I understand the temptation to pathologize such behavior, or at least to poke fun at it (dogs in birthday hats?), but I don’t believe that dog owners are unilaterally engaged in displacement, sublimation, or rampant anthropomorphism. Nor do I see this apparent depth of attachment as a sad commentary on contemporary human affairs. This is another common view, that people turn to pets for love and affection by default, because “real” (read: human) love and affection are so hard to come by in today’s fractured, isolated, alienating world. I think there is a kernel of truth to that—we live in lonely times, and dogs can go a long way toward alleviating loneliness—but I think the more important truth has to do not with modern culture but with dogs themselves, and with the remarkable, mysterious, often highly complicated dances that go on between individual dogs and their owners.
That dance is about love. It’s about attachment that’s mutual and unambiguous and exceptionally private, and it’s about a kind of connection that’s virtually unknowable in human relationships because it’s essentially wordless. It’s not always a smooth and seamless dance, and it’s not always easy or graceful—love can be a conflicted, uncertain experience no matter what species it involves—but it is no less valid because one of the partners happens to move on four legs.
“Love is love. I don’t care if it comes from humans or from animals: it’s the same feeling.” Paula, a forty-seven-year-old children’s book author who lives in Los Angeles with three Maltese dogs, said this to me with such simple candor the words stuck with me for days. She continued: “When I’m feeling bad or thinking about something I can’t handle, I pick up my dogs and it helps for that moment. It may not be the perfect relationship we all hope to have with a human, but it’s a relationship. And love is love.”
Indeed. Just this morning, I came into the house after being out for an hour or so and found Lucille nestled in a corner of the sofa, her favorite spot when I’m away. She didn’t race across the room to greet me—she’s sufficiently accustomed to my comings and goings by now that she no longer feels compelled to fly to the door and hurl herself onto me as though I’ve just returned from the battlefield—but when I came into the room and approached her, her whole body seemed to tighten into a smile: the pointed ears drew flat back, the tail thumped against the sofa cushion, the eyes gleamed, the expression took on a depth and clarity that suggested, Happy; I am completely happy. A friend says her dog seems to wake up every morning with a thought balloon over her head that says, Yahoo! That was precisely the look: All is right with the world, it said, you are home. I crouched down by the sofa to scratch her chest and coo at her, and she hooked her front paw over my forearm. She gazed at me; I gazed back.
I have had Lucille for close to three years, but moments like that, my heart fills in a way that still strikes me with its novelty and power. The colors come into sharp focus: attached, connected, joyful, us. I adore this dog, without apology. She has changed my life.
From Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs © 1998 by Caroline Knapp; published by Dial Press. This essay also appears in Dog Is My Co-Pilot, an anthology compiled by the Editors of Bark and published by Crown.