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The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships - to be published by Key Porter Books February 2009.


Another theme in my book is how important it is for us to justify the value of pet animals, particularly dogs, to our society. One way we do this is by enlisting them as helpers. In this second excerpt from The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath, I go along when a friend takes her two dogs for their weekly visit to the chronic care ward of a hospital.

Even residents who don’t actively like dogs seem to benefit from their presence. As well, my friend and I observe the unique ability of animals to handle the sadness and stress of therapy work better than we humans do.

The chronic care ward of any hospital is a sobering place. Many patients aren’t so much hopelessly ill as just hopelessly old. Families mostly dead or dispersed, spouses long since buried or bitterly forgotten, peer group gradually edging toward extinction.

For some, this hospital ward is the last stop on the road, bypassing the seniors’ residences that, somehow or other, never wound up figuring in their calculations. For all, days and nights are a constant barrage of compromise and impingement: the din of the TV set attached to the next bed; the proximity of someone else’s garrulous visitors; the pervasive odour of someone else’s lunch tray or incipient death.

Into a world like this, ambulatory and energetic life enters like the proverbial shaft of light into a tomb. In this case, it’s life in the shape of my effervescent friend Kelly, and her two dogs, Porter and Lucy, whom she brings once a week to make the rounds of the Chronic Care Ward.

Porter is a particularly large and calm Shetland Sheepdog, with gentlemanly manners and an air of sincere concern. Lucy, the West Highland Terrier, is a peppery little soul--sharp, alert and utterly dominating. At least, that’s how she is at home.

As soon as she reaches the first ward on Kelly’s regular roster, Lucy immediately makes for Merle, a small, porcelain-doll of a woman, with a sad furrowed brow. When Kelly lifts her up onto the bed, Lucy sprawls on her back in Merle’s frail arms. And remains there, immobile, until Kelly returns to collect her at the end of her rounds.

Porter makes the rounds, giving anybody who wants it the benefit of his vast benevolence. In the men’s ward, he heads to a spot between two wizened old men, sitting side by side in silence. One is Greek; the other, who I’m guessing is Polish, takes a firm grip on Porter’s muzzle. As he holds and strokes and croons sweet Slavic nothings to the dog, the other old man—oblivious to his fellow patient—also leans over, to murmur to Porter in Greek, equally convinced the dog understands him if no one else does.

Once back in the room where we started, we find Lucy still motionless in the arms of silent, sorrowful Merle. Another woman lies in her bed, looking on. When I ask, she flatly refuses to have Porter lifted up on her bed. But then, as if not wanting to lose my goodwill, she starts to tell me about a Cocker Spaniel from her childhood. “It was my dad’s dog, actually,” she corrects herself. “Wouldn’t let anybody get between it and Dad.”

It seems the spaniel was run over. Right in the driveway, by the next-door neighbour. “Of course, it was an accident. But we couldn’t eat our supper that night, we were so upset.” I sense it’s important to her to make clear that she cared--if not about the dog, per se, then certainly about that long-ago family group arranged morosely around the supper table.

It is an illustration of the different ways therapy dogs work on different patients. For those who love animals, there are straightforward physiological and psychological effects, including a slowed heart rate, a cheered outlook.

For those who don’t, the benefits may be of a less obvious kind. Porter and Lucy’s presence has prompted this woman to rummage her memory for a reminiscence she thinks will interest a stranger who seems interested in dogs. And even a memory culminating in death in the family driveway comes from a better time, a more companionable place.

Once their shift is up, Porter and Lucy flop in the back seat of the car, evidently exhausted from hours of being cuddled and coddled and exclaimed over in a number of languages. As soon as they get back home, however, they revive, and revert to the self-directed house pets I recognize: mooching for scraps, standing ready to growl at neighbourhood noises, nosing over their toes the way dogs do, to make sure all are present and accounted for.

Kelly and I talk about how hard it is to shrug off the sad confinement of the people we’ve just been with. For us, it’s impossible not to identify with those who could be--perhaps inevitably will be--us, somewhere down the line.

For Kelly’s dogs, however, there seems no space within this present moment for introspection or backward reflection. In their minds, there may well not be room to extrapolate from the bleakness of where they’ve just been to the likely shape of their own unspecified future.

Perhaps that’s what makes many pets so much better at this kind of work than many people are: Offering empathy that takes no lasting toll, lending presence devoid of ego. Giving exactly what is needed in the moment, taking nothing away that won’t be forgotten after a good night’s sleep. Above all, relying on us to value the currency in which they pay their way.