and did doggy things while we were gone. We didn't worry about separation anxiety or if the dog food from China was secretly doing something to the pets. The dogs didn't sit with us when we watched TV or ate dinner, and they most certainly weren't sleeping in our beds.

About six months into my marriage, I came home with a black puppy. She was a mix of a terrier and a spitz, I think. She was not a large dog but she stayed outside. I brought her into the garage when winter nights grew cold, but she hated it. She would dart out the door as soon as I opened it for her, regardless of the freeze.

She had a nice dog house and she received a new bed and a blanket frequently. She had squeaky toys, and her dog food smelled bad but she seemed to like it.

The dog did not go on vacations with me, or take trips to the store, or spend time with me inside my home. I talked to her through the screen door, and petted her a couple of times a day (after which I would have to go wash my hands because I am highly allergic to pet dander). I took her to the vet for her shots when the time came, and once rushed her there when I came home and found her quite ill. I even shot a groundhog in her defense, the only time I ever deliberately shot and killed anything besides a snake.

She was my dog, not my best friend.

She lived for 17 years so I must have done something right with her, just treating her like a dog, and like dogs were treated when I was growing up. It took me a long time to stop watching for her after she passed away, because she would jump up and down in great excitement when my car came up the drive. I missed that for many years. I loved my dog even though I was allergic to her, and because of my allergies, we didn't get another one when she died.

However, I confess that in the last decade or so, the treatment of animals has perplexed me. Suddenly there are dogs in Lowes. Dogs in Kroger. Dogs in hotels. We stayed at a Hilton a few years ago that stunk so badly of wet dog that we had to check out and go elsewhere because I was having an asthma attack every five minutes.

I still like dogs, as a rule, though I confess I am afraid of large dogs. I don't like dogs in stores or hotels. When I see a dog in an aisle in Lowes, I go the other way. I have been known to actually leave a building with an animal in it, particularly if it is a large shedding one that the owner seems to have little control over. Why people think I get joy from having their animal sniff my leg is beyond me.

I don't.

I have puzzled over this for a long time. Why were animals suddenly being treated like children? Why have dogs (and cats, too, I suppose, though I have no experience with them) reached near-human status in our minds?

I finally found the answer. It's our isolation. Our self-imposed isolation. We have isolated ourselves to the point that we have turned animals into the companions that people are supposed to be.

This is the result of many things. Individual housing, for one, where immediate families and not extended families live together. Just a few generations ago, grandmothers and grandchildren and the folks in between lived under one rambling roof, or at least near each other, on the same farm, or next door in the city in similar tenement dwellings. Then we became industrialized, and families grew apart and away from one another. People moved around and stayed far away from their neighbors.

The more cloistered we became, the less social we were, until we have the closed and individualistic groupings that pass as society today. With the advent of the Internet, we have even less reason to interact with people on a human and humane level.

We don't entertain like we once did, either. I remember evenings when my parents had people over to play cards. The neighbors would come and games would ensue. The adults would sit at a table laughing, telling dirty jokes, and having fun. We children would play hide and seek, Chutes and Ladders, Hi Ho, Cherry-Os! or Monopoly.

Humans are social creatures. We crave interactions with one another. We need hugs, cuddles, kisses, and intimacy. Even the most introverted of us - and I count myself in that group - need other people from time to time. Somewhere along the line we determined that Vitamin T (Touch) was something undesirable, dirty even.

So we have distanced ourselves from one another to the point that we are singularly islands adrift in a vast ocean of consciousness, occasionally bouncing into one another but seldom connecting.

Pets, however, offer us that connection that we have eliminated and removed from our relationships with one another. Dogs can lick you, slobber all over you, jump for joy at your return, and dive into your arms, all without any disdain from a sneering great aunt.

That is why animals are now more important to many people than other people. We don't have best friends anymore. We have best animals.

It took me a long time to figure that out.


  1. Animals love unconditionally, whereas humans do not...great post. Thanks for the, I have to go hug on our German Shep, who is a 100 lb, 4 yr old puppy who thinks he is a cat (no kidding!!!). Of course, I am being silly and funny...but in all seriousness, what a great post! Alot to ponder and alot of truth in it. Blessings

  2. I guess I've never thought about that - wow! There is a lot of truth to that. But I have a cat. She's a good cat. I pet her, let her snuggle with me at night - but my best friend? Never. I love to hang out at my neighbors - we play board games, send the kids downstairs so they don't hear us, and we have a blast! I hope that never changes!


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