The way the dog trots out the front door
without a hat or an umbrella
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration…
From: “Dharma,” by Billy Collins, in Sailing Around the Room, Random House, 2002
My mornings are incomplete without her. Somewhere between 4:30 and 5 a.m., as I begin the slow process of waking, our ritual begins. I hear her rise from her bed on the floor, shake herself awake, then two, perhaps three, seconds past before she springs up from the floor and onto the bed, choosing to nestle her back against mind. As small as she is, she is like a block of cement then, a guarantee that by six a.m., my feet will touch the floor, and my morning will begin. I’m first to rise; she prefers another ten or fifteen minutes of dozing, but as I grind the coffee beans and spoon them into the paper filter, she pads into the kitchen, stretches and patiently waits for her breakfast. Coffee ready and kibble consumed, the two of us go down the single step into the living room, where she curls her body on the footstool, next to my feet, and sleeps while, for the next hour, I write. When I shut my notebook, she jumps off the footstool, ready for her morning walk. It’s a routine we have shared since I adopted her nearly two years ago. She is Maggie, my faithful companion, this small dog, but perhaps she is more: comforter, guardian, playmate, nonjudgmental friend, even, perhaps, my muse.
And Perdita makes me smile every day. She runs to greet me when I come home, and she flops at my feet in the morning to be petted. She loves boxes and balled-up pages of the Nation. She is afraid of vacuum cleaners and tornado sirens. She lies on her back in squares of sunshine with her paws in the air and looks perfectly ridiculous and content. My friend Kristen tells her cat Mouse each morning that he’s her best friend, which is the sort of behavior that makes non-cat-people roll their eyes. But there’s something to it. Perdita and I don’t discuss novels or anything, but we really are friends. (From: “Perdita, Why Cats are Better than People” by Michael Robbins, Poetry Magazine, July 2012).
Pets are frequently the subject of poetry and essays. They’ve also been major characters in novels, even heroes in films. Anthropomorphism aside, we human beings have strong emotional connections with our pets, whether canine, feline, equine or other kinds. As companions, they are ever appreciative of our attention; they are sources of comfort when we’re feeling blue or under the weather. They rarely pass up a chance to play and they often protect us as surely as if we are their children. They are healers too. Pets, as Florence Nightingale, the pioneer of modern nursing, observed over a century ago, are “excellent companion (s) for the sick…”
There are many stories of animals helping their human companions. One marine dog’s heroism during wartime is documented in the book, Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca. The German Shepard, a bomb-sniffing dog whose actions saved many lives, lost a leg in battle and was later awarded a purple heart for her bravery. But it’s not only war-time where animals’ impact on human lives is so important. Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a widely practiced approach that is used to achieve therapeutic goals through interactions between patients and trained animals. AAT provides comfort, assistance, and companionship for people suffering from chronic or grave illnesses, grief, depression or disability. It’s an approach that is widely used in a variety of settings– hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, mental institutions, as well as homes. According to the American Humane Society, AAT has helped children who’ve experienced abuse or neglect, patients undergoing chemotherapy and other difficult medical treatments, and veterans and their families struggling with the effects of wartime military service.
Before Maggie came into our lives, we owned Winston, a West Highland terrier who died in 2008 at age seventeen. Calm, steady and loyal, his temperament made him an excellent candidate for therapy dog training. Once trained, he accompanied my husband to visit young hospital patients. Winston was happy to lie quietly by a sick child, have his ears rubbed or back stroked, seemingly unaware to the happy smile his presence produced on a child’s face. He was dutiful throughout. When it was time to move to the next child, he obediently followed my husband to the patient’s bed, tail erect, and patiently repeated the process again and again.
He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small expressive sounds…
he turns upside-down, his four paws
in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
(From: “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” in Dog Songs, Poems by Mary Oliver,2013)
Is it any wonder we become so attached to our pets? Or that they offer us solace and comfort in difficult times? Or that poets and essayists alike have so frequently written about their pets with such affection? Consider Mary Oliver’s love of her dogs:
But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit… Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world…
And we are caught by the old affinity, a joyfulness—his great and seemly pleasure in the physical world. Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. it is no small gift. …What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs? –-(From Dog Songs: Poems, by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2013).
Although my experiences with pets has been predominately canine, I have had friends whose affection for a cat, horse or, as was the case for my daughter many years ago, a hamster named “Joe,” was as strongly felt as mine for Maggie. Take time, this week, to remember and write about a pet, whether from your childhood or the present. How did the animal endear itself to you? Have there been particular times when a pet has been a source of comfort to you or to someone in your family during difficult times? How has a pet played a healing role in your life or of someone you know? What stories about a pet’s uniqueness come to mind?