Dog Magic

September 22, 2012

No one knows for sure why we bond so closely with our pets. For me it was a dog, Juno. Three years after her death I still pine for her, write about her, and shed tears for her if the right song comes on at the wrong time. I will spare you the story of the best dog ever. But it seems many, if not most, of us have had one. In the dog business we call them lifetime dogs, as in once in a lifetime. They are the ones who come along, sometimes when we least expect them, and change everything.

Greg Knott owned a dance bar in Toledo, Ohio. Just behind the bar was a small animal shelter. Greg, who was single and in his early 50s, would often leave the bar early on a Saturday Morning just as the shelter volunteers were taking the dogs out for walks. Greg could spin a tale and make a deal with just about anyone. So it was no surprise that he talked the shelter into letting him take dogs home for the weekend. He’d pick up one on a Saturday morning has he was leaving work and return it Monday afternoon. As the story goes, he did this for months, until he met Riba (named for Reba McEntire, but misspelled). As was the custom, he’d open up his car door as the dogs were being taken out on their potty breaks. Whoever jumped in first went home for the weekend. One Saturday it was Riba, but Greg never brought her back. There was something different about her. Greg was a risk taker and made bold decisions despite his own doubts. “Feel the fear and do it anyway,” he’d say. So on Monday he returned to the shelter without Riba and signed the adoption papers.

One speculation is that some of us are just “dog people,” as if it were a personality trait. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure it holds true. Greg, for instance, liked dogs but was never really fanatical about them until Riba. I didn’t have a dog as an adult until I was in my early 30’s. Then I dedicated my life to them. The phenomenon crosses gender, age, racial and socio-economic lines as well. So many of my dog friends and clients are LGBTQ, but we don’t corner the market on being tightly bound to our dogs.

All this really started to get me thinking when I pulled up to a client’s house earlier this year. I am a dog behavior consultant. Most of my cases are aggressive or fearful dogs, but occasionally I’ll take on a puppy just so I have some balance. This particular client had a 10-week-old Labrador retriever who was “hyper” and “biting” (both pretty typical). The house was in a tony Houston neighborhood about a quarter-mile from where George H.W. Bush (41 as we call him here) lives. Sure enough, there was a big sign in the front yard for the Tea Party Senate Candidate. I see a lot of different people in my business, but something about this big old house dripping with conservatism made me worry. This might be uncomfortable.

It wasn’t. It was a mind opener. The client was a middle-aged balding rich white guy, sure. But he also couldn’t stop fawning over this puppy. In real-life he might be some tough CFO or something, but on this particular Saturday he was talking baby talk to a dog. And, no expense was spared on this puppy. I even think he bought his wife’s new BMW SUV for the dog. Okay, maybe not but you get the idea. He was hooked.

Contrast that with the woman I know who is equally straight but much less conservative. Nevertheless her life revolves around dogs. My partner is neither straight nor a woman (both of which I’m thankful for). He’s absolutely smitten with our little dog, Stewie. Forget the fact that Tim is a neat freak and Stewie’s still not fully house trained. That’s Tim’s lifetime dog and Stewie does no wrong. I’ve worked with dogs who’ve bitten multiple people, and yet the owners are hopelessly bound to them. Dedicated dog people are a blessing and work hard to help change bad behavior. Still, I scratch my head. What is it that hooks us in, and why some dogs and not others?

Houston psychologist David Genac has speculated that it has to do with when we meet a particular dog. He suggests that dogs we meet at moments of transition in our lives are the ones that seem to have the most lasting impact. We also connect with dogs who speak to our need to care for them – dogs in trouble. Genac and his partner found their lifetime dog on the side of a highway, lost and terrified. Greg Knott pulled Riba from a shelter shortly before a big change in his own life. Within a year of adopting her he sold his bar and retired. It’s an interesting hypothesis but so far the evidence is still anecdotal.

We do know that dogs cause physiological changes in us. Being in the presence of a dog reduces our heart rate, respiration and blood pressure (assuming the dog is not threatening and we are not afraid of dogs). We also know that something else very interesting happens to people who live with a dog they say they like or love. It turns out that when we interact with our dog our body releases a hormone called oxytocin. It is the same hormone that women emit when they are bonding with their newborn baby (in high doses, it causes lactation and uterine contractions). Here’s the thing, though. Men have it too and we all, regardless of gender, emit it when we are with dogs we love. We don’t even have to touch them. Just a look does the trick.

But wait, there’s more. One study measured oxytocin levels both the dog owners and the dogs. Simple interactions like petting and eye contact actually increase the hormone level in the bloodstream of the dogs too. The bond is mutual, and it’s chemical. It definitely takes a bit of the romance out of the whole thing. Billy was in the well and Lassie came to the rescue because they were both high on oxytocin. Maybe there’s more to the mystery than that, and perhaps there’s still some added magic we haven’t thought about yet.

This past summer, I taught a dog training class at a juvenile detention facility out west of town, about as far from the Bush 41 house as you can get without leaving the county. We had 6 boys age 13 to 17 and we had 3 dogs, all strays pulled off the streets by a local rescue group. Both the dogs and the boys came from some pretty rough beginnings. Some of the kids had never really interacted with a dog who wasn’t scarred from fighting or chained to a neighbor’s tree. None of the boys had ever taught a dog a trick, or supervised a playgroup, or settled in with a dog off its leash resting quietly by his side. In that sense it was a game-changer for the boys. But no one was really surprised when the kids bonded with these dogs. We all knew that was coming.

At graduation there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium. All of the dogs had adopting families lined up ahead of time. There was a ceremony the last day at which the boys each spoke about their dogs, and demonstrated what they’d taught them. Then, the new owners would walk up and the boys would hand over the leash. Some of the folks hugged the boys and you could see them mouthing the words, “thank you.” And then the boy would pause and say it back. “Thank you.”

Greg Knott and I lost touch with each other before Riba came along. He struggled with drinking and I struggled with drinkers and it was a bad mix. I regret it and wish even now I’d done with our friendship what he did with his life: “feel the fear and do it anyway.” Instead I stopped returning his calls. As the story goes, Riba became his soul mate. She rode shotgun in the car, and was the first mate on his boat. Greg had had a partner in his early days, and folks would often see Greg and Riba visiting his grave. Greg never forgot his first love, and didn’t miss a chance to share him with Riba. I never got to see it first hand, but I’m told they were bound like no other man and his dog. It makes me smile to think about it. Riba saw him through the rough spots, and then saw him to the end.

One cold night in January 2010 Greg came home and started grilling a steak on his indoor grill. He cracked a window to let some fresh air in, but not enough. They found him on the kitchen floor the next day. Riba was in the living room. Apparently the kitchen door had swung shut, saving her from the carbon monoxide that filled the rest of the house. Greg was dead. When they read the will a few days later Riba was mentioned by name. She’d live with the family next door, in sight of her old home, never again to return to a shelter.

The thing is, we just don’t know. Do our paths cross with that of a dog at such a time and place that we become so tightly connected? Is it all a matter of hormones and physiology? Or is the mystery simply that, a mystery? Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions altogether. Perhaps the magic of dogs isn’t at all about how we bond to them and they to us. I wonder if the real magic isn’t how they connect us to each other. The nerdy gay man teaching juvenile offenders about how dogs learn, while they laugh and grin with pride for the “roll over” and “high five” they just taught. The liberal and the Tea Partier in the shadow of Bushland cooing over a puppy. Reconnecting the stories of an old friend lost and the dog he loved, the stuff of legend. My own dear Tim nuzzling his face into Stewie’s curled up little body, both with heavy eyes puling them into sleep. The dog whose picture is still on my dresser, my own lifetime dog. Sweet Juno, they’ve caught what we had. Thank god there ‘s no cure for it.

There are so many more stories like these, volumes full I suppose. Ask someone about his or her dog. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they come from, chances are they’ll have a story. I can’t help but think of something else my friend Greg used to say, even before Maya Angelou set it to poetry. It’s true of all people, dog people especially. Different as we may seem, “we are all more alike than we are unalike.” (by Michael Baugh)

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