The Love of a Good Dog

Natalie Angier has a piece in the Times this morning about the loss of a beloved pet cat:

Cleo was almost 16 years old, she’d been sick, and her death was no surprise. Still, when I returned to a home without cats, without pets of any sort, I was startled by my grief — not so much its intensity as its specificity.

It was very different from the catastrophic grief I’d felt when I was 19 and my father died, and all sense, color and flooring dropped from my days. This was a sorrow of details, of minor rhythms and assumptions that I hadn’t really been aware of until, suddenly, they were disrupted or unmet. Hey, I’m opening the door to the unfinished attic now. Doesn’t a cat want to try dashing inside to roll around in the loose wads of insulation while I yell at it to get out of there?

I’ve just dumped a pile of clean laundry on the bed and I’m starting to fold it. Why aren’t the cats jumping up for a quick sit? Don’t they know everything is still warm?

I’m not a cat person, but I know the canine version of what she’s talking about. When I was growing up, we had a dog for about thirteen years, a Collie-Lab mix who still holds the title “Best Dog Ever” in my mind– Emmy’s terrific, but she only gets qualified superlatives: “Best Dog in the Capital Region,” or “Best Emmy Ever.”

After Patches died, it was years before I stopped expecting her to meet me at the door when I came home to visit. I would absently let my hand slip off the arm of the chair in the living room, expecting my hand to fall on the furry head that had always been there. The expectation didn’t really go away until after they got a new dog, a Labrador Retreiver who just about bowls me over whenever I come through the door. He’s big enough to crowd most of the memories out.

Of course, the bonds between owners and pets can go both ways:

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This picture is the famous Hachiko statue outside Shibuya station in Tokyo. Hachiko was an Akita belonging to a university professor who used to follow his master to the station every morning, and meet him there in the evening after work (Japanese academics apparently keep more regular hours than their American counterparts). One day in 1925, Prof. Ueno suffered a heart attack at work, and died.

The dog continued to turn up at the station every day for the next ten years, waiting for his train. After the dog died in 1935, they erected a statue outside the station, and it has since become a standard meeting place for people visiting Shibuya– whenever you go there, there’s always a crowd of people hanging around waiting for someone or something.

Of course, as some of the scientists Angier interviews notes, the story almost certainly involves a large element of projection. We don’t really know that Hachiko was waiting for his master all those years– as Wikipedia notes, the local shopkeepers took a liking to the dog, and would give him food and water. As much as we want the story to be about love and loyalty, he may very well just have been conditioned to go to the station at five for a free meal.

But as a pet owner, I don’t buy that as the only explanation. There’s a definite bond between pets and their owners, that goes beyond the free food. One of the last times I visited my parents before Patches died, I went out for a walk with her one afternoon. We used to regularly go for two or three-mile walks on the flood control dam near the house, but on this occasion, she barely made it to the top of the dike before turning around to limp back to the house.

I was really sad about this, and mentioned it to my parents when I got back later. “She made it to the top of the dike?” they said. “She hasn’t left the yard in a couple of years.”

OK, Argos it isn’t, but it still makes me tear up.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pet the Best Emmy Ever before I go to work.

Comments

  1. #1 elena
    October 2, 2007

    You reminded me about this beautiful poem by Wislawa Szymborska. I found the english translation by Joanna Maria Trzeciak here: http://www.pan.net/trzeciak/

    Cat in an empty apartment:

    Dying–you wouldn’t do that to a cat.
    For what is a cat to do
    in an empty apartment?
    Climb up the walls?
    Brush up against the furniture?
    Nothing here seems changed,
    and yet something has changed.
    Nothing has been moved,
    and yet there’s more room.
    And in the evenings the lamp is not on.

    One hears footsteps on the stairs,
    but they’re not the same.
    Neither is the hand
    that puts a fish on the plate.

    Something here isn’t starting
    at its usual time.
    Something here isn’t happening
    as it should.
    Somebody has been here and has been,
    and then has suddenly disappeared
    and now is stubbornly absent.

    All the closets have been scanned
    and all the shelves run through.
    Slipping under the carpet and checking came to nothing.
    The rule has even been broken and all the papers scattered.
    What else is there to do?
    Sleep and wait.

    Just let him come back,
    let him show up.
    Then he’ll find out
    that you don’t do that to a cat.
    Going toward him
    faking reluctance,
    slowly,
    on very offended paws.
    And no jumping, purring at first.

  2. #2 Zachary Tong
    October 2, 2007

    Your story about going for a walk reminded me of my dog that just passed away. Long story short, our dog had been sick for a long time and took a turn for the worse over the summer. Late into the summer, my parents took a trip out to see my older brother (who had graduated college and was living out of state). When our dog started to get really sick, we used to tell her “Just hang in a little longer, you’re going to see Tom in a few weeks”.

    She developed a really bad limp and had trouble standing, often falling over and unable to stand up without help. Her eyes started to look glassy and dull, and she never seemed to have any energy. We had to feed her out of our hand because she was too weak to eat by herself.

    They took the dog to see my older brother one last time. While they were on the trip, our sick dog acted like a young puppy. She didn’t have her cough, her limp was gone and she was full of energy anytime she was around my older brother. It was absolutely amazing.

    When we got back, over the course of a week or so, the dog’s health declined rapidly. She passed away shortly after. To this day I think she hung on on to see my older brother one last time.

  3. #3 benjymous
    October 3, 2007

    I know the feeling – when my childhood dog died, I’d moved out of my parents’ house and was living on my own. Every time I went back to visit I felt a pang on opening the door, and not having her bound up to greet me.

    Seven years later, it still feels odd when I go back (although I live much further away now, so only get to visit home once or twice a year.)

  4. #4 OFELIA
    March 21, 2010

    I HAVE SEEN THE MOVIE HACHI HE WAS A GREAT DOG FROM WHAT I HEAR HE LOVED HIS OWNER AS MUCH AS HIS OWNER LOVED HIM IMAGINE HE WAITED 9 YEARS AFTER HIS OWNER DEAD I HOPE PEOPLE DONT FORGET HIM BECAUSE YOU DONT SEE A LOT OF DOGS LIKE THAT I HAVE 3 CHIHUAHUAS AND 1 LABRADOR MIXED WITH A GERMAN SHEPARD I HOPE MY DOGS DONT WAIT FOR ME WHEN I DIE BECAUSE I WOULD FEEL BAD AND BLAMING ME THAT THE DIDNT GET TO LIVE A HAPPY LIFE AS OTHER DOGS I WOULDNT FEEL RIGHT NOT GIVING THEM THE CHANCE OF LIVING THERE AS I LIVED MINE SO DONT EVER FORGET HACHIKO BECAUSE HE WAS A GREAT DOGS HE REALLY LOVED HIS OWNER

  5. #5 juan karlos
    March 30, 2010

    hermosa historia es la prime q me conmueve de verdad casi llore el como es el amor en los animales