The Love of a Good Dog

Natalie Angier has a piece in the Times this morning about the loss of a beloved pet cat:

Cleo was almost 16 years old, she’d been sick, and her death was no surprise. Still, when I returned to a home without cats, without pets of any sort, I was startled by my grief — not so much its intensity as its specificity.

It was very different from the catastrophic grief I’d felt when I was 19 and my father died, and all sense, color and flooring dropped from my days. This was a sorrow of details, of minor rhythms and assumptions that I hadn’t really been aware of until, suddenly, they were disrupted or unmet. Hey, I’m opening the door to the unfinished attic now. Doesn’t a cat want to try dashing inside to roll around in the loose wads of insulation while I yell at it to get out of there?

I’ve just dumped a pile of clean laundry on the bed and I’m starting to fold it. Why aren’t the cats jumping up for a quick sit? Don’t they know everything is still warm?

I’m not a cat person, but I know the canine version of what she’s talking about. When I was growing up, we had a dog for about thirteen years, a Collie-Lab mix who still holds the title “Best Dog Ever” in my mind– Emmy’s terrific, but she only gets qualified superlatives: “Best Dog in the Capital Region,” or “Best Emmy Ever.”

After Patches died, it was years before I stopped expecting her to meet me at the door when I came home to visit. I would absently let my hand slip off the arm of the chair in the living room, expecting my hand to fall on the furry head that had always been there. The expectation didn’t really go away until after they got a new dog, a Labrador Retreiver who just about bowls me over whenever I come through the door. He’s big enough to crowd most of the memories out.

Of course, the bonds between owners and pets can go both ways:


This picture is the famous Hachiko statue outside Shibuya station in Tokyo. Hachiko was an Akita belonging to a university professor who used to follow his master to the station every morning, and meet him there in the evening after work (Japanese academics apparently keep more regular hours than their American counterparts). One day in 1925, Prof. Ueno suffered a heart attack at work, and died.

The dog continued to turn up at the station every day for the next ten years, waiting for his train. After the dog died in 1935, they erected a statue outside the station, and it has since become a standard meeting place for people visiting Shibuya– whenever you go there, there’s always a crowd of people hanging around waiting for someone or something.

Of course, as some of the scientists Angier interviews notes, the story almost certainly involves a large element of projection. We don’t really know that Hachiko was waiting for his master all those years– as Wikipedia notes, the local shopkeepers took a liking to the dog, and would give him food and water. As much as we want the story to be about love and loyalty, he may very well just have been conditioned to go to the station at five for a free meal.

But as a pet owner, I don’t buy that as the only explanation. There’s a definite bond between pets and their owners, that goes beyond the free food. One of the last times I visited my parents before Patches died, I went out for a walk with her one afternoon. We used to regularly go for two or three-mile walks on the flood control dam near the house, but on this occasion, she barely made it to the top of the dike before turning around to limp back to the house.

I was really sad about this, and mentioned it to my parents when I got back later. “She made it to the top of the dike?” they said. “She hasn’t left the yard in a couple of years.”

OK, Argos it isn’t, but it still makes me tear up.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pet the Best Emmy Ever before I go to work.