Ordinarily, I’d be amused at my own ability to assemble a Latin phrase out of two terms I know. That’s about half of all the Latin phrases I’ve learned. But here, it’s just sad. Our family’s friend, Greta, died a year ago yesterday, and we still have heavy hearts when we go into our back yard and see no evidence of her playfulness. When she was a puppy, she would haul ass across the lawn; that’s a bit crude, but if that expression ever applied to any situation, it was Greta’s. She was full-throttle as she blew through the “doggie door” and chased me or one of our daughters toward the swing set, or as she fruitlessly pursued some lizard sunning against the wall or mourning dove perched in the grass.
The past year finds me wondering what it is we love so much about domestic, 4-legged, winged or finned companions. That’s partly due to Greta’s departure and also because for the last four months I’ve been writing an article about animal welfare and human negotiations directed toward the improvement of animal treatment. Of course, there is a plethora of literature praising the nobility of our “pets,” as they used to be called (before that became politically incorrect), and the wonders of two/four legged companionship. There’s also been a movie about Marley, as we’ve all been reminded. My father had a simple explanation. He’d come home from his stressful job, walk into the living room, stare at our Daschund, shake his head and say with a scoff, “dogs are better than people,” as he headed for the bedroom to change into his leisure clothes.
I suppose the wisdom of Dad’s philosophy had something to do with one’s standards of comparison, but what strikes me is the simple profundity of this idea: it’s so hard to please other people that it’s frequently shocking when you succeed. There are so many barriers to succeeding in a “me” oriented world. In contrast, it requires relatively little to please a pet; sentient pets seem as eager to be pleased as to please us; and that fact excites and encourages us to engage in further acts that, by pleasing the pet (or appearing to) please us, too. Of course, we’re imagining the intensity of the pet’s pleasure response but, well, so what? The external factors—a wag of the tail, a mew, a nuzzling of the leg, perking of the ears in anticipation, a happy bark—are so immediate and lacking in nuance that we’re ready to repeat the behavior all over again. Talk about low maintenance! Or, hold it—have we just been well trained?