My son and I read "The Emissary" by Ray Bradbury for his school literature class. In the story, a dog helps a bed-ridden boy grieve both his inability to walk and the death of a beloved teacher. The dog ventures to the outside world, including to the cemetery where the teacher is buried, and returns carrying smells of places the boy cannot visit. For me, Bradbury's story, like the 1952 French war film Forbidden Games (Jeux interdits), reinforced the dog's role in facing tragedy and mortality.
For some of us, the tragedies of 2012 fed into a lifetime contemplating the passage of time and mortality. What makes some of us more prone to morbid thoughts? Is it temperament? Parenting? Early exposure to trauma or loss? A melancholic disposition that looks at the fleeting beauty of childhood and the impermanence of the moment through a nostalgic lens? Despite being a cheerful and smiley person, since as long as I can remember, I drift off into anxiety that it all must end. As a child, I lay in my bed at night trying to wrap my mind around non-existence. I felt the angst that we try to forget as we embrace the pleasures and challenges of daily living.
I have found a balm that helps me keep my existential angst at bay: Dogs. This post is for those on the fence about whether to adopt a dog, whether for themselves or their child. I say, "Go for it!" I want to share my appreciation of how "dog time" can offer a form of "puppy Prozac."
It turns out that a university in Canada also understands this solution, and who is more ridden with existential angst than college students? The Canadian National Post reported that students at Dalhousie University in Halifax found solace from the pressure of finals in a "puppy room." The Therapeutic Paws of Canada, an organization that typically brings the loving animals to hospitals and nursing homes, now comes to university campuses.
My teenage daughter considers this a great approach to stress. There is no better cure for her adolescent blues than our dog, Nala, who will lick her tears away. If her father and I fail to understand her plight, Nala remains loyal and true. Dogs provide a secure antidote to human unpredictability. I originally got Nala in recognition of how my own childhood dog, Tiffy, comforted me. Despite the fact that Tiffy chewed up the orthodontic retainers of friends who mistakenly placed them on counters, routinely scooped my mother's small clock from her psychoanalytic office into his slobbering mouth, carried it to the kitchen and sat on it until she bribed him off the required time-keeper with a piece of meat, or, on occasion, bit us (yes, sad but true), the dog made us happy.
I am not claiming that owning a dog will teach your child something noble, like responsibility, although perhaps it will. Most dog owners who are also parents realize that children quickly forget their promises to walk the wished-for dog. But, for those of us who are prone to observe the fleeting nature of our lives -- or, to be less melodramatic, for parents watching children grow or simply for Botox-resisting adults noticing skin sag -- the passage of time can be hard to take. Owning a dog places you firmly in the present. Call it "dog time."
There's the regularity of canine care: walking, feeding and throwing a toy to chase. Attending to the dog's needs forces even the most angst-ridden of us to act in the moment. My husband, a reluctant pet owner, theoretically does not believe in the domestication of animals. However, in the two years that Nala has lived with us, he has discovered the unexpected pleasure of dog walks. Although he may be loath to put on a coat and shoes late at night for that last walk of the day, once he and Nala are outside, he always enjoys the fresh air. Much as Jean Jacques Rousseau cherished his solitary walks and reveries, dog walks bring solace and contemplation. On spring mornings, summer evenings, fall afternoons and snowy winter days, Nala cherishes the leaves, squirrels, birds and odors and I discover parts of Central Park I previously neglected.
We leash-holding humans discover an Arcadian contentment during "dog-time." Out in rain, snow, sleet and hurricane, we greet one another and comprise a community of diverse ages and backgrounds, pulled together by the dogs' fondness for the other's scent.
Then, there's the affirmation. Dogs let their owners know that we are terrific. Nala sleeps beside our bed. When everyone in our family heads to bed, Nala follows us and curls into a ball on the pillow we've laid out for her. Each morning, Nala is overjoyed to see us. While I sit at my computer, she tucks herself under my chair by my feet. During a walk, if I temporarily hand over her leash over to another for a few moments, Nala darts towards me upon my return. What a reunion!
"Dog-time" involves a short memory span and holds no grudges. While human babies display this joy during their early years, they grow up, establish a sense of object permanence and eventually (hopefully), a core of independence so that a brief separation no longer yields the same delight in reunion it once did. Nala, on the other hand, never grows beyond her infantile joy of discovery. She provides me with wags, licks and recognition as if the world revolved around me. And yes, I am aware that Nala's world does in fact revolve around me because I feed, care for and walk her. So perhaps I am merely confessing the pleasure of being needed. This is not to be undervalued as one's children age.
Did I mention that I bought the dog "for the kids?" In an age of too much homework, test prep and video games, the dog encourages kids to leave behind the papers and screens. Nala can singularly lure my son to leave his precious Wii game. He and the dog run around our apartment fully absorbed in the pleasure of the chase. My daughter loves to curl up with Nala on her lap (Nala is a small dog), pet her and release the pressures of the day. If she cannot control her parents, then our treat-loving dog will eagerly comply with her commands for tricks. The physicality, play and love they have with the dog stops the clock that ticks away with intensity for children of the 21st century.
Perhaps it's a bit far-fetched to connect thoughts of mortality to puppies, but I want to acknowledge the benefits of "dog time." The dog's needs, joy, and inability to speak transport us to a different register and calm those of us overly sensitive to the passage of human time.
Of course, as some kids cannot resist pointing out, a dog year "equals" seven human years. "Dog time" may slow down our intense lives but, in a different sense, "dog time" moves faster than human time. I remember vividly my grief when Tiffy, died at the old age of 14, even though I was an adult by then. Sometimes, I do think about Nala's short life expectancy, but I quickly put such thoughts aside to rub her belly. Inasmuch as the goodbye to a beloved pet is heartbreaking, it, too, can be a good lesson in dealing with existential angst and mortality.