Do you love your dog too much?

Pets and people.
April 8 2004 10:52 AM

Petophilia

Can you ever love your dog too much? (And no, we don't mean it that way.)

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Partner love: Working dogs—herders, hunters, bomb sniffers, agility and obedience performers, search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs—have a particular kind of connection with their owners and handlers, forged by years of training and working together. My border collie Rose and I have spent months together herding sheep. We anticipate each other, communicate without words. We are almost telepathic.

Victim love: Dog rescuers­—those tens of thousands of people, overwhelmingly female, who scour animal shelters for dogs in trouble—see a lot of ugly human behavior and its consequences, too much, sometimes. The bonds between rescued dogs and those who heal and adopt them are among the strongest of human-animal attachments. This love often taps into the owner's own anger, painful history, and sense of victimization—as well as her need to nurture and heal, and to be nurtured and healed.

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Surrogate love: Certain people treat their dogs like family members rather than pets—substitutes for the children or spouses they don't have or don't like. Such owners lavish all the toys, food, activities, and affection on their dog that they would customarily give children. But the dogs don't talk back, drink and smoke pot in the basement, or discover and point out our stupidity and failings. In surrogate love, unlike partner or victim love, the dog can sometimes be a one-for-one replacement for a human.

The intensity of dog love can sometimes be disturbing. People and dogs have been boon companions for thousands of years, but these contemporary kinds of dog love are new. A recent Yankelovich study for American Demographics found that nearly a third of respondents—and half of all single people—said that of everyone in their lives, they relied most on pets for companionship and affection. Distressingly often, owners have confessed to me that they could survive the loss of a companion or spouse, but they're not sure how they could live without their dog.

I've become a dog-love rationalist: Love them all you want, but maintain some perspective on what they are and where your love comes from.

A couple of years back, a University of Kentucky psychiatrist who studies human-animal bonds sent me a classic work, Twins, by the late British analyst and author Dorothy Burlingham. Burlingham wrote about the power of fantasies in very young children, especially during moments when they are lonely or frightened. A child, she wrote, may take "an imaginary animal as his intimate and beloved companion; subsequently he is never separated from his animal friend. This animal offers the child what he is searching for: faithful love and unswerving devotion. The two share everything, good and bad experiences, and complete understanding of each other; either speech is not necessary, or they have a secret language; the understanding between them goes beyond the realm of consciousness."

This yearning, then, is part of many of our lives from our earliest years. What begins as a potent, comforting fantasy later ripens. Dogs now at our sides, we escape from loneliness and solitude, find "faithful love and unswerving devotion." We feel, rightly or not, as if we share complete understanding; certainly we have a secret language. Our love goes beyond the words we have. We finally find our intimate and beloved companions.

Jon Katz’s latest book, Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die, was published by Random House last October. You can visit him at www.bedlamfarm.com and http://www.facebook.com/BedlamFarm or email him at jon@bedlamfarm.com.