I have been on the internet since the glorious days of puberty, when my family got its first dial-up modem. In that time, I have learned a few things about it: You can download music for free. People really enjoy fighting. And finally, the internet is absolutely besieged by pictures of cats. Does a free digital camera come with cats? Because the first and only thing anybody does with their cats is take pictures of them and put them on the internet. I mean, maybe people do other things with their cats. Who knows? We don’t have documentation!
I think it’s fair to say that dogs are widely understood to be the superior pet. That they haven’t gotten their share of internet acclaim is a travesty, and yet entirely understandable. Though dogs will provide the occasional meme, they are far more suited to real life. Cats are to be looked at, and after you are done looking, they will let you pet them, maybe, if they’re in the mood. But a dog is a creature that is designed for interaction.
I need to say: I have nothing against cats! I used to have two of them. Their names were Cordelia and Wesley, because I am the biggest nerd in the world, and I watch a lot of TV. From what I hear, they now live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with two other cats, and they are very happy, and have not yet requested any therapy due to my breakup with their owner. Still, at a certain point in my life, I became a dog person. I have two of those now: Hektor and Peggy Olsen the Dog. (I still watch a lot of TV.) And I believe every girl needs, at least once in her life, to have a dog.
I got Hektor at a time when I was not feeling so great about myself. I was in the “William H. Macy in Magnolia” stage of my personal development: I had so much love to give! And yet I was going to die alone! I was worried that I was becoming self-involved and solitary, and I wanted to prove that I could make another living thing happy. Hektor was big and clumsy and sort of permanently happy, so that helped. Before he even knew me, he launched his whole body at my face and started licking it, so I figured half of my work was already done. I had done research into dogs, mostly by looking at different breeds to find which ones were listed as “affectionate,” “easy to train,” and, most important, “lazy.” Hektor was a cross between an English bulldog and Boston terrier, and he promised to fit those qualifications.
He turned out to be the best dog I ever met—nay, the best dog in the world! He was gentle and sweet—so gentle that, when I got a dog one-quarter of his size to keep him company, she routinely beat him up—and yet big and ugly enough to make me feel safe walking down the street at night. His interests included eating, napping, and showing you the toy that he has in his mouth so as to make you jealous, but not actually letting you ever play with it, ever. He was so intensely loyal and devoted that he could actually read my moods. If I were to sit on the couch, staring into space, contemplating the fact that I was broke or that some people on the internet didn’t love every word I wrote, there he was, showing me the toy, to distract me. Hektor proved to me that I could take care of something other than myself at a time when I wasn’t even sure I could take care of myself.
Cats are very self-confident creatures: they don’t need to like you, and they don’t necessarily need you to like them, either. They’ll take care of their business in a litter box and clean themselves. Other pets are even more low-key: birds stick to cages, hamsters to their little plastic tubes, fish to their aquariums. Turtles (the pets for people who don’t like having pets) actually dislike being touched so much that they might give you salmonella, just for the heck of it, if you pick them up.
But a dog is a high-maintenance pet. This is often cited as a bad thing. When I asked my mother what it was like to have a baby, just in case I might want to do that, she said, “It’s like having a puppy that gradually learns to talk.” (Thanks, Mom!) And getting a puppy, conversely, is like having a baby that never grows up. They need assistance in the bathroom department. They need you to tell them what not to put in their mouths. (My childhood dog, Katie, would raid our kitchen cabinets for chocolate, which she loved, and which is also dog poison. We had to get her stomach pumped more than once.) When you have a dog, you can’t skip town without getting a sitter, and they think making a mess out of your house is great fun. I’ve lost several outfits to their whims.
But I think this is great! Especially if, like me, you are normally an introspective, live-in-your-head sort of person. A dog is very vocal about what it needs. If you don’t take it out, you will get pee on your carpet. (Before I’d learned to take Hektor out at the right intervals, and had thus displeased him, I found some tactfully placed urine on my bed.) If you don’t feed them in a timely fashion, they will bark. If you don’t play, they will make you play. Mine prefer to announce when playtime starts by bringing toys over and thwacking me on the leg with them. This sounds annoying. But it taught me to open myself up to needs that are not my own. And nothing I am reading about on the internet is more important than making sure my house is not filled with poo.
And on that note, I became much more matter-of-fact about poo, having a dog. I used to not be able to type the word poo. Now it features in many of my conversations: Should the dogs go out to poo? Did the dogs poo? Do we need more plastic bags with which to handle the poo? That is a part of my day: handling poo. And it’s healthy! Before I had a dog, I could get so consumed by my own private dramas and feelings and life that I completely cut off from the real world and the people around me. So I guess you could say that having to deal with the products of another being’s butt keeps me from taking quite so many trips up my own.
This is why I remain deeply suspicious of people who don’t want a pet. People who have animals, and can care for them, are proving to me, an extremely judgmental person, that they enjoy caring about something that can’t do them favors. This isn’t to say that all human relationships are about strategic alliances, though lots of them are. They’re just not about giving unconditional care, which I think is a quality one has to develop at some point, if only to get over being quite so self-involved. No matter how smart your dog is, it will never be able to write your English final for you, nor can your adorable kitty cook you dinner. All it will ever do is love you. If that sounds like a raw deal to you, I don’t quite trust you.
Which brings me to another point about dogs: they will show you, if you don’t already know yet, what love looks like. Dogs, various scientists estimate, have been with us since Caveman Times, when those wolves that weren’t very good at/interested in being predators used to come by for scraps of our food. (Not coincidentally, noticing when you have food, and convincing you to give them some, is still the number-one skill of dogs everywhere.) Gradually, we adopted these nicer wolves as partners, and bred them into different varieties of shape, size, and personality. Wolves are hierarchical animals—like furry little office temps, they always want to know who is in charge and how to make them happy. Dogs have kept that basic personality trait. But we made them even more dependent, and less fierce, so that they wouldn’t bite off our faces the moment they sensed weakness. The result of all this is one of the most empathetic domestic animals in the world, something that has been trained for millennia to read your moods, and wants nothing more than for your mood to be good.
Because humans are occasionally terrible, this has led to tragedies. For example, people are very scared of pit bulls, which are dogs that are frequently bred to fight and sometimes kill other dogs. But here’s the thing: the reason that pit bulls fight other dogs is that they have actually been bred to be intensely trusting, needy, obedient animals that will do anything, even risk their own lives, if their owners ask them to. All of the dogs that die in dog-fighting rings die to make their owners happy. Which is to say that you should almost never be afraid of a dog, but you should be afraid, in some cases, of a dog’s owner, who may have raised the dog to be mean.
Another thing a dog can teach you: self-confidence. Self-confidence is a tricky thing to nail down, but as far as I have figured out in my lifetime, it comes to this: the more you do, the more you believe that you can do. Dogs are not superficial animals. They may criticize your taste in music if it tends toward the high-pitched and howl-inducing—unlike reasonable people, dogs are not Marnie Stern fans—but that’s as far as their intolerance goes. If you take care of your dog, it will love you, deeply and truly. And by this I don’t mean that you should bring a dog into the house to have something that loves you. In fact, don’t do that! I mean, you can learn how to love something in a way that’s nurturing and unconditional, and how to accept the love of another creature in return.
I don’t think it’s a mistake or a coincidence that I became much better at understanding people after I got my dogs. Without being too cutesy, all of these lessons apply to people, too. Things work out better if you can care for people without primarily thinking about what’s in it for you. And the vast majority of the time, if you genuinely put yourself into caring about people, they will respond by liking you.
And if they don’t, you can talk to your dog about it. Hektor finds my monologues about jerks to be FASCINATING. Especially if I am holding a toy. ♦