It’s uh… “Throwback Monday?” Things are a tad crazy right now, what with winter looming,(Translation: Spend much of Sunday planting the 300 bulbs that arrived on Saturday. Be sore today.) and a trip to APDT tomorrow morning. I’ll be giving the Keynote Wednesday morning, please come up and say hi if you are a blog reader. (There is also a book signing from 5-6 pm on Thursday, maybe see you there?)
I’ve been having a hard time about leaving. Jim will be home and all the dogs, cats and sheep will be fine, but I am already missing them. (Which is ridiculous, given that I haven’t even left yet.) This morning, as every morning, Willie put his front paws on the bed and after licking my face, rested his head against me and gave his little moan of happiness. I stroked his head, in awe of how strong the feeling of love for an animal can be, and how lucky I am to have Willie, Maggie and Tootsie in my life. Later, momma cat Nellie rubbed against my legs and I picked her up, ignoring that my eyes would be red and itchy within seconds, and ran my hand down her head and neck. She purred. I did too.
All this got me to thinking about how appropriate it is that I’m leaving to talk to a group of people who love their dogs as much as I do. At least I’ll be in good company.
Here then, is a post I wrote in 2009, about the importance of companion animals in our lives. It all still seems so relevant (and I love reading what I wrote about Willie when he was only 2 years old.)
SEPT 2008 I was working on my new book, coming out from Dogwise in early November, and found a section that relates, I suspect, to the cancellation of my radio show, Calling All Pets. The book, coming out from Dogwise, (Tales of Two Species) is a collection of my columns from Bark magazine. One of them is titled “Pet Peeves.” In it I write about our country’s ambivalent feelings about our pets. On the one hand, many of us love them, treat them like family and can’t imagine life without them. They are as important to our well-being as is literature, music and art. (For some of us, I’d add food, water and oxygen.) And yet, look at how often we hear people say, demeaningly, that an animal is “just a pet.” Here’s an excerpt from the essay:
“Just a pet.” How many times have you heard someone say that? Perhaps it was a conformation breeder who observed, “This pup doesn’t have a good top line, so he should be sold as just a pet.” You’ve probably read the phrase in articles about how much we love our companion animals: “It is remarkable how much money the American public spends just on pets.” And companion animal owners use it—ask any veterinarian, who too often hears: “We just adore our little Cocker Spaniel, she’s the greatest joy of our lives, but we can’t afford to spay her because she’s just a pet.”
Part of the problem, I suspect, is the derivation of the word “pet.” It began as a reference to a spoiled, over-indulged child and only recently has been used to describe the dogs and the cats sharing our homes. “Spoiled and over-indulged” are not words designed to engender respect or importance, now are they? It seems that the American psyche is highly ambivalent about our companion animals… either acknowledging how much they add to our lives, or dismissing them as trivial things, something akin to children’s toys. Nice to have around, but not really important. I wrote about this at length in the afterward to For the Love of a Dog–trying to explain why those of us who love dogs so much are not neurotic or socially challenged, at least not any more than the rest of the country. One of my favorite books about the bond between people and dogs is Pack of Two, by the late (and amazing) writer, Carolyn Knapp. It is a beautiful, beautiful book, and if you haven’t read it, go get a copy right now. I deeply regret that she died, tragically, before she was able to grace us with more of her writings (and, selfishly, before I was able to meet her).
I am curious what others have found. Do you also wonder sometimes if the world sorts into two groups? Group one includes those whose love for animals informs each and every day of their lives (in this case I mean companion animals, but there’s much to say in later writings about the importance of our connection to wild animals and an understanding of their behavior). Group 2 includes people who can take them or leave them, being indifferent to pets at best and those who love them, or at worst demeaning the bond between people and animals as an example of social ineptitude. Of course, I’m oversimplifying, but I’m curious what others experience.. do you often feel like you have to justify your love for your dogs, cats, horses? (ferrets, cockatiels, rats, etc…)
It’s a gorgeous fall day here. My digital camera broke this morning, or I’d show you more pictures of Will working the lamb flock. I am busting out of my britches with pride for him… he is blossoming every day into a wonderful working stock dog. This morning the biggest ram lamb (probably 100+ pounds) turned to face Will down, ducking his head and threatening Will with a charge. Will held his ground (they were face to face, about a foot between their eyes) and stayed cool (I was saying ‘Stea-a-a-a-a-a-dy’ in my lowest and most soothing of voices) and the lamb finally turned and went where Will told him to. A few months ago Will would have exploded at the lamb, not biting but charging forward. That was okay for a young dog; the dog has to win in situations like that (sheep are not stupid, they learn very fast if they can beat a dog) even if the process isn’t elegant. However, it’s much better to keep things calm and quiet. A year ago Will would’ve backed up and the ram lamb would’ve won unless I came in to help (which I would if necessary.) Will just recently turned two, and it is a beautiful thing to watch him grow up and learn to control his emotions, and take charge when he needs to.
But still, Wll’s primary value to me is as a companion dog. I guess that means, when it comes down to it, Will is ‘just a pet.‘ Like Lassie, he adds love and light and joy into my life every day. What a gift.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm in October 2014, Willie is now 8 and young Maggie will be two years old in January. She is learning to drive (move the sheep away from me, rather than “fetching” them to me). It takes a lot of patience and practice, because Border Collies inherently want to stop the forward motion of the sheep by running to their head, and then bringing the sheep such that they are controlled between the dog and the person. It’s hard for the dogs to learn that they can control the sheep even when the sheep are walking away from them.
I thought you might be interested in watching one of her driving lessons. You’ll see in the short video that several times Maggie turns her head to look at me (Jim is the videographer). When this happens I am staying silent and even turning my head away. I don’t want her to look to me for guidance, I want her to figure out for herself what she is supposed to do next. Each time she got back up on her feet and began pushing the sheep forward again. (She usually doesn’t look at me as often as she does here, I think she was confused by Jim being there too.) If you listen carefully, you can hear me say “Come By,” meaning go clockwise around the sheep, then “Lie Down” to stop her in a position where she can begin driving again. Good girl Maggie, you’re doing really well. (Sorry about the camera noise. Sigh.)