“It’s a dog’s life” comes to us from the 16th century, when the expression referred to the general misery of the canine clan at the hands of their human masters. The idiom evolved into a proverb, “It’s a dog’s life – hunger and ease” a century later. Today the phrase continues its semantic odyssey, and “it’s a dog’s life” is used to advertise posh kennels and canine treats.
We know that not every dog shares in the prosperity enjoyed by the pampered pooches of dogfood commercials. Cue the soulful background music and images of frightened animals abused and abandoned, waiting in a shelter for either adoption or destruction: A stark contrast to Facebook posts and funny-video television shows.
The best of us cannot countenance suffering, and some of those best can be found working or volunteering at animal shelters, where every year about 7 1/2 million dogs and cats are sent. About a million and a half of that number are euthanized every year. Do the math, and you can understand the note of desperation in those hard-to-watch commercials encouraging us to adopt a pet.
If you are looking for a pet, a shelter animal is a good deal. For a nominal fee you get a companion that has been spade or neutered, and vaccinated. Shelter animals are almost always healthier than pet store ones, and we can tell you from personal experience that an animal from one of the shelters in our area will have been treated with kindness.
For some people, the ideal of owning a pet is not matched by an equivalent sense of responsibility. Our civil society discourages cruelty in any form, but the law does not and cannot prevent all suffering. We’re not talking about obvious cases of abuse. There is plenty of suffering that is perfectly legal. As we travel from the country through suburbia and into the city, it is not uncommon to see a dog tethered to a short lead, isolated and exposed to the elements day after day, night after night.
Some towns have ordinances which prevent this kind of cruelty, but the alternative is a cage, a prison where the hapless animal eats, sleeps and waits, until the long hours of their short lives are utterly spent. Creatures that can run for miles without tiring, with senses many times more acute than their human captors, are forced to observe the world without being able to participate in it. Social animals that respond to affection are isolated, often from their own kind as well as from the human companionship they crave. Their only interaction with other living creatures is when their owners open the gate to dispense more dry kibble bought on sale at the nearest big box store, and remove (hopefully) their waste.
Our old family home is in a neighborhood where the lonesome barking of despairing creatures is a daily and nightly reminder of human ambivalence. The neighbors on either side of our house have dogs, and these poor creatures live out their lives in conditions very similar to those described above.
On one side, the neighbor had one of those dogs that are kept in some circles as a symbol of machismo. The fearsome appearance of this prisoner gave little indication of her sweet disposition. She craved human company and activity, and when we would play ball in the back yard with our own pups, this poor creature would cry out in pain and longing. Occasionally we would throw a tennis ball over the fence to her, which would calm her for a while. When she got to know us this ferocious monster would bark happily and wag her tail whenever we appeared. This was the only fun she had, and the only interaction with another creature other than the times when her owner would dump dry dog food into her bowl.
The neighbor on the other side has two bird dogs that live in an 8×10 pen. Perhaps he hunted with dogs when he was younger, but that time is many years past. Perhaps the two beagles he currently has are reminders of happier days, but these dogs have never been on a hunt. They live out their lives in a shaded corner of a wooded lot where they cannot see anything that happens around them – but they can hear and smell life passing by, and their only way to participate is to bark. And bark. Our neighbor talks to them from time to time when he feeds them, but they never get to run or play. They are never pet or brushed or allowed to leave their tiny prison.
Somewhere between ambivalence and arrogance is the state of mind which treats a pet like an appliance, like an inanimate object which can be disregarded at will. One wonders at the impulse which inspires the person who isolates and imprisons a dog to get one in the first place. Was it the ghost of a childhood memory, or in the case of our neighbor, an attempt at gaining some kind of twisted status symbol by having one of “those” dogs?
We have no respect for anyone who acquires a pet of any kind without making a commitment to provide that animal with a happy life. Pets are not furniture. It would have been kinder for such a person to have allowed the shelter to destroy the animal rather than subjecting it to an imprisonment of loneliness and longing. It would be justice for anyone who has condemned an animal to such an existence to have to experience, even for a day, a dog’s life.