Pop Theory: Dog Love

During the holidays we are inclined to think about those people we appreciate in our lives. For me, “people” connotes both humans and non-humans.  This holiday, like every holiday since the summer of 2009, I am most grateful for my sweet little dog, Deleuze. (Does her name surprise you?) As Facebook suggests, many of my lesbifriends at AfterEllen also have been struck by the dog-love bug. (Pugs seem to be the choice breed.) The Religious Right be damned; if I could, I would actually seriously contemplate marrying my dog, if only to ensure her healthcare (granted, I don’t have a job or healthcare…so let’s all play along with this fantasy, ok?).

My Super Ex-Girlfriend once said to me that she could live alone forever, without human companionship, if she lived amongst the company of her dogs. I, who always identified as more of a cat person, couldn’t quite comprehend what she meant until I myself lived through a series of trials and tribulations (of the lesbian kind, of course), in which my dog became my savior. The care she required, in the mode of multiple walks-per-day, gave my days structure and filled them with love. When human love faltered, she became my “sweetness and light.” Another way to look at this qualitative difference, as Jon Katz puts it in an article at Slate, between loving humans versus loving dogs:

For everyone—dog owners and non-dog owners alike—loving human beings is difficult, unpredictable, and often disappointing. Dog love is safer, perhaps more satisfying: Dogs can’t betray us, undermine us, tell us they’re angry or bored. Dogs can’t leave.

And I noticed during my Suicidal Summer of ‘10—on my many dog walks and long afternoons at the dog run—that I wasn’t only one queer in my neighborhood in “upstate Manhattan” who utilized leisure time with her dog as a form of therapy. A group of us, who congregated at the run on Sundays, quickly realized that not only did our dogs demand (through their necessity to go to the bathroom and for exercise) that we venture out into the world (when we’d prefer to be depressed souls hiding in bed), they also functioned as the “talking point” with which we shy and heartbroken homos could connect and talk with each other when we encountered each other on the street or at the park.

Reflecting upon the import of my dog, I’m reminded of Dog Love, a book written by Marjorie Garber, who asserts that the significance of our canine companions is that they allow humans to express their most profound emotions—without judgment. The lack of judgment is what enables, even promotes, our willingness to show our dogs affection (of the non-bestial kind, let me be painfully clear). Garber wonders,

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…. 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.

By optimistically concluding that dogs do not function as a kind of “evasion” or “substitution,” Garber conveys that “passionate…fulfilling [and] manageable” love between two humans is possible. Without delving into the quagmire of lesbian relationships, I want to pause here—on what our canine companions offer us. Because, while my dog will certainly never be capable of replacing the love of a beautiful woman, she has indeed fostered my ability to express my emotions, and, by means, has allowed me to comprehend and acknowledge the extent to which I am capable of loving.

In the first chapter of Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs, available online at the New York Times,  Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson contends that humans can assert no superiority over the canine species in terms of affect and affective response, and, in this regard, humans can do well to learn something about feelings from their canine companions:

For in the realm of feelings we can have no sense of superiority. After a lifetime of affectionate regard for dogs and many years of close observation and reflection, I have reached the conclusion that dogs feel more than I do…. They feel more, and they feel more purely and more intensely. By comparison the human emotional landscape seems murky with subterfuge and ambivalence and emotional deception, intentional or not. In searching for why we are so inhibited compared with dogs, perhaps we can learn to be as direct, as honest, as straightforward, and especially as intense in our feelings as dogs are.

Dogs were the first domesticated non-human species (dogs are essentially domesticated wolves); humans and canines have formed companionships for thousands of years. This knowledge does and does not amaze me, because I couldn’t imagine my life without my dog’s companionship.