The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes
of Human-Animal Relationships - to be published by Key
Porter Books February 2009.
excerpt 1 (Dogs
and Serpents) /
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
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
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.