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From 4 May 2003 Issue

The Gift of Dogs
By Debby Dobson - ddobson@peoplepc.com 

In all honesty, I prefer most dogs to most people. Dogs are emotionally forthright creatures who wear their hearts on their sleeves (metaphorically speaking); you always know where you stand with them.

When my dog Nora greets me, even if I've been gone only a short while, she is not merely happy to see me again - she is ecstatic! Her entire body radiates joy; she wriggles, bounces and whirls around with an enormous wide grin on her face. I always feel so delighted and touched by her unabashed display of affection and wonder why we humans can't duplicate it.

That is not to say that I have no human friends - I am blessed to know some of the most wonderful people and truly cherish their presence in my life. But overall, I find it less taxing and less emotionally draining to make friends with a dog. Dogs know what unconditional love is and they display this without reserve unless they have been treated less than kindly by the humans they interact with. Even then, I have seen dogs who, despite the horrific or neglectful way they were treated, persistently attempted to ingratiate themselves to their people. Sidling up to an unresponsive human, ears back, eyes up and tail tentatively wagging, they again hope for that elusive crumb of affection or approval.

In the over 20 years I have been a petsitter, I've found that people who have dogs usually fall into one of two main categories: those who are dog owners and those who share their life with a dog.

As a group, the dog owners generally see themselves as above their pet intellectually and emotionally. They expect their dog to be obedient and well behaved and often spend time and money on training. They are cognizant of the necessity of regular grooming, veterinary care and proper nutrition. They provide their dogs with toys and a comfortable place to sleep; often these people read books about their specific breed of dog and make it a point to educate themselves on at least the basics of dog ownership. They will research dog breeds and will purchase a certain breed because of its popularity or beauty and also because they would prefer a purebred over a mixed breed.

This rather detached group of dog owners consider themselves just that - the "owner" of a dog. And while they certainly provide more than adequately for the needs of their pet, these are also the folks who sometimes lament over the responsibility and restrictions their canine puts on their lives. During my years as a petsitter, I often heard phrases such as: "We'll never have another dog" or "It's so difficult to travel when you have a dog."

And then there are those who consider it a privilege and an honor to share their life with a dog. They don't particularly care one way or another whether their friend comes with official papers proclaiming his or her lineage. Many times their companion came from a shelter where the clock was ticking or simply showed up one day and, in effect, adopted their person. People in this group spontaneously light up whenever they meet a dog - for them, it is a delightful and heartwarming experience every time. They don't mind getting slobbered or jumped on because, for them, that is the epitome of the unique outpouring of joy which only comes from a dog.

These folks are dog lovers who easily and often convey their gratitude and affection to their four-legged friends. It may be in the form of a hug during a walk, a scratch on the rump as they pass by or a kiss goodnight. And this love and affection is mirrored back; these are the dogs who have a relaxed body posture, whose attitude is cheerful and upbeat and who smile often and infectiously.

There is, unfortunately, a third group of people who also have dogs and these are the ones who either overtly abuse or neglect them. In the past, I believed that a lack of education and/or financial resources was primarily the reason for their behavior, but I have since learned that this is not the case. I have seen horrible neglect from the well-to-do and educated here in my hometown.

For example, a friend told me about a neighbor of hers, a doctor who kept his dog outside in the heat with little to no shade. This was a man who was taught about dehydration in medical school, and who had both the awareness and the monetary means to help his dog feel more comfortable, but made no attempt to do so. Such cruel indifference, which is termed "neglect" by legal standards, is beyond my comprehension.

Equally repugnant are those who overtly physically abuse their dogs - they take their frustrations out on a living creature who has not a clue as to why they are being hit or kicked. In lieu of a loud verbal correction, these people strike before they speak or think.

I worked closely with a group of concerned and like-minded folks on a terrible case of abuse in which a chained 8-month old puppy was savagely beaten to death, and I learned many things. One of the most important was that the state and local laws designed to protect companion animals are sorely lacking. Too often, if a dog is provided with adequate food, water and shelter (read: "enough to keep her or him alive"), that is considered legally acceptable. Forget adequate exercise or any measure of comfort and security!

Having observed and interacted with them for many years, I am convinced that dogs are endowed with the same range and depth of emotion as humans - they feel love, fear, jealousy and anger, to mention but a few. Local laws generally never address these emotional needs; in fact, dogs are often considered personal property, just as is a vehicle and certainly no one can tell you how to treat your vehicle!

Over the centuries, dogs have more than proven themselves to be humankind's "best friend" - they asked for very little and gave so much. In the past, many dogs were bred for specific purposes such as hunting or herding; they helped us and enhanced our lives on a daily basis. Today, most dogs are considered companions, but I believe they still help us immeasurably by being a shining example of devotion, joy and unconditional love; we have so much to learn from them and much to gain from their very presence!

So let's all take some time to give back to these wonderful creatures; there are many effective ways to help. Volunteer at your local shelter (and especially take time to help socialize the more shy or frightened dogs as this will vastly improve their chances of being adopted), make regular donations to an animal advocacy group of your choice, join a breed rescue group. Most importantly, educate yourself! Learn about dog behavior by reading and observing them so you can understand their world. Ask about different types of dog foods for your friend - some are much better than others! Find out what your state and local laws say about the treatment of companion animals and if you think they fall short, see what you can do to change them. Use the Internet if you have access to it - it is an invaluable tool. There are many terrific dog and animal advocacy websites whose email list you can subscribe to which often include online petitions to sign and the names and addresses of specific legislators to whom you can write about a certain case.

The bottom line is that if more people speak up against injustice and indifference, the greater the chance of positive change for dogs. And, in my humble opinion, they most certainly deserve it.

Go on to Roman Cats by Demnymets@aol.com
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