“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
There may have been a moment, a long time ago, when I actually paused to consider whether or not I was spoiling my dog. If (yes, if – this is not an admission of guilt) such a moment occurred, it would have been a fleeting moment at most, I assure you. And only because certain people (and you know who you are) tease me about the lifestyle to which Mojo, my adorable German Shepherd mix, has grown accustomed. They use words like pamper, or luxury, and talk about how good he’s got it. Sometimes they joke about “how neglected the poor dog is.” It’s nothing personal, not a criticism, yet I recognize that it elicits a defensive response, something of a protective instinct in me.
When E. jokes, for example, that Mojo “certainly isn’t hurting for any attention,” I can’t help but turn my eyes to my kraut dog, who is inevitably right at my side, doing the heavy lean into my legs, or maybe laying right on my foot as if to keep me from leaving. Spoiled. The word itself has such a negative connotation, and I just can’t associate any such negativity with my beloved canine. But our history comes to mind too, and that explains how I interact with Mojie. As if any justification was necessary.
Which is not the case, of course.
My family had a purebred shepherd when I was growing up, and we were all very attached to her. Since she died, some twenty years ago, I’ve wanted another dog, but knew it would have to wait. I traveled abroad, then moved around, and worked through graduate school, and I firmly believe that people who are never going to be home and would have to leave a pet alone, locked up all day inside or out in the cold, should not have dogs. Dogs are pack animals and need attention. When I came back to Ohio I was severely depressed and had no money, but I did have time – and I knew it was time to get a dog.
“Honey, are you sure you can afford to get a dog right now?” my mother had asked.
“I can’t afford not to.” It might take some strategic budgeting, but I needed him.
You can almost always find a person trying to give away the puppies his or her dog just had, sometimes even for free, but there are far too many animals out there who have been abused and neglected and need love and a good home. I couldn’t heal my own wounds, but knew I could help heal a dog’s. Mojo had been at the Humane Society for three months, after he and two other dogs were rescued. They’d been with a homeless man, living in a vacant lot. I don’t know exactly what he’d been through. (The Humane Society does not disclose details of the animals’ histories; people have gone vigilante, and it’s become a liability issue.) He was underweight, sick, afraid of everything, and trusted no one. We were a perfect fit. We stayed home, kept to ourselves, and took care of each other as we each found our ways to a new normal.
April 1st will be seven years since I brought him home and frankly, I don’t think I’d have made it through those years without him.
This is the type of thing that is very difficult, if even possible, for many people who’ve never owned a dog to understand. Which is fine, and I understand that they don’t understand. How could they? I’ve known plenty of people – and am sure you have too – whose attachment to their husband/wife/friend/lover, or whatever was entirely a mystery to me. Who among us hasn’t at one time or another said “I don’t know what (Joe/Sue) sees in (Ashley/Bob).”? Obviously they have their own reasons. Pet owners are no different. We’ve simply found another being with whom we share a mutual understanding, have fun, and generally enjoy being around. When someone doesn’t understand the bond Mojo and I share, certain people from my past come to mind, and I wonder why the hell I didn’t ditch them and get a dog much sooner. And I picture each neighbor who walks their dog past our house, hears Mojo’s whines accompanied by my explanation (he’s just lonely, could he just say hi to your dog?) and keeps on walking. I love my dog and he loves his person and we do what anyone in a relationship they value does: we take care of each other.
Why shouldn’t I shower Mojo with affection and do all I can to make sure he’s happy? I’ve left the house fine and come home in tears and he doesn’t stop to wonder if what I’m upset about is legitimate or if he’s giving me too much affection. He senses whatever I’m feeling and responds: sometimes that means he shares my happiness and jumps gleefully for his ball and heaves it at my feet to play, and sometimes it means that he reads my expression or sees tears or simply detects it by the scent associated with the emotion and sits quietly at my side, maybe resting his head on my knee, leaning into me or gently nudging me to draw my attention to his big, brown eyes. And then I see Mojo and love and affection and concern and read “I’m here for
you no matter what it is,” and see less of whatever is weighing on me.
“The Moj,” as the people in the Vet’s office call him, knows how to keep it light too, and I’ve noticed that when my stress level is approaching intolerable, he tries harder to get me to play with him. Not that he doesn’t anyway, but there is a balance of his seeking attention and seeking play time, and it often shifts according to my moods – my needs. If depression is winning over my day, he’s all about affection; when stress runs the show, he goes for the toys. If I am more centered, he balances these.
So when, as has lately been the case, my To-Do list runneth over and my time is spent in a state of panic just trying to keep up, he gets less and less of my time, and guilt fills the rest. With every moment that isn’t filled with a task now spent regrouping, since I’ve been pushing myself beyond my limits, he gets less and less time. Now he’s depressed and I feel awful. Tomorrow, I promise him, angry with myself for putting off this sweet, lovable dog who depends solely on me.
“He’s just a dog, he’ll get over it,” is not an acceptable response to this, and makes me feel infinitely worse – not better. As much as seeing the entire back half of his body wagging when he’s having fun makes me smile, seeing him depressed, lonely or sick tugs at my heart and makes me want to cry. His entire world revolves around me. He’s dependent on my comings and goings, my moods, and what I think he does or doesn’t deserve. It hardly seems fair. When he eats, sleeps, plays, gets to see other dogs or is confined to the house by himself – even when he gets to relieve himself – it’s all up to me. He has no choice. And he is perfectly fine with this, happy just to be with me. So you tell me: is what I do for him really spoiling him?
“Money will buy you a pretty good dog, but it won’t buy the wag of his tail.”
Mojo has a bed in every room of our apartment. He has a basket in the living room with several (ragged, half-eaten) toys to choose from (and watching him stick his nose in and maneuver them around until he decides on one can make me smile even on the worst day). There is a cupboard next to the stove – his cupboard – that is filled with treats (usually a variety of at least three or four kinds), heartworm and flea prevention, any medicine he may be taking, and (my) toothbrush gloves, his toothpaste and dental rinse. A towel hangs by the door when it rains because – how lucky am I – he stops when we come in and lays down so I can clean off his paws and dry him off.
He gets bites from the table, tossed by other hands more often than my own. Frequent are the occasions when my peripheral vision detects covert movements from across the room, or under the dining room table. There is a reason, for example, that at my mother’s house he heads immediately for my stepfather and either sniffs his pockets or, if he detects nothing there, Mojo leads him to the mud room where the Milk Bones are. If we sit down to eat, Mojie places himself where he has quick access to the hand of the food fairy…strategically out of my view. And B watches, as does everyone else, (and they think I don’t know) waiting for just the right moment to slip a piece of beef or a slice of cheese down to Mojo. Might as well just put a trough next to his chair so he can scrape his plate directly into it, thus ensuring my mother’s spotless floor stays that way.
I may pretend that this upsets me, but it really doesn’t, unless it’s something he really shouldn’t have. I love that other people love him and appreciate him, and, of course, love to see Mojo, how far he has come from the scared, sick dog who was rescued to the comfortable, relaxed member of a pack – our pack of two* – he is now, full of love and having fun, living the life he deserves. A life every dog deserves.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there is an adorable kraut dog at my feet waiting to go outside and play, so I’m going to bundle up and take care of him. It’s good mojo, you know.