dog (and cat) love

I just started reading Caroline Knapp's Pack of Two: the Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, which I picked up at the public library this afternoon. I'm only about halfway through, but I'm really enjoying it. It's a kind of memoir about Knapp's relationship with her young dog, Lucille, who she adopted as a 10 week old puppy, interlaced with observations from interviews she did with other dog owners, trainers, veternarians, and psychologists. Her willingness to be honest about the depths of her affection for her dog, and the meaning of that relationship in her life, is refreshing, since, as she notes, it's not always easy:
Fall in love with a dog, and among non-dog people, you will see eyebrows rise, expressions grow wary. . . . You'll say something that implies profound affection or commitment, and you'll be hit with the phrase, dreaded words to a dog lover, "Oh please, it's just a dog." . . . Attitudes like this can make dog lovers feel like members of a secret society, as though we're inhabiting a strange and somehow improper universe.
In its description of Knapp's emotional connection with her dog, her book reminds me a bit of Jon Katz's A Dog Year, although I think Knapp is a much more compelling writer. The book jacket mentions her previous memoir, about giving up alcohol, and she's pretty up front throughout this book about her difficulty with intimacy and relationships that she had covered up for 20 years with drink. The solace she finds with her dog is interspersed with self-questioning and doubt about the healthiness of her feelings.

Her interviews with various experts echoes one of Katz's other books, The New Work of Dogs, which makes some similar points -- that Americans today treat dogs very differently than they did 1 or 2 generations ago; that people lead fragmented, isolated lives, and that dogs provide love and companionship; and that people draw the boundaries of their relationships very differently. Bring up almost any topic about dogs, and everyone will have an opinion: what kind of training, collar, food, toys, etc. There are a zillion dog books, classes, and experts who espouse very different philosophies -- but all of this points to the increasing attention we give to our dogs, and the role they play in our families.

I wasn't always a dog person. I grew up with three elderly cats, who had all passed on by the time I was 11. Our family adopted a kitten a couple of years later, despite my mother's misgivings that we would all grow up and move away -- he was an irresistably cute (though not too bright) Himalayan, who lived into his 16th year. And for all the ways that cats and dogs are different (as are the people who love them) I grew up thinking of the cats as part of the family. It was customary to give them bits of our leftover food, to drip the water from the faucet for the one who liked to drink from it, to let them sleep on whatever furniture they wanted to.

When Mackerel passed away, I was in the second grade. I came home from school at lunchtime (because this was small town life, and I walked home for lunch) to learn that she'd been hit by a car, and taken to the vet, but hadn't made it. My parents brought her body home with them, and we dug a grave under the pine tree in the back yard. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry.

My parents kept us home from school the rest of the day so that we could mourn her together. The next day, when I went back to school and one of my friends asked where I had been, I explained about our cat. And later I heard her telling someone else how weird our family was, how silly it was to be sad about a cat. Right then, I learned that some people just didn't understand that love came in lots of flavors. Why put rules on it? I knew that Mackerel's death revealed to me depths of emotion in my parents that I never knew existed. I knew that my parents loved the cats in a way I could never understand. They'd had our cats before I even entered the world. Learning that they could feel sad, too -- sad enough to cry -- helped me understand them as real people, not just as my parents.

I haven't really thought much before tonight about how my early years with cats shaped the way I respond to our dogs. The differences between cat & dog lifestyle are so obvious, so overwhelming. But my parents never made a strong distinction between us and the cats, between humans and "pets" -- the cats were part of the family, each with her own preferences and personality, just like its human members. And that way of thinking lay dormant in me for all the years when I didn't live with animals, ready and waiting for me to let dogs into my heart.