Since I moved to Fairfield County, CT twenty years ago, I’ve learned that a dog’s place in human society can be very different from the place occupied by the average dog of my Venezuelan childhood.
This is a world where dogs rule. A family almost appears incomplete without one. I mean, in some, the dog is the most important family member. My cousin, for instance, recently posted her family’s holiday card on Facebook. She has six children. The top half of the photo had a picture of the family’s eight human members (mom, dad and the six kids). The family dog took up the entire bottom half of the card.
Here’s something else I’ve experienced: Because I’m a special education teacher, I sometimes ask parents to send in or email a picture of their child, human family members, or the family pet. I usually get the dog pictures right away, sometimes multiple ones. For the child himself or another family member, I often need to send reminders.
I’ve also learned from two of my sisters who have dogs that the politics of dog ownership are complicated. Sandra’s dog, Odin, is a rescue -a fact she is compelled to mention whether or not people ask. And I don’t blame her. Having a rescue signals that you are a thoughtful, upstanding human.
Apparently, people may readily undermine a good relationship with a neighbor over a dog’s origin. I now know, for instance, that acquiring a dog from a local pet store is a grave act. Cooper, my sister Ana’s dog, comes from a pet store. “Shame!” was her neighbor’s one-word comment when learning of the dog’s origin.
When I was a young girl, people didn’t need to rush home during their lunch break to feed the dog or take it outside. When folks wanted to leave a dinner party, they couldn’t say, “I need to get home to take care of my dog.” That excuse did not exist. It would’ve been like saying, “I gotta get home to hem my pants.”
I’m talking about pet dogs, of course, not the street ones which, like Coco’s Dante, roam most towns and cities in the developing world. I grew up in Caracas (Venezuela), and knew some families that had dogs, most of which spent their day outside. Dogs didn’t get to go on family vacations or were listed as family members. Only small ones were petted, talked to, or got to spend any amount of time beyond the kitchen in the company of humans.
That’s just how things were and I didn’t question them. That was also a long time ago. I’m not sure how dogs fare today in the city of my youth. From what I hear, though, things have improved for pet dogs and gotten much worse for street dogs.
Most street dogs anyway. I happen to know of one former street dog who hit the canine jackpot. On a trip to Caracas five years ago, Clarissa, an acquaintance who now lives in the Dominican Republic, was on a short hike and came upon a dog, whom she adopted and named Veva. Now Veva lives in the DR, where she shares a nice home with her loving human family.
Dogs being so incredibly desirable, I’ve come to question my warm but not exuberant feelings for them. Sometimes, I’ve found myself making excuses for not having a dog. I’ve almost felt inadequate for not committing to having one some day, especially given that my son Diego has autism and, over the years, numerous well-meaning folk have suggested that a dog would do wonders for him. I have subjected Diego to many therapies, both proven and unproven, so why not see if a dog would help calm his anxiety?
It’s likely we would’ve gotten one had Diego or his brother Andres ever hounded us about it, as many kids do. For some reason, neither of them did. Even today that Diego’s 26, when asked if he’d like to have a dog, he says that he wants a girl instead.
It’s not that he thinks that a girlfriend and a dog are interchangeable. It’s just that Diego’s obsessed with having a girlfriend, and perhaps he fears that one would preclude the other. Who knows.
Another thing I’ve found myself doing is hiding my fear on the rare occasions a dog scares me. It’s silly and embarrassing to be scared of dogs. Even telling my sister not to bring her dog over (unless she’s willing to have him stay outside) now feels so small of me. “I’m just not used to having dogs in my house” doesn’t sound like a valid reason, such as, for instance, being seriously allergic to them.
Having a dog allergy has one advantage for people who are not dog people: it’s an incontrovertibly sound reason for not having a dog or not being 100% accommodating. Significant as this advantage may be, though, it does not come close to making up for the awful drawbacks.
My friend Hope, for example, is seriously allergic to dogs (and cats). We were hiking one day and a dog ran over to us just to be friendly. Hope tried to get away and asked the owner to call the dog back. When a person in the dog’s party passed us a few minutes later, he said, nastily, “It’s just a dog.”
The guy did mumble an apology when Hope’s husband noted the allergy, but the damage was done. A person’s dog had been rejected, and that person took it personally. Hope was immensely frustrated.
I do like dogs of course, other people’s dogs. My sister Rosanna had a dog named Nala, of whom I was quite fond. I loved seeing her run in my sister’s yard. I’d pet her whenever I saw her, and checked on and fed her a few times when Rosanna asked.
The day Nala died, she was in pain and hardly moved. She hobbled if she needed to get from here to there. That day, I was at Rosanna’s home alone with Nala for a while while my sister ran an errand. I was sitting on the floor and saw Nala get up and start hobbling in my direction.
Where’s she heading? I thought. Toward me, it turned out. She stopped where I was, sat and rested her head on my lap. And that’s where she stayed for a good while. It was a mystical experience.
There’s a good chance I might have a dog someday, a rescue for sure.