Irish love of dogs is stronger than ever
THE COVID crisis has meant that we have all been forced to spend more time at home, and that means that we have, by accident, spent more time with our pet dogs and cats.
Cats are independent loners by nature, and much as I adore them, they are prone to carrying on doing their own thing, even when we spend more time at home. Yes, they may enjoy playing with us, or relaxing close to us, but they don’t generally become as deeply engaged in the same way as their canine cousins.
Dogs are different: they are pack animals, and they see us as fellow pack members. So when we are able to spend more time with them, they revel in it. They grow closer to us, and their relationship with us becomes stronger than ever.
This summer, I have noticed that the bond between Irish people and their dogs has deepened in intensity. When I have visited public places like beaches, parks and stately home demesnes, there are more dogs than ever before, and people seem to be more affectionate towards them, and more engaged with them than previously.
An Irish author has just written an emotional book about his lifelong relationship with his dog. “To Love A Dog”, by Tom Inglis, is a moving account of his eighteen year long relationship with his Wheaten Terrier bitch, Pepe. The book opens with these lines: “She has learned that I am the source of all that is good in her life. In her magical world, I am the light. I am God. So wherever I go she must follow.”
The author goes on to combine different perspectives: telling the tale of his life with Pepe, while scattering interesting facts about dogs throughout the narrative.
The author is a professor in sociology, and he has an intriguing analytical view of how dogs fit into Irish homes. He includes surveys and statistics, and we learn that 94 percent of owners see their dogs as members of the family, while over half (56 percent) of owners admit that when they come home, they say hello to their dog first, before any human beings.
None of this surprises me: I’ve known since childhood that the love of a dog is entirely unconditional. Parents may berate children for having messy, untidy bedrooms: their dogs will adore them as much as ever.
Spouses may give out to their other halves for diverting to the pub on the way home from work for an unplanned pint: meanwhile the family dog will be delighted to see them, with no frowns or grumpiness. There are many other examples: dogs endear themselves to us by their adoring behaviour, and we reciprocate by adoring them in return.
On a more sombre note, as a vet, I have seen abused animals, kicked and beaten by their owners, creeping back to their owners submissively, wagging their frightened tails, pleading for acceptance and tenderness. They still seem to love their owners, despite the abuse.
Dogs are very slow to stop loving their owners, and we humans respond well to this worship. We become deeply emotionally involved with them: they become close friends or family members. This is a huge cultural change from a generation ago, when dogs were seen as working creatures, living their separate lives in farm yards.
We do need to keep this in perspective. Self-awareness is still important. We should remember the advice of Anne Landers, the famous American agony aunt: “Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful”.
At the same time, the two-way relationship with a dog is one of life’s highlights, and it’s something worth celebrating.
Tom Inglis was interviewed about his book on the Brendan O’Carroll show a few weeks ago, and he made a good point. Many Irish people now live on their own with their dogs, and they often see their dogs in the same light as they would see human family members, even as children. And most of us are not good at recognising this and responding in an appropriate way.
At the most significant level, when someone’s pet dog dies, we should all remember that for them, the bereavement can be as deep and painful as if a human family member has passed away. We should offer them as much sympathy as we can, we should allow them space to grieve (if they need a week off work, that’s entirely understandable).
We should talk about the lost pet in the same respectful way as we would talk about a recently deceased person. This is not pandering to people’s peculiar sensibilities, as some cynics may think: it’s reacting appropriately to the very real emotions that people are feeling.
And it’s not just at the time of a pet’s death that this is important: if you meet someone who is close to their pet dog, they will appreciate your kindness if you ask them engaging questions about the animal. Just as you might ask a parent how their teenager child is getting on, or an older person about how their elderly parent is doing, so you might ask a dog owner about the life of their pet. How is the dog’s health? If the dog is with them, you might comment on the animal’s appearance.
This is the new culture that we live in. Dogs are now part of our family. They appreciate us, and they are absolutely deserving of our appreciation in return.