No, this isn’t about surviving your kids’ teenage years. Nor is it about coping with your mate’s irrational, disgusting, or just plain irritating habits. This is about some of my closest, personal friends. It’s not that I haven’t read plenty of books and articles about animal behavior. It’s just that observation serves me so much better. Not only do I read about animals, but I watch (and buy) documentaries about them.
This morning I looked into Charity Marie Doggy-Dog’s eyes and realized that she doesn’t know she’s a dog. Then I realized that our four cats don’t know they are cats. I don’t mean this in the sense of the animals’ conviction that they are people, or in the sense that they are treated like children — very spoiled, pampered, royal children.
The words “cat” and “dog” mean nothing to my housemates. Oh, sure, Charity reacts with a curly wave of her tale (she’s part Basenji) when anyone utters “the dog,” but in her mind that sound means we are paying attention to her. (Not that I know how her mind works — every day I look into her eyes and ask what she’s trying to tell me.) I am sure the word “dog” is just a sound we make.
I used to think I didn’t like dogs, but — more to the point — I didn’t like small dogs and was afraid of large dogs. I now believe that it’s impossible to dislike dogs or cats or any animal as a class, because those classes are comprised of individuals. This does not apply to fear or phobias. If you are afraid of an animal (such as bears or alligators), that fear is based on what you think (on some level) that animal can do to you. With a phobia, something freaks you out. If you have arachnophobia, the very thought of spiders may make you uncomfortable and you may be totally unaware of the root of that fear.
If a person who is afraid of dogs (because they are noisy and bite) has a friend with a dog who is extremely likable and affectionate, always happy to see someone, then that person can come to know the dog and feel comfortable around it. Translation: they may grow to like the dog. I think when people “don’t like dogs” they don’t like most dogs — the dogs they haven’t befriended. Or maybe they don’t like some of the things dogs do, like drool or tear apart furniture.
Before I left New Jersey, I was a volunteer at a county animal shelter. I volunteered to work with cats specifically, and did not plan to spend any time with dogs. After all, I didn’t like dogs. Things can be very hectic at a shelter, and sometimes when the public address system blares that a handler is needed to bring a dog from “recovery” to “reception” to be reunited with its owner, there are no dog handlers free (most volunteers handle any animal). I hated letting the dog and the owners wait, so I decided to be a big girl, put a leash on the dog (regardless of size), and take it for that long walk to reception. Okay, I learned, dogs are not that bad. When some dogs were actually excited (in a good way) to see me, I began to think that dogs were okay. Despite that, I was still a cat person and had no intention of ever getting a dog.
When I moved to Louisiana, one of my new husband Chip’s co-workers told me I was mean because I wouldn’t let Chip have a dog. I think the guy was trying to get rid of one. I explained that it wouldn’t work out, we had cats, I can’t train dogs, and so on. For five years we lead a dogless existence.