Why is it sometimes easier to say "I love my dog" than "I love my spouse"? Dogs, we often say, offer unconditional love, where human lovers and human beloveds are often, well... all too human in their inconsistencies, frailties, and willfulness. But what is "unconditional love," and what are the conditions that produce and nurture it? Dogs provide "human interest" on the evening news and in the morning paper. The plight of an abandoned puppy or a mistreated older dog can sometimes provoke spontaneous generosity or public outcry in a way we wish were the case for the subjects of individual human tragedy. Homeless persons, abused children, refugees of war are so commonly reported that we have become dulled to their particular tragedies. The vividness of our feelings comes back when the story is about dogs. It's not that people feel less, or less strongly, about other people than about their dogs -- at least for the most part. It's rather that the overwhelming dimension of human need sometimes makes the task of reparation seem hopeless. Dog love is local love, passionate, often unmediated, virtually always reciprocated, fulfilling, manageable. Love for humans is harder. Human beauty and grace are fitfully encountered: a child grows up and grows away; a lover becomes familiar, known, imperfect, taken for granted. But dog love is not an evasion or a substitution. It calls upon the same range and depth of feelings that humans have for humans. Historically as well as in modern times it has often brought out the best in us.
Dog stories find a place in our ongoing folklore as the real embodiment of what we would like to think were "family values" among human beings. Sheba, a Rottweiler mix in Oakland Park, Florida, was chained up by her owner after giving birth to nine puppies. The owner, who didn't want the pups, buried them alive, but Sheba broke from her chains and dug them out. The puppies -- and the heroic mother -- were rescued; the owner faced charges of animal abuse that could land him in prison for up to five years. In another very similar incident, the mother dog rescued her puppies from a trash compactor into which her owner had tossed them. In default of any consensus about social policy, family planning, even what constitutes "the family," in a populace increasingly weary of economic struggle and social divisiveness, "family values," like other values, are -- it is fascinating to note -- now often passed on in popular culture not through human stories, but through stories of, and love for, dogs.
The dog becomes the repository of those model human properties that we have cynically ceased to find among humans. Where today can we find the full panoply of William Bennett's Book of Virtues -- from Courage and Responsibility to Loyalty and Family Values -- but in Lassie and Beethoven and Millie and Checkers and Spot?
"Humane societies," after all, evoke in their very titles the good qualities of human beings: kindness, mercy, compassion. How we treat animals becomes a litmus test for "humanness." (Dog Love 14-15)
(c) 1996 Marjorie Garber. Used with permission
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