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Love and Consequences

It takes work to live together in a peaceable interspecies kingdom

Oh the trouble love brings!    
    Just about any time your heart runs away with you, you run up a debt you’ll be paying for day, hours, years. By a certain age, we homo sapiens are supposed to know (but do we ever?) about the birds and the bees. But a dog or cat can slip under the radar, fooling us into believing that all interspecies matches are made in heaven.
    When reality hits, you’d rather have a pie in the face than a foot in some of the messes that await you.
    This week’s Dog Days Pet Spectacular is a reminder of the ransom due to the reckless heart.
    “Dogs do what comes naturally,” Animal Behavior College Dog Trainer Laurie Scible advises in this week’s feature, Good Dog! “Many behaviors we don’t like are things dogs love.”
    Rolling in dead fish, for example. Friend Sue’s dog has never met a dead fish he doesn’t love. My Moe ­doesn’t crave that perfume. But peeing over another dog’s scent? That’s an opportunity he never misses. As a youngster, before we’d persuaded Moe to learn house manners, he made covering some former dog’s scent a housewarming gift to a new neighbor. To everybody’s chagrin, the original dog had left his calling card indoors. It gets worse, of course, because peeing is only one element of housebreaking. There’s pooping, too.
    Why should we be surprised? Housebreaking is a learned behavior among animals of all species, even us.
    Of course we shouldn’t be surprised. Still, Scible’s pointers on housebreaking read as a wake-up call as shocking as a shrill alarm at 4:42am. It’s a serious, life-changing routine she prescribes. It punctures my willful notion that love means living happily ever after.
    I know I should have let that illusion go by now. It’s been ridiculed time and again by creatures of many species, dogs even more so than my first husband. But deep in my heart, implanted by my childhood reading of Albert Payson Terhune’s books about the valiant, empathetic Lad — the dog ideal holds indelible … despite the untellable failure of my dalliance with a collie. I’m still clinging to the notion that being my best friend comes naturally to a dog.
    That’s a popular fallacy. It can happen to you.
    On a weekend visit to St. Louis, I finally made acquaintance with Pal, the white-nosed brown dog adopted by my son Nathaniel’s family after falling under the spell of the mostly virtuous Moe on their visit here last summer. You may remember that I tried to warn them off, writing for that purpose (and all our reading pleasure) the story of the incorrigible Slip Mahoney, our family dog during Nat’s childhood.
    You can guess, by the name they’ve chosen, what Nat, Liz and Ada Knoll hope for in a dog. Indeed, Pal completes their circle. But healing the neuroses heaped upon that yearling in his formative weeks in a junkyard is a job for Dr. Vint Virga, the vet and animal behaviorist who, the New York Times Magazine reported in the July 3 issue, is devoting his life to Zoo Animals and Their Discontents.
    Animal psychology is a far more complex subject than we allowed ourselves to imagine. They have behavioral customs and social systems, even consciousness, just as we do. Living together in a peaceable interspecies kingdom means recognizing that now-obvious reality and adapting to it — just like my cats do when they train me.
    Bottom line: Slip Mahoney wasn’t incorrigible. He was misunderstood.
    Read on in this week’s Dog Days Pet Spectacular to learn the lure and lessons of interspecies company.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com