When Alec died, I swore I would never adopt another dog. Losing him was too devastating. Then I heard Teagan’s story and changed my mind. This week, little Teagan is the mascot for ALDF’s National Justice for Animals Week. Check out her video!
Something kind of weird happened the other day. I was hanging up a skirt in my closet when one of Ali’s cookies fell onto the floor. I was shocked as I always am by some unexpected reminder of my former life, a life where my pockets were always full of dog biscuits and little crumbs, but instead of crying my immediate reaction was puzzlement. I couldn’t figure out where it had dropped from. I probably looked pretty comical standing there with my mouth hanging open looking around the closet. The skirt had no pockets, and the other skirt sharing its hanger I had not worn in a long time and could not remember ever having worn to walk Ali, though it’s possible. But I also have moved twice since Alec died, both times leaving my clothes on hangers and tossing them haphazardly into the back of my van, so I would think even if I had a cookie in there it would have shaken loose by now. Plus I didn’t even really touch it, the other skirt with the pockets I mean, so even if there was something wedged in there I don’t see how it came loose just then. I didn’t think I had touched anything, other than lightly draping my little stretchy skirt over the hanger. And nothing else on the nearby hangers had pockets. It was just bizarre.
Wherever it dropped from, it made me smile, and I picked it up and put it on the table next to my magic words collage. But even weirder, when I went back into the closet later that afternoon a second cookie appeared on the floor. Very strange! I left this one where it was (it’s still on the floor in there) and took a photo of it.
Something else that made me smile this week (see, my posts aren’t always super duper depressing!) was this card I came across in the grocery store. So I plunked down five dollars and bought it for myself. I really like it. I also propped it up next to my Ali collage.
I love you Ali.
One of my pet peeves, so to speak, is the concept of “unconditional love” as attributed to dogs by humans. It is a popular way of romanticizing dogs and while I am loath to be the Grinch who stole unconditional love, there are reasons why I think this “compliment” is over- and misused in the context of human-dog relations.
I first began thinking about the concept of unconditional love after my beloved husky, Kobi, passed away a few years ago. Did Kobi love me unconditionally? Hell, no! But I loved him unconditionally, and this unique feeling, awakened by my relationship with him (which had many challenges), became a cause for serious reflection. At the time I did not question whether other people were correct to wax poetic about how unconditionally their dogs loved them. I just thought I had that certain odd dog: independent of spirit and in no way loyal, a wild-at-heart canine who felt the confines of living within human society more so than the more slavish breeds (or mixes thereof). That was my dear Kobi, whom I always imagined thought of me as being the “food-lady” and “walk-lady,” and not much more. Moreover, I remember with chagrin times when I would cry bitter tears over yet another mess created or willful act of destruction and wonder why Kobi did in fact not love me, perhaps even disliked me! I ruefully laugh about this now, as being the expression of human narcissism it is, but I’m certain the tacit expectations that accompany the cultural ideal of unconditional love were rattling around in my head. Whatever it was, my dog did not have it for me, which led to feelings of inadequacy, which, well… you see where putting unrealistic expectations on dogs can lead! The desire for unconditional love is a human desire, and many mistakes begin when humans look to dogs to fulfill their psychological and emotional needs.
But I digress. The point being that after Kobi passed, I marveled at how fiercely I loved him for all those years in the absence of practically any positive reinforcement on his behalf, and I thought that was a pretty neat capacity we humans have, and wondered why this might not be the more lofty potential result of genuinely sharing our lives with a dog – this awakening in us, as opposed to elevating and celebrating their so-called capacity to love us “no matter what.”
However, that’s as far as I took this train of thought, as it applied to one particular dog, my Kobi. Only later did I start to think critically about this concept broadly as it is so often applied to the idealized human-dog relationship. If I were so inclined, I could tell myself Alec loves me unconditionally. As opposed to Kobi, he very reliably responds to his name and comes when I call him, and seems to enjoy spending time with me, and never tries to run away from me when off leash. He displays a genuine preference to be at my side rather than elsewhere. Unlike aloof Kobi, Alec gets visibly excited when I come home, whether we have been apart for five minutes or five hours, and seems overjoyed to see me. Yet, does this mean he loves me unconditionally?
Leaving aside questions of whether and what kind of emotions nonhuman animals experience (the plethora of rich studies coming out of the field of cognitive ethology on a regular basis would leave a skeptic hard-pressed to argue that animals do not have complex emotional lives; how similar these emotions are to ours is an interesting question, but also a potential minefield for misplaced anthropomorphism [note that I am also critical of the term “anthropomorphism,” but that is a topic for another day]), let’s take a critical look at the idea of unconditional love as humans apply it to dogs in American culture.
There are a few problems with this concept; perhaps most importantly, it rather conveniently ignores power dynamics. Dogs in American culture are utterly dependent upon their owners (despite the increasing popularity of the term “guardian” among animal protection advocates, we are in reality their “owners” and this is an important distinction under the law) for everything, from the bare necessities like food, water and shelter, to higher order social and psychological needs like companionship, exercise, and mental stimulation. In this way, they are similar to children, who don’t have much of a choice about loving their parents for the simple fact that until a certain age, their parents constitute their whole world. It is well-known that children continue to love parents who abuse and neglect them just as children love parents who provide a loving and secure environment. Unconditional love takes on a twisted and tragic meaning in this and similar contexts, but at root are the powerlessness of the one who supposedly loves unconditionally and the privileged position of the one who is the recipient of this fabled “love without strings.” In a relationship where one party has all the power, it is facile and self-serving to suppose that the powerless one loves the “master” unconditionally. This facet of the dominant ideology serves to legitimize and mask power relations inherent in the dog-human relationship. For, despite the fact that more people define their pets as “family members” in surveys, the sad fact is that this is very much a provisional status, which can be (and all too often is) terminated at will by the member of the relationship who is not legally defined as property, and therefore has the absolute authority to do the defining (and subsequent re-defining).
We live in a country in which countless healthy dogs are relinquished to shelters each year (approximately half of whom are killed) for reasons that range from trivial and entirely fixable behavioral problems, to not wanting to put in the time and effort to find a home that will accept pets, to simply not having enough time to spend with the one-time “family member.” If this is unconditional love, I’d hate to imagine what the conditions would be! I cannot say if all of the people who give up their dogs each year for lifestyle reasons in happier times claimed their pet loved them unconditionally, but it’s a fair bet in a society in which this is a prominent, if contradictory, cultural belief.
What got me started thinking about this most recently was an ad I saw on the Portland Craigslist. I never go on the “pets” section of CL, but I was looking for something specific and while there I was surprised and depressed to see all the “free to good home” ads (surprised because for some reason I thought CL disallowed this type of listing, but apparently they only prohibit sales of animals). Out of curiosity, I clicked on a listing that advertised a free pair of Weimaraners. The ad showed a picture of two dogs, a mother and son, and contained a story about how the owner had fallen on rough times during the recent “economic storm” and could no longer keep these cherished family members. After a few paragraphs detailing the charms of the breed and of these two dogs in particular, the person giving her dogs away had the gall to list as a requirement that the new owner love them “unconditionally.” Holy shit – are you kidding me?
The above scenario, and the countless others like it, exemplifies the other reason why this concept, beautiful and poetic though it may be, is problematic: “unconditional” is an adjective describing a verb: love. Yes, love is in the end a verb, an action, or it is meaningless. This applies to human–human relationships too. But many dog owners treat it as something squishy, just a feeling that can come and go and be transferred to the next owner. No matter how well-intended, this exalted term has been bled of meaning, dubious in its application from the first. The fact that someone would have the lack of self-awareness to demand that the new owner of the dogs she herself is giving away love them unconditionally is revealing. In a society where dogs are legally defined as property, a status reflecting the dominant social values already in place, unconditional love is a fiction, something which can be given and taken away at the whim of the more powerful, in other words, the antithesis of unconditional.
So to quote that old jazz standard, down with (unconditional) love! Let’s be more truthful. At its barest, dog’s love for humans is need-based and human’s love for dogs is capricious and non-binding. While my love for Alec does not fall into this latter camp, nor does it describe the feelings of many of my friends for their dogs, our commitment to our canine charges does not reflect the dominant order. I most assuredly do love Alec unconditionally and I daresay it is the most powerful, beautiful force that exists – a primary force giving rise to other secondary emotions and actions. But I resent this concept being co-opted to the point where a person giving her dogs away on Craigslist can invoke it with straight face and lack of embarrassment at her own hypocrisy. If I sound angry, it’s because I am. It saddens me deeply to know that erstwhile canine “family members” are being put to death in “shelters” every day. Calling attention to the cultural myths that help enable this shameful situation may be akin to shouting into a hurricane, but how long will we as a society, as individuals, allow this to continue?
In the end, whether dogs love us unconditionally is to me the less interesting question than are we capable of loving them this way? And perhaps we need to ask ourselves: why do we need them to love us unconditionally? What hole in our psyches does this fill? What is this deep rooted desire to be loved for simply existing? Dogs are not tools that exist to pump up our egos; I would propose we instead endeavor to earn their love by doing our best to fulfill their species-specific needs. I believe this challenge – and it is an ongoing challenge – is the essence of unconditional love.
PS Alec continues to do amazingly well and the Portland move has been good to us. More updates soon!
I had the strangest argument with a very good friend of mine the other night after she asserted that a mutual friend’s feelings for his bicycle were the same as my feelings for Alec. If I had just ignored that comment, the argument would never have ensued. But I was honestly shocked to hear this come out of her mouth. Even if she thinks my feelings about Alec are comparable to another friend’s feelings about an inanimate object, the fact that she would not think twice about voicing this opinion to me was definitely weird. Weirder still was the fact that she would not budge one inch from this assertion, even as she apologized for the fact that I took her comment “the wrong way.” As I repeatedly gave her the opportunity to explain what exactly I had gotten wrong or misinterpreted, she simply repeated the same thing using slightly different words. It was surreal.
Let me back up. This friend dearly loves both Ali and me. And we both love her. She is one of my best friends and I respect and admire her greatly. In fact, I had just flown her up from San Francisco so she could stay at my apartment and take care of Ali while I was in Boston last weekend for work. She is one of the few people with whom I fully trust post-injury Ali. The cost of her plane ticket and food for her stay was around $300, a sum I could have easily reached paying a random pet sitter stay at my house for three days, and Ali knows and loves her, so I was amazingly grateful she took those days off work and time out of her busy life to come to Portland to watch him. This is a good friend! And her love for Ali (and her own dog) is unquestionable. So why does she think Ali can be compared to my friend’s bicycle? I’m not sure. The argument was heated and we came to no resolution. She tenaciously defended her position. Now, the bicycle-loving friend in this scenario truly does love his bike. One could even argue it is the center of his life. He has no car and depends on his bike for work. Using a bike as his sole mode of transportation is also a political statement for him, and his bike certainly holds more meaning to him than it would for the average person. No question. One might even say his bike is his friend. And yet… does he really feel about his bike the way I feel about Ali? Is that even possible? A big point in her argument was that the friend in question is about to pay $50 to ship his bike to San Francisco for a 10-day trip rather than ride a borrowed bike. Okay, even if I did want to engage on the level of how “much money you spend on a person or object indicates your feelings for said person or object,” with my ongoing expenses for Ali and the cool 16k in vet bills he racked up in just two weeks last year…well, sadly, I probably do have him beat there too. No matter how important a material object like a bicycle or any other treasured possession is in someone’s life, no matter how much meaning that thing holds for them (and knowing several people who are crazy for their bikes, I understand the point), can this feeling ever truly compare to the emotional bond one feels with a sentient being? Obviously, I think not. The fact this good friend of mine and Ali’s, who is also a wonderful guardian to her own dog, disagreed enough to argue this point until neither of us had any breath left is indicative of just how far from the mainstream my views are regarding my relationship with my dog. (I use the possessive but not to objectify him – I am “his” as much as he is “mine,” in the best sense of those words). So for those of you who understand why I was shocked and offended by her comparing Ali to a bike in this manner, I want to thank you. You are my kindred spirits in a world where animals are not only defined within our antiquated legal system as mere property with no more worth than a chair (and in the case of a shelter dog, definitely worth less than your expensive bicycle), but also are regrettably often conceptualized in similar terms even by those who love them.
Those who have been following along will remember that after Ali’s first successful session in the underwater treadmill a few months ago, he balked the second time and refused to walk, so we decided to give it a rest for awhile. In the mean time we continued with swimming therapy in the river and our standing exercises at home. Well, as I mentioned in my last post, we decided to try the underwater treadmill again and I am happy to report that Ali has decided he loves it now! Last week, he was so excited he tried to climb into the tank while still in his wheelchair, which is great. It’s cute how enthusiastic he is now about going to the Animal Care Center for these weekly appointments. I think we have done a good job of making it fun for him. And it doesn’t hurt that he has such a good attitude about everything! He is such a sweet, happy boy. People remark on it when they see us on the street or in the park. First they notice and ask about his wheelchair, then they say, “He looks so happy!” And he is. We both are. I’m happy because I know how lucky we are; he’s happy just because. And isn’t that one of the cool things about sharing your life with a nonhuman animal: this zen-like just because? Not to digress into turgid sentimentality, but sometimes when I look at this dog, as am doing now over my laptop screen, in addition to the usual feelings of fierce love and quiet admiration, every now and then my heart melts, turns to liquid, and I feel it rush to my feet. This isn’t as unpleasant as it sounds, but it can be an overwhelming feeling at times. It makes me feel helpless. What do you do with such a strong feeling? You recognize it and honor it as best you can with your actions, I guess. What else is there?
Alright, leaving crazy I-love-my-dog-so-much-it-makes-my-head-hurt land, during the last couple treadmill sessions, Juli has noticed some further improvement in his back right leg. Between two sessions she said his right leg had more movement than the week before, which is pretty exciting. The last two weeks he has been able to move his right leg on his own, whereas the week before she had to bend over the whole time and complete each step for him. He is still “knuckling” on his right foot when he steps, but last time he placed his foot once on his own, which Juli said is a milestone. She also said the muscles in his back legs were less tight and more supple this week, which is cool because during the last week I have been massaging his legs during standing exercises at home (per her recommendation to relieve some of the tightness), so it seems the massage is helping. After a week of not being able to swim (nobody to help), Ali has gone twice this weekend and we are going out to the Russian River again later today to meet Steve. So he has gotten some great exercise this long holiday weekend. I just hope the Labor Day revelers do not make the river too crowded today! It is always more difficult with lots of people and dogs around. Swimming Ali regularly is an ongoing challenge, but a necessary one to tackle because it is so incredibly therapeutic and the benefits for him are invaluable. Okay, now go forth and hug your companion animal and appreciate the unsettling yet not unpleasant feeling of your own heart melting.
Ali had his fourth acupuncture treatment last week. Starting with the second time, Dr. Canon hooked his needles up to a little box of wires that transmit electricity (see photo). He looked like such a Frankenpuppy hooked up to those wires! The gauge on the electric box goes up to 4, which she said most dogs can handle, but once we reached 2 Ali’s hind legs sort of twitched and he sat straight up, indicating he felt something, even at that relatively low dose. So she let him “pickle” at number 2 for 20 or so minutes. The fact that he reacted to such a low dose of electricity suggests he may be more susceptible to the therapeutic aspects of the acupuncture so I think his “sensitivity” in this regard is actually a good sign. The last two weeks he was able to handle her turning it up to 4 (I could actually feel the current pumping through his muscles – they kind of pulsate – it was weird!).
Like Dr. Canon and others have said, it is difficult, or maybe impossible, to be able to tell with any certainty if acupuncture is working. Even if Ali were to show improvements after his sessions, we can’t necessarily know if this is attributable to the acupuncture, his “normal” course of recovery, or something else (like the other therapies we are doing). But, at about $40 a session it is relatively inexpensive and I do want to try everything feasible to give him the best chance. And acupuncture will not, from what I understand, hurt him, so I am not that concerned with being able to scientifically say whether it is working or not. The more I learn about this disease and recovery from it, the less I realize is actually definitively known. Nobody really knows what the heck is going on, basically. But I can say within the last few weeks that I have noticed his right leg moving slightly in the cart where until just recently there was nothing. I am going to keep monitoring this and hoping, hoping, hoping his right leg “wakes up” so it can catch up with the left. Who knows, maybe the acupuncture is helping! But I really do think I am seeing something over the last few weeks in his right leg that wasn’t there before.
On a sad note, my neighbors’ dog passed away this morning. His name was Scooby-doo and he was one of those adorable chow mixes that looks like a Teddy bear with a lion’s mane. I knew he had been sick, they thought it was Cushing’s disease, but last I heard they were treating him with some kind of medication. He was ten years old and they adopted him from the LA pound when he was 6 months old. Ali and I were heading home after our morning excursion to the park and I saw them on their porch and waved hello. Shane came up the fence separating our yards and I noticed he was crying and of course I had an awful sinking feeling. He said trough tears, “We lost Scooby this morning.” He was having trouble speaking; I felt so bad. Needless to say they really loved him and as he told me what happened and explained he was in shock I recognized all the terrible emotions I felt when I lost Kobi and how I felt when I almost lost Ali…that desperate, bottomless, raw grief that clutches your heart and squeezes until you can barely breathe. The world goes all crooked and nothing seems real. My heart broke for him and his wife and I wished so much I could just take their pain away. After I lost Kobi, I said I would never adopt another dog (I already had Ali), that the pain of losing him was just too much to go through again. Now, although I wish I didn’t and instead could just enjoy and appreciate every single second with him, I think a lot, probably too much, about losing Ali. I try so hard not to go there but it’s hard for my obsessive brain sometimes. I just love him so much. There are no words. He is a very precious individual to me. Our relationship, while of course different from my relationships with people, is special and unique. I honestly don’t know how people with kids do it. I would definitely be one of those crazy overprotective moms who would not let her child out of her sight until he was 18. I like to think I wouldn’t be, but I know myself…I am a worrier. I get that from my mom, of course. She would call me when I was away at college to warn me if it was going to rain that day and to tell me to be careful outside. She refuses to get on a plane and she did not want me to move to California because it was going to fall into the ocean any minute. You know the type. I am much more laid back and adventurous than she is (it would be hard not to – no offense, mom, you know I love you!) but I can’t shake off the anxiety completely. I am afraid of a lot of things: mountain lions, idiot drivers, heights, small spaces, and countless other everyday terrors. But most of all I am afraid of failing someone I love, someone who is dependent upon me to take care of them. And this overwhelming protective urge…I feel it so strongly sometimes. But there is only so much you can do to protect someone else.
Anyway, after Kobi died and I said I would never get another dog, people told me I would change my mind eventually. It’s been two years and I’m still not sure. Of course I have had Ali this whole time. I don’t know what it would be like to not share my life with a dog. Then again, it hurts so much to lose them, and we are pretty much guaranteed to lose them unless we meet an untimely end ourselves, given the huge disparity in our relative life spans. I strive for the Buddhist ideal of un-attachment – I know attachment only leads to suffering – but knowing and feeling are two very different things and I have not quite gotten it down yet.