The Secret Lives of Dogs

by Madeleine Peck Wagner
Yoshi is a supermodel, Lola a living meatloaf, Lulu runs a tanning/nail salon in New Jersey, Murphy is really a racehorse, and Tyler was a gentleman about town, and occasionally a space explorer or mountaineer. The list could go on and on, and devolve into the specifics of how Lulu runs a New Jersey-based business from Florida (lots of video conferencing and headset wearing), where Yoshi retired after she gave up the beautiful life, and Murphy’s training schedule.
Elaborate, fanciful and completely absurd, the imaginary lives of dogs might say more about their owners than they do about the canines. Nonetheless, the satisfaction derived from constructing and narrating these secondary/tertiary lives deepens the relationship between pets and their people and friends even. These stories become touchstones of humor and compassion, and even fill the awkward silences. Like when Grandmother visits and though silently condemns your decorating style, chances are she’ll thaw (at least slightly) for a charming little dog.
*It’s worth noting that cats too have alternate lives, but these tend towards dictatorships, assassination plots and Michelin-starred chefs. Don’t ask, cats are just natural oligarchs.
At this point, a personal disclaimer is in order; the above mentioned astronaut was my dog. He died in July and with him, his considerable list of accomplishments… or attempts at greatness. Like most dogs, Tyler had a huge heart and a ton of courage- not always, but when it was needed. I like to think that though he was with us for only six years (we got him as a four or five year-old rescue) they were the years he was supposed to be with us; that, although we rescued him, he protected us.
Statistics show that pet owners live on average four to five years longer than non-pet owners, and among these, dog owners seem to benefit the most. Dr. Deborah Wells, a psychologist from Queens University, Belfast UK, postulates “It is possible that dogs can directly promote our well-being by buffering us from stress, one of the major risk factors associated with ill-health. The ownership of a dog can also lead to increases in physical activity and facilitate the development of social contacts, which may enhance both physiological and psychological human health in a more indirect manner.”
Then there’s the unconditional love part. No person is likely to give one a standing ovation every time he or she walks in the door. But the dog will. He (or she) will cheer you on, be your biggest and best supporter, each time, every time… even if it sometimes comes with a little excited pee. Truly there is no better feeling than seeing your Boston Terrier so excited to see you, and one of your close friends, that he greets her with excited leaps, and a little “leak,” on her brand-new designer jeans… well, maybe not the best feeling, but an awesome memory.
Archaeological evidence suggests that dogs have been domesticated for tens of thousands of years, in fact some genealogical testing suggests that humans began selectively domesticating wolves about 12,000 years ago. At Bonn-Oberkassel, a burial site located in Germany, archaeologists have found joint human and canine interments dating to 12,000 BCE, while Danger Cave in Utah has remains about 11,000 years old, and the Mesolithic site (5,250-3,700 BCE), Skateholm in Sweden, also has evidence of deliberate dog burials.
Evidence of burial sites certainly reinforces evidence of the bonds that must have grown naturally out of the shared business of survival. But the idea of a pet, of an animal kept, fed, and protected just for the pleasure of its company, wasn’t something that entered culture-by-way-of-language until about 1,000 CE. The word “pet” itself first came into use in Old Northern English and Scottish language at about this time. Of course, this overlooks etymological evidence possibly found in non-Western cultures, but for the purpose of this article, will serve as an example.
The percentage of animals that can be effectively domesticated is incredibly small, and of these, the ones humans can form bonds with and bring into the home, even smaller. Because humans are hard-wired to love and be loved, pets can fulfill the role of child, companion and friend. Even in those leading lives of epic adventure, lives that have been recorded by poets and sung by bards, the love and role a dog plays cannot be underestimated:
“Then as Ulysses knelt beside it, the old dog stirred. Slowly it lifted its head and stared through very weak eyes. Moments later the old dog whined, and its thin tail began wagging feebly. Argus had recognized his master! And a tear rolled down Ulysses’ face as the now happy dog closed its eyes for the last time.”
This passage is one of the most famous in all of literature. So touching, carved reliefs of the scene have been found on ancient Roman sarcophagi. Again and again human history is filled with stories of incredible animals, and dogs especially, whose loyalty, bravery and humor echo down the ages. It seems that the bond humans share with their animals is unquantifiable, yet so integral a part of being human, it lingers in our oldest and most precious myths.
And sometimes these stories are smaller- simply about a tiny mountaineer exploring the Sangre de Cristo mountains; an epic that will be quietly sung.