This week’s ‘reality check’ pays tribute to the relationship between dogs and people, the canine role in both fiction and real life, and again centres on the theme of ‘cost and price’.
Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson told us in their 1992 duet hit that “The Best Things in Life Are Free”. Jessie J says it’s not about the money, and not to worry about the “Price Tag”.
Call me a sceptic or a cynic, but I was brought up to believe that nothing is free, that everything comes with a price tag. It might not be monetary, but in the end the fleas come with the dog, or as my father used to say, in this world you get “nothing for nothing”.
What does this have to do with dogs?
It’s said that a dog is “man’s best friend”. Loyalty, forgiveness, companionship and unconditional love are just some of the traits many a dog lover will swear by. Some might even go as far as believing the same traits can never be found in other animals or even people, and that one could spend an entire lifetime and not find a single person with the same commitment to them as their dog. If this is even halfway close to the truth, it suggests a bond so powerful that perhaps only true “dog lovers” can appreciate.
So what is the “cost” of this friendship?
You pay for a dog when you first pick him or her out of the litter, store or shelter. You pay for food, vaccinations, toys, blankets, kennels, heart worm prevention, gates, fences, garden repairs, flea shampoo and tablets, veterinary bills, insurance.
The economic costs go on, but let’s go a little deeper and see what we find.
Whether you are a dog lover or not, there is no doubting the significance of their various ‘roles’ in contemporary life, particularly in western countries, much of which has to do with the ‘skills’ or ‘uses’ dogs have and which humans have capitalised on since domestication approximately 30,000 years ago.
A dog’s nose not only dominates his or her face, but the brain as well. A dog relies on sense of smell to interpret the world in much the same way as people depend on sight. The percentage of the dog’s brain devoted to analysing smells is 40 times that of a human. It’s been estimated that dogs can identify smells up to 10,000 times better than humans. A Beagle, Labrador or German Shepherd, for instance, has 225 million nasal scent receptors. Humans have 5 million.
Little wonder these particular breeds are so often used in the detection of drugs, weapons, dead bodies, bombs, cash, offenders, disaster recovery, even tumours in cancer patients. No wonder that Labradors are quite literally giving sight, companionship and freedom to blind people. One can only image the bond that exists between the vision impaired and their ‘best friend’.
Dogs are also a favourite in the context of ‘characters’ and ‘companions’, both in fiction and real life. In Blood Sunset a street kid junkie lives with a Bull Mastiff alone in a squat. The dog is not just his best friend, it is his only friend. Circumstances lead to the kid losing the dog and the main protagonist adopts him, allowing for stronger character development in a later novel, Pink Tide. The role of the dog as a ‘companion’ in these books is almost sub plot, but it builds on the complex relationships that underpin the story and events common in real life.
The book (and film) Marley and Me takes it a step further and gives the dog a central role in a love triangle that has reduced many grown men and women to tears. In the 1980′s Tom Hanks made the French Mastiff a household name after the release of the film Turner and Hooch.
In Australian households, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier is one of the top three most popular dogs. Originally bred by English coal miners to catch rats, bait bulls and fight other dogs in a pit, they are now affectionately known as the “nanny dog”, after their tenancy to bond and protect children.
A few personal examples:
My brother lives the quint essential “Australian Dream”; a promising career, suburban house with a landscaped backyard, a devoted wife, two healthy children and a family dog. His name is Diesel, an English Staffordshire. I asked him about how Diesel fits into his busy and hectic life.
“He would never go to Lisa before the kids,” my brother said, “but when she was pregnant and I was away, he sat by her every night, particularly towards the end of the pregnancy. Diesel has been trained not to go into our rooms, but again when Lisa was pregnant he would sit by her side.
He was doing my home job while I was at work. He knew his role.
Nowadays he is gentle around the children, even outside, but can switch to play ‘rough’ with me and back to ‘gentle’ with the kids again. My daughter, Holly, absolutely adores him. She gives him tickles and pats at every opportunity.
We had some concerns or reservations when we brought the kids home from hospital for the first time. Diesel was 1 year old and had never had to ‘compete for our time’, but he is part of the family now. Without him, things would be very different.”
This is a dog acting out the role of ‘defender’ and ‘companion’, but there are other roles. In writing my first three books, my own dog was essential to the creative process. Everyday I’d walk him, running plot ideas, dialogue and character traits through my mind. By the time I returned to the keyboard the words practically typed themselves. Creative inspiration flowed while my dog sat beside me, a little heart beat by my feet.
There is no doubt ‘Zeus’ was stolen and sold to me in a common scam where particular breeds are snatched from the litter before they are weaned properly. This affected Zeus’s personality (and his upbringing) for his entire 15 years with me, but he had the best life I could give.
There is also evidence to suggest pets help those who are ill. When my father was in the late stages of Motor Neurone Disease, Zeus played a vital role in keeping his spirits up. Zeus, in the winter years of his own life as well, knew my father was dying. He slept on his bed in the hospice. One man and one dog, together facing the certainty of death, and the uncertainty of the beyond.
Zeus passed away almost a year to the day after my father died and I have yet to seek a replacement pet, but my fascination and appreciation of the canine role with mankind is alive and well.
In the underworld, dogs have their own place. In criminal slang, a “dog” is an informant, a snitch. It is a label reserved for the condemned. If you ‘dog’ on someone, you die or you run, forever.
Somewhat ironic, perhaps, given the loyalty canine companions offer, but it stems from the notion that a dog will follow anyone who offers them food. Conversely, in police parlance, surveillance teams are nick named “dogs”, as they follow criminals around, gathering (or scavenging) evidence.
Then there are the serial killers, many of whom begin their ‘careers’ as adolescents by killing animals. Cats are a favourite, but dogs don’t escape this either. Paul Denyer is just one of many who fit this profile. He smeared his victims’ houses with the blood of dead animals.
Does the killing or hurting of animal predict future behaviour? If so, then the story of ‘Buckley’ is another case in point. Buckley was found in a Melbourne western suburban school covered and soaked in a pool of blood. Somebody cut his ears and tail off with a pair of scissors. Nobody was ever caught or tried for this, but the story went viral.
Even hard man and ex-underworld identity, Mark “Chopper” Read, who cut his own ears off to force prison authorities to move him to another facility after a hit had been ordered on him, got involved and offered to adopt young Buckley. The name given to the mutilated puppy has its own significance, since “William” Buckley was an English convict transported to Australia almost 200 years ago, who escaped and was given up for dead, yet survived in an Aboriginal community for many years. It has since became the source of an Australian vernacular phrase “you’ve got Buckley’s chance”, meaning “it’s as good as impossible”.
Thankfully, not so for Buckley the puppy.
In some cultures, dogs are considered dirty. In Australia, every now and then a taxi driver with differing religious views on the canine companion refuses to let a blind person in their cab with a ‘blind eye dog’ and media outrages follows. In some cultures, particularly certain parts of Asia, dogs are slaughtered and become part of the human food chain, no different to chicken, lamb, pork or beef. In other cultures, they are a status symbol. Take music and the gangster image, for example. Snoop Dog (now self-renamed Snoop Panther) and Cuban born / Miami resident Pit Bull as a case in point.
Both are highly successful and talented artists, but are they adding to the cost or capitalising on the reputation of a particular breed?
The American Pit Bull Terrier is an English Staffordshire (or Nanny Dog) mixed with other breeds to create the ultimate urban canine warrior, as close as you can get to a domesticated lion. And in the gangster subculture, they are the gold chain, the Ferrari, the silicone implants and tattoo tears that ‘represent’ who they are. So who pays the cost?
In many instances, it’s the dogs themselves. Like cock fighting in Asia, putting dogs in a ‘pit’ and gambling on who wins is big business in the west, par for the course in the life of a gangster, (and his or her dog).
And like anything gangsters do, the law will follow, or at least try to. In Australia, the American Pit Bull is now classified as a ‘dangerous dog’ and banned. The RSPCA is considered the protector of all animals, yet it remains in favour the banning legislation, making it the enemy of anyone who owns a pit bull, or in many cases, breeds related to it, like the English Staffordshire. Take a drive through any Australian city and you’ll see stickers on the back windows of SUV’s with the slogan “Support the RSPCA – For all creatures great and small, except the American Pit Bull”.
In Los Angeles, a man has recently been charged with murder after his pit bull mauled a female jogger to death, bringing about further calls for the breed to be banned, but will this solve the problem or simply push it further underground?
Criminology 101: when something popular is banned, it becomes even more popular. Demand goes up. The cost to all: policy on the run.
The legislation has divided public opinion and increased the popularity of a breed of dog to the very people it aims to control or restrict. And so the fleas that come with the dog have grown into a swarm, like a tornado, gathering speed and momentum, fuelled by paranoia, knee jerk policy and a failure to assign blame in a consistent direction. In the end nobody wins. Not the dogs. Not the owners and families, and not the public.
As the tornado grows, we end up glorifying an underground culture that exploits the traits of specific breeds, and a divided opinion where some people will literally cross the street when they see any breed resembling a pit bull approach, while others will drop to their knees for a pat. Fear mongering may benefit media outlets, generate ratings and increase the cost of advertising space, but in the end we all pay the price.
We end up with a clash of ill-advised policy, increased demand for breeds by people who fail to understand or simply do not care about the commitment of being a responsible dog owner. You end up with young children being mauled by dogs neglected by irresponsible owners. The type of people who go to the shopping mall and wonder whether they should catch a movie or buy a dog today. People who do not respect the simple but all-important rule (or cost) that a dog is for life, not just Christmas.
So what does it all boil down to?
A dog may be man’s best friend and they indeed have many roles by which the human race can benefit, both in books, movies and reality, but in the end you still get nothing for nothing. Fleas come with the dog. Unless unchecked or treated properly, the fleas breed until we all (especially the dogs) pay the price.
But I’ll leave it to ex-premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, to conclude with a statement he includes in his book, Dog Lover’s Poems, one which summarises the cost of this unique friendship and grace’s the shrine of my own best friend’s resting place…
The gift which I am sending you is called a dog, the most precious and valuable possession of mankind.
He will be your friend, your partner, your defender.
You will be his life, his love, his leader.
He will be yours, faithful and true, to the very last beat of his heart.
You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion.
Dedicated to anyone else who no longer feels that little heart beat by their feet.