It’s been quite the animal-companion year since returning to the Island last May: standard poodle; Chinese crested hairless; Australian shepherd; Chihuahua; pug mix; poodle mix; shepherd mix; fluffy-dog mix; Schnauzer mix. Cats that live indoors. Cats that live outside. Alpacas, a llama and 28 chickens. We’ve gotten to know so many animals in the intimacy of their own homes.
You definitely end up sharing a lot of experiences with animals when you look after other people’s pets. I’ve slept with dogs I barely knew. All of us learn each other’s food quirks, poo quirks, good and bad habits and lines in the sand in very short order. It’s a bit like a longish fling, where both of you know it’s not going to last and so just plunge in head-long.
As you might expect, people’s pets are often quite unsettled initially to find you moving into their home. Imagine how any of us would feel if a stranger announced herself at our door and set about doing things differently. Meanwhile, your own beloved pack members have inexplicably flown the coop. Any animal would be weirded out by that turn of events.
But here’s the glorious secret about dogs and cats: As long as you start right in consistently feeding them, petting them, treating them kindly and taking them for fun walks, you’re going to be their good pal in about two days. They still love their owners the most, of course, but you will be a fondly regarded substitute, like a favourite relative who can be counted on to sneak you a raw marrow bone once in a while, throw in an extra scoop of kibble, take you on a ramble up Mount Doug.
I’ve always loved all dogs, but it was our two-plus years in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, that got me thinking about them in a completely different way.
The small gated courtyard at our house there turned out to be a refuge for medium-sized, skinny stray dogs - usually nursing females– of a size that could squeeze through the bars and take a break from the scene in the cool of our patio. Naturally, we set out food and water, which brought even more, although almost everyone initially turned up their nose at dog kibble. (I used to make chicken gizzard toppings to lure our fussy visitors into eating dog food.)
As for humans, virtually all of the dogs categorized people as beings that were best mistrusted but at the same time coveted, because they had the food. So once a Copan street dog trusted you enough to let you touch it, the dog was yours, a realization that brought me all kinds of guilt when we came back to Canada and could bring only one dog back.
I also saw that many of the dogs loved the freedom of street life, some even more than they loved the certainty of a comfortable home. A domesticated dog in a pet-loving society like ours gets a longer, safer and more consistent life out of the deal, but that’s not to deny the appeal of a life of genuine freedom and all the food-laden garbage cans a dog can toss in a night.
A Canadian dog lives a life far removed from that of a Copan street dog, which on top of going hungry also exists in a culture that doesn’t do dog worship. But Adored Pet status does mean giving up freedom. My favourite times with other people’s dogs are when the dogs and I go off on a mild adventure to someplace where they can sniff, dig, and look completely excited to be alive while enjoying the illusion that nobody's the boss of them.
And then home shortly after to a warm bed, good food and maybe even a free lap. Who’s going to argue with that?