Dear Self-Identified “Dog Persons,”
First, please note I have fluffy, three-pound morkie sitting on my lap as I write this. I am writing to raise your awareness of the dog neutralists in your midst. I’ve chosen neutralist carefully, so let me explain.
It seems there is an ongoing conversation in our culture about dog people versus cat people, but there is a much more covert group that lives on the fringes of either. Of course there are people that dislike animals as a whole. They may look with disgust on your furry companion and complain to themselves about the hair stuck to their pants as they walk out of your home. I can’t write from this perspective because, while I understand some of their complaints, I am not one of them.
Note: This letter could have just as easily been addressed to cat people but I am personally acquainted with far fewer of them.
This letter is meant to explain the neutralist perspective. And while I suspect this group is large, I will now speak only for myself because that’s what I really know.
I like animals. I genuinely enjoy observing wildlife, including everything from squirrels and sparrows to more majestic creatures like moose and dolphins. I notice the bird song in the trees. It’s fun to see a lizard run across my path. I am enraged when I hear of animals being mistreated. I am starting to think about eating more plant-based meals and being more concerned about the sourcing of the meat I eat, mostly out of concern for the way animals are treated in industrial agriculture. I LIKE animals.
I had pets growing up. We had a smattering of goldfish, a couple of outdoor cats and a few outdoor dogs. My parents both grew up on farms so they had the mentality that animals were outdoor creatures. And I liked all of these pets. My sister, Melissa (who is clearly an animal person), raised pigs and lambs for FFA. I used to go with her to feed them. I spent the week of fair at the with her, amidst the animal pens, smelling sawdust and dung. We rode our grandpa’s old farm horse together around the barrels in the arena where he was pastured until he got too old and had to be sold to the dog food factory. I was sad when he was gone.
Melissa had a ginger cat when we returned to live at home for a summer during our college years. I lived in the basement with her and the cat named O’Malley. O’Malley would come to my closed bedroom door at night and wave his paw beneath the door calling, “Raaawwwrrrr, raawwrr.” I didn’t let him in my room because I was concerned about cat hair but I liked having him around and playing the game with his waving paw.
I guess I’m telling you all of this because I am hoping to make a case that I have a good heart, even though I don’t naturally LOVE pets.
I tried to explain this to the lady with the doberman puppy down the street. She’s frequently out in her yard with her dog when I pass by. I gave her cookies once and we’ve been in casual conversation since. During one of these visits, I think she must have asked me why I didn’t have a dog. I told her the best explanation I had been able to come up with to that point: “They just don’t fill the space in my soul that they do for some people.” She looked at me like I just suggested genocide is funny. As I walked away, I wondered why. WHY?!
Why is my non-love of pets communicating something terrible about me as a person to the dog people of the world? Many of the people I love, love dogs. So for a few years, I’ve assumed that the flaw must be with me. That there is some part of my character that is underdeveloped or deficient.
So here’s the surprise—now I have a dog. He’s objectively adorable. He still eats his own shit and then wants to lick my face. He pees on the floor, though that’s getting better at going outside. He farts on my lap. His natural instinct is to chew on my fingers with his tiny sharp teeth. He wakes me up at midnight and again at 4:30am to go potty. There are some parts of dog ownership that are really not my jam. In fact, the first couple of weeks I had him, I think I swore more than any other two weeks in my life.
And here’s the question I want to answer, can I learn to love this dog? I LIKE him. But can I learn to LOVE him?
I really believe that most of the qualities we posses, as humans, can be cultivated, if they don’t come naturally. I think it’s possible for me to all-caps LOVE this dog and I’m excited to see how it feels.
So here’s some evidence I’ve seen, so far, in favor of my transformation:
I feel something. Maybe I’m like the Grinch whose shriveled heart grew three sizes, but in the morning when he dances out of his crate with such excitement for the day, I catch some of that and it feels good! And it’s made me notice how I greet R when he hollers my name at 5:30am. I want to be a little more dance-y first thing in the morning—not everyday, people!—maybe half the days.
He has a presence. For most of the last year, R has been asking for a dog, a puppy, a cat, a kitten and a baby sister. A while back I realized, because his parents are divorced, he’s gotten this message about his life, that something has gone wrong. He has been taught that our family is broken. What a painful way to go through life! So I am focusing on believing that we are complete as we are. And having this little puppy has helped with that. I’ve had some really great moments with just the three of us where we feel so complete. So if this energetic little fur ball helps with that, I have some confidence that I am already getting to LOVE.
Maybe there is some hope for this dog neutralist after all. Don’t get me wrong! I don’t think everyone needs to learn to LOVE an animal. I’m not convinced that it’s essential to good-humanness. It’s just part of the human experience I want.