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Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond between People and Dogsby Caroline Knapp
Scene: a morning in mid-November, about fifteen months after I've gotten Lucille. My boyfriend and I are sitting in a couples therapist's office. I am speaking, near tears. This is our first meeting with the psychologist. We are talking about . . . the dog.
"I want to feel like she's mine," I say.
"But she is yours," Michael says. "The dog adores you."
"But . . . but . . ." I choke, half-formed thoughts about love and trust and exclusivity trapped somewhere between gut and mouth.
Lucille, it is safe to say, was an "issue" in our relationship from the beginning. This sounds ridiculous, like something you'd hear on a daytime talk show ("Women Who Love Dogs Too Much"), but it was true.
From the day I got her, I was a total hog with Lucille. Mine, mine, mine. The dog is mine. Pre-Lucille, I spent four, five, sometimes six nights a week at Michael's house. Post-Lucille, I started to spend three nights there, maybe only two, and I was starting to feel tense at even that number, compelled to be back in my own home. I had a rationale for this: my house has an enclosed patio, so when Lucille was a puppy, I could take her out to pee in the middle of the night without having to get dressed and put on shoes, whereas Michael lived in an apartment, with no access to fenced-in space. It was therefore more practical to stay at my house. But in truth I wanted the dog to myself. I wanted her to bond with me and me alone, and the ferocity of this possessiveness took me completely by surprise. I wanted her to follow me and not him, to sleep on my side of the bed, not his. If we were all sitting on the sofa and she put her head on his leg or curled up against him, I'd get a horrible, mean-spirited little stab of jealousy, and I found this so painful and embarrassing I couldn't even talk about it. Instead I started angling for more time alone. "I could use a night to myself," I'd say. Or, "I think I'll stay at my house tonight," and neither Michael nor I chose to comment on the fact that I didn't ask him to stay there with us. This made me feel horribly small and mean and tense, all this orchestrating of distance, but I couldn't help it; the reaction was so visceral it overpowered me.
Michael is probably the nicest man I've ever known, and by the time we started seeing the couples therapist, I'd known him for seven years. He'd been my primary caretaker all that time, and without question my best friend. I met him just after I'd stopped living with my old boyfriend, who was not a nice man at all, and Michael literally held my hand through that breakup, which dragged on for several years. I remember calling him up from work one day, just after I'd left Julian and moved into a new apartment, and weeping into the phone, telling him I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. He said he'd meet me for a walk in the Boston Common, and we sat on a bench in the sun. I cried and cried and talked about how miserable I felt about the breakup with Julian, and Michael listened, his arm around my shoulders. That's how he always was: a man who'd listen and hold you even when you talked about things that should, by all accounts, have hurt or dismayed or warned him away. Sometimes I thought this was a sign of deep generosity, and sometimes I saw it as an inability on his part to set limits, but whatever the motive, Michael is nothing if not steadfast. He saw me through the eleven months my father was dying, and a year later he saw me through the death of my mother, and eight months after that he saw me through my decision to quit drinking and go to rehab. He cooked a million homey dinners for me through that time, rigatoni with red sauce, and chicken with dumplings, and Italian sausages with mashed potatoes, and he almost never called me on the fact that I didn't give nearly enough back.
I got Lucille without consulting him. I'd told him the morning I picked her out that I was just going to look at the shelter, and later that day, after I'd taken her home, I went over to his house to show him. Lucille trotted in, looking edgy and anxious, and peed on his carpet within thirty seconds. Then in short order she defecated twice, once in his living room and once in the bedroom. In retrospect, this seemed oddly apt to me: it was as though Lucille were delivering a little message from me, making a statement about how much of a mess I could make of things. Michael was annoyed but characteristically noncombative about this: I took Lucille outside, he cleaned up the mess, and he never called me on the fact that once again I'd gone and made a big life decision without him.
I'd done this with my house the year before, deciding almost overnight to buy a place in Cambridge that I knew was too small to accommodate both of us. I said it might: at some ill-defined point in the future, I said, we could turn the third floor into a work space for him, or maybe we could build an addition off the kitchen, but inside, I think I knew: My house. My space. Not ours.
Same with Lucille. My dog. She's mine. I kept hoping this would ease, kept hoping I'd relax about her a little, allow Michael to share in the caretaking and responsibility and delight of her, but that fierce sense of possessiveness persisted and persisted, and I simply couldn't let him in. I hated this about myself, hated feeling that selfishness rise up, but like I said, I couldn't help it.
Dog as symbol, dog as mirror, dog as barometer of human affairs. We tend to think of dogs as sweet and easy adjuncts to family life, simple beings with simple roles: the dog doles out affection to the nuclear unit, the dog offers the kids companionship and lessons in responsibility, the dog protects the family home. Dogs can--and often do--perform all those functions, but they often execute other tasks, as well, reflecting--and sometimes participating in--much more complicated aspects of family life.
Lucille turned out to be an expression of my limits with Michael, my inability to share my most important stuff. About a week after I got her, Michael and I were driving in the car with Lucille, and I made some reference to him as the dog's uncle: Uncle Michael. Michael turned to me and said, very definitively, "Uncle, nothing. Uh-uh. I'm Dad." That jarred me, the insistence in his voice, and I didn't say anything, but inside I was thinking: Nope, I'm sorry. You're the uncle. For a long time after I got her--for a good year--Michael would talk about us as a pack: Lucille seemed happiest, he said, when the three of us were together, when the pack was reunited. This made me feel unbearably guilty and conflicted, the hope behind such statements, because I couldn't share it, couldn't reciprocate. In my heart, Lucille and I were the pack, that pack of two, and Michael stood just outside the circle, close enough to be near it but a safe distance away from the center.
This feeling wasn't just a by-product of ambivalence toward Michael, or toward the idea of making a deeper commitment to him, both of which were realities that predated Lucille by some time. Instead, it was driven by a feeling of need that may have had very little to do with him: I need this, I need this dog to myself. That was the sensation: I need to cultivate a sense of belonging and attachment to this dog, and I need to do it alone, in order to learn that I'm capable of it. I need to love her, and to have her love me, before I can expand the circle, complicate it any further. The selfishness that sprang out of that need--the sense that I couldn't allow Michael to share in the bond or attachment--made me feel guilty and mean, but in some ways I was like a kid who's been denied candy for a long long time and then goes berserk on Halloween, grabbing treats by the fistful, then guarding the stash. I need her all to myself; I'm so hungry for what she can give me. This was a variation on the same theme that cropped up when I had to leave the dog alone, a feeling, born in childhood, that love was somehow terribly fragile and tenuous, a limited resource that needed to be constantly protected and constantly reinforced. She's mine. I can't leave her, and she can't leave me.
This saddens me, to think about how unwilling I was to share the dog, but I think the phenomenon is not uncommon: get a dog, and whatever strengths and limits characterize a relationship--levels of commitment, degrees of competitiveness, areas of conflict--can be highlighted and underscored. A dog can create alliances or cause them to shift, illuminate difficulties or help mask them, expose the inner workings of the existing pack faster than you can say, "Rover, no!"
Add dog and stir: sometimes you get a family. A lot of couples I know have gotten dogs and ended up with more solid bonds themselves, this pack-oriented creature in their midst helping them to see themselves as a family, or as potential parents, deepening the sense of commitment. My friends Beth and David adopted a two-year-old German shepherd-Siberian husky mix, got married within a year, had a baby a year later. The dog made them realize how much love they had to give; sharing in her care made them recognize each other's skills as nurturers. Same thing happened to a woman I know in California, also named Beth. She adopted a shepherd mix about a year before I got Lucille, ended up moving to San Francisco with her boyfriend Andy, got married last summer. The dog cemented the relationship, helped turn a pack of two into a pack of three.
Add dog and stir: sometimes you get a disaster. "I think dogs make people break up," says Liz, a journalist who lives in Chicago. Her experience had to do with degrees of attachment: her boyfriend got her a puppy for Christmas, she fell madly in love with the dog, then realized that same depth of feeling didn't quite extend to the boyfriend; she didn't feel nearly as devoted to him, nearly as charmed or committed, she wanted the puppy all to herself. Six months later the boyfriend was history.
Jessica's boyfriend was history, too: they got a puppy together, the boyfriend turned out to have a far more punitive and physical approach to discipline than she did, and any fantasies Jessica may have harbored about him as a potential father went straight out the window. Angry man, mean to the puppy, easy equation: keep the puppy and dump the man. It is axiomatic that you can learn volumes about people by watching them interact with a dog, seeing how much kindness or affection or playfulness the dog evokes; it is also axiomatic that you can learn volumes about a third party by watching your dog's response, and some of us use this principle to great effect. "A girlfriend of mine used to live downstairs from us," says Wendy, who works in public television in Los Angeles, "and every time she had a date, my husband and I would send the dog down to check the guy out." The dog in question is a tiny white Maltese named Baci, who is equipped with marvelous boyfriend radar, and Wendy's friend wouldn't form her own impression about a prospective man until she'd gauged his reaction: a few good wags usually led to a few good dates; if the dog shied away from the guy, or growled or seemed disturbed, she'd write him off. Dog as soul-sniffer: a handy skill.
Baci served an important function on the domestic front, too. "I know all these working couples who are thinking about starting families," says Wendy, herself part of a dual-career couple, "and they're just starting to address the big questions about responsibility: who's going to take care of the kid, who's going to cut their hours back. I know having a dog isn't the same as a kid, but my husband and I have been having those conversations for years." Which one of them will feed Baci; which one of them will take time off to bring him to the vet; who's doing too much or too little: "Dogs," Wendy says, "really do force you to work that stuff out."
Before they got a dog, my friends Polly and Wendy had to sit down and have a conversation they'd been putting off for aeons, a long dialogue about a seemingly trivial, but actually loaded, subject: housework. The dog would add more items to their daily list of Things to Do, so questions arose: who would walk the dog, who would take the dog out to pee at night, who would brush and groom the dog, and--in the midst of all that--who would clean the house, cook dinner, see to the grocery shopping, and so on? Wendy is thirteen years older than Polly, she owns both the condominium they live in and most of its furnishings, and she'd always felt as though she bore too much of the responsibility for long-term household care: getting the rugs cleaned, for example, and making sure the furniture got polished. Polly, on the other hand, felt she shouldered too much of the physical work, the heavy lifting, like taking the trash out. Neither felt the balance was right, and getting the dog forced them to look more closely--and talk more openly--about the division of labor in their household, and at the old anxieties and tensions that had lurked behind it, unaddressed, for years.
Their story had a happy ending, but dogs don't always lead couples toward resolution. Carolyn and Mark, a science writer and a carpenter, had been married for nine years, seven of them rocky, when they decided to get a puppy. Their motives seemed benign enough--they're both great dog lovers--but Carolyn suspects they each had a hidden agenda, much like a troubled couple who hopes a baby will help patch up a marriage. "We didn't frame it that way," she says, "but I think we both hoped the dog would be a positive influence, that it would give us something to share and take care of together, something we wouldn't fight about."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the dog--an extremely high-energy, high-maintenance weimaraner named Jojo--had the opposite effect, bringing to a boil issues that had simmered between them for nearly a decade. Carolyn, now in her late thirties, is a woman who takes responsibilities very seriously--balances the checkbook down to the penny, makes sure the car gets tuned up regularly, worries about things like chipped housepaint; her husband, Mark, had a far more laissez-faire approach to life (and to Carolyn's mind, a far less mature one): chronically late, never paid bills on time, did his share of the household chores reluctantly, sporadically, and inefficiently. They clashed constantly over Jojo. Carolyn took him religiously to obedience classes; Mark promptly undermined everything she taught him. Carolyn didn't want to let the dog off-leash until she was certain he'd come on command; Mark would take him out and let him run around like a maniac. They fought about feeding the dog from the table, letting the dog on the furniture, neutering the dog; they fought about using a choke collar, they fought about diet and exercise, they even fought about clipping Jojo's nails. (Carolyn thought it was important; Mark thought it was "stupid" and refused to assist her.) Above all, they fought about who shouldered more responsibility.
The situation became intolerable to Carolyn: the poor dog, receiving inconsistent and mixed messages from his owners, became increa
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