Saturday, March 15, 2008


In Patrick McDonnell's strip "Mutts," there's a character I can barely stand to look at. McDonnell intends this; he's picturing the untenable. The animal is just called Guard Dog. No name, of course. He strains at the end of a short chain, and only when he dreams is he ever free. This is his life. And this is the life of countless dogs. Solitary confinement, for no crime. No exercise or mental stimulation, no communication, no pleasure. What possesses us?

The organization Dogs Deserve Better (No Chains!) has a brochure that is equally painful to look at. On the front is an ill-kempt beast with a forlorn look in his eyes. And then you read: "You see me with your eyes . . . Now see me with your heart." By this point you're on the floor. I must leave it to the psychologists to explain the disconnect that permits us to do things like this.

Like, cage anything. Guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, or (as Blake contended put "heaven in a rage") birds. Every one of them is actively suffering under the unseeing gaze of their captors. Some of these captors, too, are otherwise good people; some of them are my friends. (And you should know that I do not exclude myself from the ranks of the hypocrite or the unheeding; I am, oh, I am. Just ask my shrink. Or my friends. Or the cows whose dairy products I eat even though they suffer for it. I'm a wicked hypocrite.) But I avert my eyes when I go to their homes, because seeing an animal in a cage--alone, lonely, bored--actually makes me hyperventilate. I can't look or I'm going to have a panic attack. Nor do I feel I can say anything: Who am I to judge? That is not an entirely rhetorical question, as I've just mentioned. And even if I were to say something, I already know the response: Oh, don't worry. He's very happy.

This answer veers from ignorance of animal behavior, I believe, into the precincts of denial. Or at least the convenience of wishful thinking. Plantation owners went a long way on the Happy Slaves myth, remember. We see what we want to see. We do not like to consider ourselves jailers, so we say they are not imprisoned. A simple solution.

I'm not sure if it's more generous to allow that willful ignorance is at play. The kind that permits a dog owner to aver, as his dog stands stiffly with hackles raised, tail erect and vibrating, and a hard stare--beyond any doubt the canine way of saying "Make my day"--"Oh, my dog's friendly. He's just playing."

A lot of dogs have gotten hurt because their people didn't intervene before it was too late with these types of "friendly" dogs.

Yet it is the dog on a chain who is probably the saddest creature on earth. And I am sorry to bring up this depressing subject, when all we want is to be happy and forget about sadness and banish people who harp on "negative" things. But I wonder, Whatever is the point? Imagine locking a child in a room for years. No playmates, no hugs. Food pushed past the doorway three times a day. How is it possible such a social creature could be happy, or even not entirely ruined in the mind as well as spirit? Not possible. So why is it legal for people to keep solitary dogs penned or chained for their entire lives? Why? Is it because we have no morals? I may note that the AKC takes no formal stand against this practice. Now you know what to think of them.

Of course, I'm enough of a nutcase to think we might consider legally requiring off-leash activity for our dogs as well. A dog who never gets off-leash is a little like a child who, yes, gets out of the room, but has to hold Mommy's hand while he does so.

Instead, at the moment, seemingly every community is facing ever more legislation toward keeping dogs leashed at all times. It's even happening in hippie (okay, "hippie-ish") Woodstock. If it can happen here, man, it can happen anywhere. I lay this at the feet of our stupidly expanding population--there are simply too many people, and thus too many eyes. You can't just slip under the radar anymore, do as you please so long as it doesn't hurt anyone. Now there is always someone to see you, and one of those someones is likely to be secretly afraid of dogs. So they get on the horn to the town council, and then the end is near for the mental and physical well-being of lots of dogs. And the owners who love them.

Now where am I going to go to give Nelly a run, listen to the burbling creek, and have some of those serendipitous meetings that begin in the parking lot in mutual admiration of corgis and setters, Aussies and mutts? Dog people really are more interesting than the usual run of human, you know that? What an opportunity lost. For everyone. But especially for a woman at, um, liberty.

I guess I'll have to go back to Prospect Park. Ironic, to have to go back to a city of eight million people in order to let my dog run free. But next week. A few days of irony never hurt anyone.


Paul Kowacki said...

Interesting you would address Mutts; Chris bought his compendium, "The Best of..." for me as an anniversary gift, and the past few weeks I've been working my way through it. I'd seen his strip, but not all of it; as you know, I collect dog cartoons. It's painful reading, as alot of his work reflected the plight of dogs, and cats of course, at the hands of "humans". There were many installments addressing Guard Dog; the reader can get to know him quite well.

A patient recently mentioned a neighbor, who chains two dogs out and leaves them to bark incessantly. The dog officer has only so much power, and no amount of talking with the guy has helped. The dogs are marginally socialized, and likely will end up euthanized. I know this will sound hyperbolic, but I offered to help him kidnap the dogs. Thought we could leave the empty collars hooked to the chains, with a note: "died of a broken heart, gone to dog heaven".

That's how we got Sam. He was so weak he couldn't stand, or lift his head. Chris grabbed him. He was maybe 10 weeks old at the time, he's going to be 14 in May.

How about you set up a vote, for your readership, see if they think it's okay to step out of our PC/comfort/safety zone, and rescue, truly rescue, dogs like this.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Boy, do I ever know the temptation to steal a dog off his chain. Or at least go and offer to buy him; you figure, what could they care anyway? Fifty bucks would surely do the trick. Then, though, they'd probably go to the shelter and get another one. Shelters should not adopt to people who are going to keep a dog outdoors--and they should go and check up to make sure. But, like I said, it would be easier to simply legislate it in the first place: we aren't permitted to tie up our children. We shouldn't be permitted to tie up dogs, either. Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

I so much agree with the two of you, these chained dogs are a shameful sight - and sound! This is not even life as they do not have any relationship with their "human".

On another hand, I am less upset with "bad owners" who behave like idiots, stuffing their dogs and killing them eventually with excess of fat, or deciding they "love" their little Santa disguise, sunglasses, etc... It is true that this is not the life a dog should have, but they end up believing they are happy because they are loved, they are talked to, kings of the ugly realm! I pity them, because they will never run free (and naked!) somewhere, they will never be a real dog, just a living toy. But... they are so much better than all the ones who really suffer at the hands of nasty people!

My dog Millie cannot run freely: it is forbiden anywhere we go in NJ for once> And she got lost in Virginia and that's how we got her. She was lost and very scared (and scarred), had been at least tormented by youngsters (we just need to see her reaction when she sees youngsters now!), probably beaten, and very sick. She stays pretty fearful, but as a mixed beagle/hound, is very interested in what's happening in the woods, and would run run run with enthusiasm, to end up lost. And too fearful of everything to have much chances to find her way.

So... she is our prisoner in a way! She would be happier to run, but for how long? We bring her in a dogpark every Sunday, where she does not interacts much with other dogs as she certainly grew up only with human brats!

Patricia the Belgian

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Hear, hear, Patricia. I don't understand people who think a dog might remotely enjoy being dressed up or carried in a purse. Maybe they're the same people who eat their dinners off the floor and enjoy a raw bone from time to time?

I wonder if Millie could benefit from a training protocol called "Really Reliable Recall." Google it. It's meant to pretty much guarantee to help you be able to call your dog back to you. It's intensive, though, I warn you: Much work for the human; less so for the dog (as usual). Beagles have the wandering gene. Or rather, they have powerful noses that take them where the smells are. But maybe with work like this, Millie could enjoy an off-leash hike with you someday.

Patricia the Belgian said...

I agree, I could never do that myself (plus.. isn't horrible anyway?) I have a friend who buys santa's capes for her dog, the poor thing is just ridiculous! She, obviously, doest not understand what "love" is, and mistakes it with her own sense of being "usefull" and a "good mother".

She is not Belgian, ha-ha-ha!

On another hand, in Europe, you see this stupid behaviour towards dogs almost only in British people. Those gadgets stores are not very popular elsewhere, luckily for the dogs!