Periodically I read one of those many feature articles about pets’ protective instincts compelling them to save their owners from some natural disaster. The one that prompted this commentary is typical of the genre in many ways. However, it sticks in my memory because of what it revealed about the paradoxical relationship that may exist between rescued people and their animals.This got me thinking about other places where point-of-view shifts similarly may affect the quality of the human-animal bond.
The article described a fluffy little dog who awakened her owners shortly before a tornado hit. Instead of leading them to the closet where they normally would have retreated, the dog hid under the bed. And instead of getting the dog out from the under the bed, the owners crawled under the bed with her. If you read a lot of these articles, you probably already know what happened next. The dog’s behavior saved them all from almost certain injury when the tornado destroyed the closet. When the owner later described the event to a reporter he noted that the dog “is like our kid.”
Referring to our dogs as members of the family and specifically one of the kids is a common owner response. But just as all parents don’t treat their kids the same way, not everyone who refers to their dogs as “one of our kids” treats their dogs the same way, either. For some the phrase means treating their dogs more like fur-covered infant or toddler humanoids. Or the way they would like to treat a human infant or toddler if they had one. Or wished they’d been treated when they were that young. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this type of bond occurs more often with little dogs with more infantile features. But such relationships can and do occur with dogs of any breeding and size.
When “protector” gets added to the dog’s job description, it creates a troubling bond paradox. On the one hand, we have people who perceive their dogs as their protectors and celebrate their own and other people’s animals who provide evidence that supports this belief. On the other hand, those same people—along with a lot of the rest of us—say we relate to our pets as family members, specifically a younger child. (I’ve yet to meet anyone who perceived their dog as a teenager.) This raises the obvious question: Are we becoming a society that expects young children to protect their parents?
Worded like that, the idea surely sounds ludicrous to most people. True, some parents may expect their young children to protect them under rare and extreme circumstances, e.g. when the parent unexpectedly becomes incapacitated and no other adult is available to help them. But few would consider this a quality parent-offspring relationship norm. And yet such a bond paradox increasingly occurs in the human-canine relationship. One minute these folks perceive their pets as young children or even babies they want to cuddle and protect from every form of danger and misfortune. The next, they expect their fur-babies to protect them from those same evils.
Incomprehensible though it may seem, there is a growing population out there that expects dogs to fulfill this mutually exclusive function. That some of these animals may succumb to behavioral and stress-related health problems comes as no surprise to most of us. But it can to these animals’ owners.
When this happens, these folks must face an even more painful paradox: The behavioral or medical issue to which the animal they counted on to smooth life’s bumps has created a major bump in their lives. The thought of dealing with such a problem without the dog’s support may overwhelm them. They can’t bear the thought that their animal can’t function—even temporarily—in the manner that so enhanced the quality of their own lives. Nor do they understand how some medical or behavioral professional could expect them to meet the dogs’ physical or behavioral needs as well as their own under such traumatic circumstances.
Given the nature of these human-canine bonds, I can appreciate how painful this must be for these people. I can appreciate why the desire to deny the seriousness of the animal’s problem may arise. Or why lashing out at the professional who pointed out the problem would seem justified. Or why the temptation to bargain could be strong: “I realize he shouldn’t go on long walks with me until that leg heals (or he doesn’t aggress toward people or other dogs), but surely shorts walks around the neighborhood won’t cause any harm.” And, finally, why some of these people could become depressed because they need to change to help their dogs.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t enjoy the comfort of our dogs’ calming presence or aggressive barking at things that go bump in the night when we feel frightened or anxious? Not at all—if this represents the exception and not the rule. In those situations, we know we can and will summon the wherewithal to protect and support the dog should the need arise.
On the other hand, if the thought of not sleeping with the dog or not always taking him with us every time we go out makes our stomachs ache or our eyes fill with tears, then we know we—and our dogs—have a problem.
So would I follow my dogs under the bed if a tornado was coming? Only if I believed that it truly was the safest place for us all to be. If not, I’d somehow find the strength and speed to get them out of there and all of us down to the basement. Maybe only the bed would survive on top of the rubble that crushed us. But more likely that old cellar that’s withstood more than its share of climatic assaults would survive yet again. Whose job is it to make the call? I guess it depends on who we perceive as responsible for the well-being of the other.
Of all the dogs I’ve owned or known, I can’t think of a one I’d trust to save my life. But I can think of more than a few whose lives I’ve gladly save.