Monday, October 12, 2009

On the loneliness of dogs

It’s almost two years since I started walking my sister’s cocker spaniel, Jordan, three days a week. Predictably for someone with social anxiety, we stick to a rigid routine – 11.30 to about 12.15 Monday, Wednesday and Friday (going at other times, and encountering an unpredictable mix of people, would be traumatic, although very occasionally I do a Saturday instead).

I’ve mentioned before in this blog some of the ways Jordan has changed and helped me, not least by simply being a companion to take to the park. And he’s a great distraction when I’m chatting to someone – if an awkward social moment arises, he’s liable to do a pooh, sending me scrabbling for my trusty plastic bag.

But being Jordan’s friend is not without its own problems. Least of all the sadness I feel at his closed-in, often miserable little life.

I’ve complained in this blog previously about how little his family care about his emotional welfare, all too happily piling into the car without him and zooming off to some child- and in many cases dog-friendly destination. He’s left pining for hours on the front porch or, if the weather’s good, barking desperately at innocent strangers as they walk past. The family is too lazy to train him so when they have guests they simply tie up the poor little bugger.

It would be easy to query why my sister and her family, obviously not dog people, have a dog at all, and why they keep it, having discovered the effort involved. Wouldn’t it be better to relinquish it humanely, for example by placing the dog with a rehoming program, or trying to find a new owner among friends or family? But I think the answer isn’t that difficult.

For a start, that so many non-dog people do indeed have dogs illustrates just what joiners we humans are. Non-dog people who get dogs do so because other people, often their friends, have dogs. And because they are non-dog people in the first place, once they have the dog and have begun to neglect it, they don’t really care much about the effects of their neglect on the dog.

It’s therefore logical for them to keep it languishing, just as one holds onto an expensive designer dress one has bought on sale and never wears. (Of course I know that many people do abandon their dogs in cruel ways and this represents another level of callousness altogether.)

I’m being a bit unfair. There’s often, as in the case of Jordan’s owners, a great deal of affection for the dog. My nieces love Jordan, and he gets cuddles and inside-time at night, as well as some inside-time during the day when my sister’s not working, at home for a while and not too busy.

But it’s a selfish affection. Apart from the narrow obligations of providing food, a place to sleep and basic veterinary care, neither my sister nor my brother-in-law feels, or fosters in the children, a sense of responsibility towards Jordan. My nieces are never made to feed or play with him, for example. An opportunity to teach the children about reciprocal love is wasted: the dog gives love, and the family benefits from that love, but they’re not particularly interested in how their own lives and love could benefit the dog. This kind of love for a pet is ultimately narcissistic.

I see that narcissism in myself sometimes. I’m gratified by how much Jordan loves and needs me, by his refusal to judge me for coming by just three times a week, taking him to the park for a frolic and then effectively abandoning him to his loneliness. Truth is, I’ve had to learn to be callous to keep going on in my limited role. And often when my bucket of concern threatens to overflow to every chained-up, filthy mutt, every overweight, underloved pooch, every dog I see staring out with a mixture of gloom and wretched hope from behind a suburban front gate, I must empty it out for my own sanity.

But I’m not trying to make out I’m a saintlier person than my sister; perhaps I’m just more self-aware. Although I’m a dog person, I know myself too well to take on a pet full time.

I also know that, paradoxically, it is easy for me to spend time with a dog, whereas it’s more of an effort for non-dog people like my sister. Truth is, I could sometimes spend hours patting, comforting and playing Fetch with dogs. It’s so easy to make a connection with them: to see in their pining, eager eyes the simple language of need and love. And it’s not hard to make a dog happy, to answer that need, even if momentarily – all you have to do is scratch it under the chin, stroke its neck and tell it what a sweet and good boy or girl it is. Humans are so much more complex (although perhaps I am made momentarily happy by giving love to a dog).

Recently I wrote a letter to my sister detailing my concerns about Jordan. I was trying to make her understand that incorporating Jordan into her life (including giving the children some responsibility for him) was better than seeing him as a separate duty that she would get to when other priorities had been dealt with, and would actually help her and the family as a whole. All it would take to include Jordan in the family to a greater extent, I urged, was a little bit of planning.

It went down like a firecracker during a monsoon. In fact, there was no response to the letter at all until I broached the subject. This was when I went to pick up Jordan for his walk on the last day of the school holidays. He’d been playing with my nieces outside, but now they were off somewhere fun, and he’d be home alone as soon as the walk was over. We all stood in the backyard, Jordan already on the leash. My sister did not want to talk about the letter, except to say ‘please don’t do things like that’.

‘He’s clinically depressed!’ I yelled as she walked towards the car.

‘Aren’t we all’, she replied.

Dogs are a wonderful resource that our local communities could benefit from in ways that also assisted the dogs themselves. We don’t need more dogs, in fact we probably need fewer, but we should make better use of existing dogs. This is not simply being dog-centric: I think we’d become a more caring society as a whole. Just as retired people can do countless good in the community, lonely dogs could be utilised for many purposes.

So how could we improve the situations for dogs, and make things easier for their busy owners? Below are some suggestions for drastically reducing the amount of bored, unhappy, unhealthy dogs in our community (some a bit outlandish, I admit).

Some suggestions for a dog-friendly world
It should be much harder to own a dog than it is at present. In a screening process as is used in adoption, you should have to prove your suitability, that of your home, and that you are able to spend a certain percentage of time with the dog. If not able to spend enough time at home, prospective owners should have to guarantee the regular use of dog-minding or pet-walking services and prove they had the money to spend on such dog services.

To compensate for the difficulty of dog ownership, dogs could be seen as community assets, and moves made to share them among the community. A non-profit service could be established to link people who like dogs (including older people) but don’t want or can’t afford their own with people who can’t walk their dogs due to age, illness, disability or busyness. These would not simply be casual walkers but would have the opportunity to establish a relationship with the dog, eg playing with and walking it several times a week. For example, disadvantaged families without a parent at home during the day, such as single parents, could form a relationship with a dog that they took out on weekends.

Puppy farms should be banned and pet shops not allowed to sell animals.

All dog breeders should need to have a licence and their premises be subject to regular inspections.

A free service for new owners, rather like the maternal and child health nurse but ideally made up of volunteers, could be established. These trained volunteers would pay a once-off visit to the home to help the family adjust to the puppy or dog by offering expert advice and guidance. They would check that sleeping arrangements and diet were suitable for the size and breed of the dog, and offer advice and help with issues such as house training.

Governments could fund the use of dogs (and other pets) as therapy in prisons and aged care homes, with these institutions having their own in-house pets where possible.

I know some of these suggestions are a bit 'out there', but it's time to think outside the off-leash area of the park! The dog walking and day care industries would flourish if there were tougher rules about leaving dogs alone for hours, the dogs themselves would be happier, and so would the humans who love them.


  1. Catherine, what an absolutely fabulous post!

    I don't think any of your suggestions are outlandish at all, and are all sound and workable.

    I would go further: I would have the breeding of dogs, and most definitely cats, restricted to registered breeders that are monitored/inspected periodically. All the puppies and kittens would then require to be desexed before sale.

    You are right, pet shops should not be allowed to sell pets, they should come from the registered breeders only. I suggest that all dogs and cats be microchipped before sale, and yes, the prospective owners should be screened.

    For a start, this would eliminated unwanted pets through neglectful irresponsible owners allowing their pets to breed at will. This should eliminate stray and dumped pets. And then there might be some semblence of sanity in the dog owning community as far as numbers go.

    I am not a dog person, although we purchased a dog from the RSPCA when our children were little, and she lived a long and hopefully satisfied and happy life. She was an abused dog when we bought her, and to the day she died, she would still cower at the lifting of a hose or broom - sad.

    But, although I am not a dog person, I absolutely hate to see dogs (and cats) mistreated. And as you put it, mistreating includes the lack of love and companionship.

    I hope your post is read far and wide resulting in pangs of guilt amongst the pet owning community and renewed attention given to their animals.

    Well done.


  2. Oh, and something else - I notice that it appears you also do not have your family reading your blogs, or taking an interest in what you have to say (re: the letter to your sister). This is such a shame, because they are missing out on a lot by not getting to know you better. My family also do not know me, which is also a shame, but I have come to the conclusion that I can't do any thing about it - and at this point in my life, I almost feel I am past trying.

    you have a lot to offer those around you.


  3. Hi Gaye,

    Thanks heaps for your responses -- great to get some positive feedback after a bit of a 'guilt trip' following the letter mentioned above!

    I think you're right about the desexing and microchipping, as well as the restrictions on breeding. It seems amazing to me that there's no or little regulation on the breeding of dogs (and cats), especially given the fact that organisations like the RSPCA are left to pick up the pieces. And when it comes to regulating pet ownership, these organisations can only deal with the very worst of animal suffering.

    There are also ecological arguments for keeping the number of pets relatively low.

    I didn't mention in the blog the problems with the standards applied by those who breed dogs solely for dog shows (as opposed to 'working dogs' as they seem to be called) -- there was a really good Four Corners program on this recently. These issues could also be ironed out with regulation.

    Sadly, you're spot-on about my family's lack of interest in my blog. In fact I've mentioned the blog frequently at family gatherings and the obvious question, 'what's the web address?' is never asked!

    However, I've come to see this as a bit of a blessing in disguise -- I really do need to vent about my family sometimes, and if they read this blog I'd have to curtail this! But, like you, it's often hard for me to accept that lack of interest by family members.