2004 editorial by Richard Moore for The Lakeland Times
The difficulty of being a dog – a review of a painful reality
My wife Lisa and I won’t be here on Election Day; we’ll be sitting in Paris, France and from there it’s on to Germany. We plan to spend 10 days strolling the streets where great German philosophers walked and viewing the awesome cathedrals and inspiring museums of those two countries.
And yet I have begun to fret. Ten days in Europe for us means 10 days in a kennel for dog Dusty, and, having never left her alone that long, it has me worried. Oh, we’ve done all the proper things – checked out the kennel’s credentials and such – but still I’m going to miss that animal, and the other day when I took her to the friendly, professional folks at Dr. Schuff’s for her bordetella booster, my worry overcame me.
Driving home, I realized I had begun to miss the dog before I was even gone. So I darted into a nearby store, where I bought one of those neat kids’ Polaroids, the kind that prints little wallet size (or smaller) photos.
An hour later, I was clicking shots of Dusty in the back yard; another hour later, I was dumping pictures of nieces and nephews out of my wallet to make room for canine pictures I could take abroad.
And that’s when it hit me that I had become a version of one of those great German philosophers, Schopenhauer. As he grew older, Schopenhauer – he was an even greater pessimist than he was a philosopher – tripped completely over the dark edge and became utterly despairing of human beings. The more he did, the more he preferred the companionship of his dogs, the more he loved dogkind in an ontological sense. Toward the end of his life, these feelings had become so articulated within him that he systematically replaced the portraits of the world’s philosophers that had hung for decades in his apartment with portraits of dogs.
“I would have no pleasure living in a world where dogs did not exist,” he wrote. Most observers, then and now, thought Schopenhauer had simply gone mad. Perhaps so, but, sitting there replacing pictures of family members with pictures of my dog, I realized the old man was on to something. Maybe I just love my dog too much, but these days it is the company of my Labrador retriever who most of all relieves the stress of life and replenishes its pleasures after a long day of dealing with difficult and often corrupt government officials.
It is the dogs indeed, not human beings, who display to me – more compellingly every day, it seems – the great virtues we humans aspire to: Honesty, loyalty, compassion, loving friendship and, yes, the courage of their convictions. Given these outstanding qualities – so evident that a dog, if properly observed, teaches by his or her mere existence – given their almost supernatural ability to sense the emotions of their human companions and to minister to them, I think it’s time to put in a good word for the canine species.
Especially so as the day Dusty must begin serving her sentence in her own Camp Cupcake draws near. It’s a nice place, but those will be difficult days for her, and it serves as a reminder that even the best-cared-for dogs among us lead a difficult life. For many, human beings make those lives even worse, and, yes, there are pressing political issues we need to address. All this is put into proper perspective in a priceless French volume, The Difficulty of Being a Dog, by Roger Grenier. In it, Grenier outlines just how tough being a canine among humans is. We humans, for example, want to talk to our companions, to make them obey, yet few of us take the time to learn the canine language of expression and movement, the richness of which far surpasses our own verbal debris field.
Comparing canine to human language is like comparing the garden to the landfill, and yet it is the odor of our communicative trove that dominates. By and large our dogs do a great job mastering words and phrases; quite frankly, it’s a miracle they do. But they pay a price, and it has tragic elements.It is not simply that dogs do not understand most of what we say that is tragic, Grenier observes; it is that they understand that they do not understand. They know we are speaking a language, expressing thoughts and feelings and commands, and so they cock their heads and stare into our eyes, trying so hard, so hard to comprehend.Imagine living in a foreign country where you do not speak the native tongue, Grenier says, and never being able to learn it beyond a word here or phrase there. Imagine how frustrating that would be and you have begun to understand the difficulty of being a dog. Grenier also quotes the observation of D. H. Lawrence on another great trouble dogs face: their fatal need to love and to be loved. As Lawrence observed, the dog’s constant search for affection – and, inexplicably, for human affection – ultimately cost them their freedom.
“Nothing is more fatal than the disaster of too much love,” Lawrence wrote.But too little love is at least as fatal, and far more physically miserable, and too many of our best friends are suffering from that condition. Fortunately, there are things we can do to diminish the pain of the unluckiest of these sentient, amazing creatures.
First, if there’s any way you can give a good dog a home, do so. There are too many homeless dogs lying alone at night in needed but hardly homey animal shelters. Remember, a dog is one of the earth’s most social animals; there’s nothing a canine hates more than to be alone. Adoption can change all that. If a dog isn’t right for your family or not possible, consider a contribution to the Wisconsin Humane Society, though please mark your money for no-kill shelters, such as the one operated by the good people in Milwaukee.
Speaking of no-kill shelters, which are growing in number across the nation and in Wisconsin, isn’t it time we demand guaranteed shelter funding so that all shelters will function as adoption centers rather than as last-resort slaughterhouses? Let’s let our legislators know it’s time stand up for animals who would lay down their lives for us. There are other important legislatives issues. Hundreds and hundreds of puppy mills still operate in this state, and the Legislature has so far failed to take action to shut these deplorable entities down.
Then, too, the state continues to maintain an administrative rule allowing the DNR to ban dogs from public property whenever it wants to, for no good reason, while onerous zoning laws and community attempts to ban entire breeds remain a serious threat on the local level. Certainly, with a dog population exceeding 50 million in the United States, responsible dog ownership is necessary, now more than ever. But so is there a need for general public awareness about dog issues in general and about some of the specific things we can ask our legislators to do to make the lives of our canine friends better.
The other day was a beautiful afternoon. I had finished the day’s labors – more horror stories dealing with bureaucratic chaos, corruption, dishonesty, disloyalty. Now I could turn to the one space where I knew I would unfailingly find the exact opposite traits: the space occupied by Dusty. She dropped her ball at my feet. Time for a game. I pitched it high in the air, and it was a marvelous sight to see her leap and bound upward, her neck and legs and body, her muscles and veins stretched tightly, then a quick mid-course correction as the ball sailed to the left, followed by a whisker-thin grab, a sure-footed landing, and a tail-wagging, swaggering return. I clapped and whooped as Dusty came back for more.
Soon she was finished and lay down in her favorite spot, a patch of higher ground covered with a shawl of sun-warmed pine needles. The streets were empty for the moment; no neighbors walking their dogs to bark at as they sauntered by, or even any deer to guard against. She just soaked up the late afternoon, her hair fluttering slightly in the warm breeze, content to enjoy a restful hour, to gobble up a treat or two while she waited for the next game.
It was a satisfying sight, and even more so to realize in that instant that no matter how awesome the cathedrals of Europe are, or how inspiring its museums will be, they can not possibly be as awesome or inspiring as the enthusiastic licks that will surely welcome me upon my return.
For me, it was time to go inside. I paused at my desk and looked at Grenier’s book, and considered the plaintive way he depicted the tragedy ultimately facing every dog owner, the short lives they lead and the sadness they sentence us to:
“And what if literature were a dog tagging along beside you night and day, a familiar and demanding animal that never leaves you in peace, that you must love, feed, take out? That you love and you hate. That hurts you by dying before you do, short as a book’s life is, these days.”
I wanted suddenly to go back out and play. But I called Dusty in, for it was getting dark, and I had chores to do – a wallet to fill, so many portraits to hang.