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Monday 5 November 2012

Melancholy Mondays: Dead Dog

Earlier this year, as I've mentioned before, my dog died.

Some time ago I'd blogged about when he was quite ill, it made me think about the differences one has in experience between dealing with humans and animals one cares about when they are suffering.

Well, by way of coincidence, at the time my dog died this year, I was also grieving for the recent death of a very close friend. As I don't yet feel able to write directly about that particular experience, rather only mention it in passing, instead I'll talk now about the dog, Herman, and how a dog's life influenced a human's.

Where to begin? Let's start before I even met, and named, him. At the time I was reading a variety of literature; classic novels, folk tales, philosophy, anthropology, history, and the occult. I was intrigued by the notion of naming and one's living up to their name. If other people also believed in the destiny or worth of a name or title, might this increase the character of the name? Anyway, I found this passage in 'Transcendental Magic' by Eliphas Levi (which is, as one might expect, mostly bunkum):

The bull, the dog, and the goat are the three symbolical animals of Hermetic magic, resuming all the traditions of Eygpt and India. The bull represents the Earth or the salt of the philosophers; the dog is Hermanubis, the mercury of the sages – otherwise fluid, air and water; the goat represents fire and is at the same time the symbol for the generation. Two goats etc etc.

At any rate, I found the name of the dog and its possible shortened alternative, Herman, to be a most amusing choice for a dog name. The drawback? That I didn't presently own a dog.

Some time passes. During which I also discover that Hermanubis was a Greco-Egyptian god, combining (unsurprisingly) Hermes and Anubis. They both have similar roles and if, as I imagine, the idea was to aid cultural integration (I'm thinking Alexander invading Egypt), one can see them as an obvious amalgum. A historical myths textbook tells me (from memory) that Hermanubis wasn't as popular with the people as the other combination gods and was mostly forgotten. This obviously made me love the name more, an underdog god!? Awesome.

Anyway, also around that time, someone in Ayr probably found that their Staffordshire Bull Terrier was unwantedly pregnant. So, they dumped the new-born litter of six puppies in a bag by the river, the implications are obvious, but quite what happened is not. At any rate the local police found or were told about these puppies and they took them to a nearby veterinary surgery, where a friend of mine worked. Over the next five weeks my friend, with help from her husband and others, hand reared these mewling whelps. A task, if you have any knowledge of it, which is very tough and time consuming indeed. All six were successfully raised and, at the time I came to visit, half had found new homes.

Sadly I don't have any pictures of the puppy Hermanubis on my computer here, but he was the smallest, the runt of the litter, and as the previous dog we had owned, who had died young, around seven years previously, was also the runt I had decided I would pick a large powerful dog instead. When I got there there was indeed a big black puppy, two in fact, and a small brindle coloured puppy, who fought against his bigger brothers attempted bullying. The other dogs seemingly had no interest in me, being too easily distracted by food, but the little dog grabbed hold of my sock and wouldn't leave me alone. It soon became quite obvious that he had chosen me. Powerless to resist an 'attack of cute' I happily took the puppy home and showed him around his new garden (the bit were he nearly fell into the pond due to my negligence shall be stricken from the records).

Over the next few years, the now named Herman, became part of our small family unit. I didn't train him beyond the point of basic welfare, this not being practically useful, it is rather an exercise in needless domination of another living creature. Some people enjoy that, I don't really, this might also highlight my reluctance to even say that I 'own' a dog. I'd rather say that I help look after one, but that sounds dangerously wimpy.

However, in 2005, I went to University in Wales and left Herman behind. I'd see him over the summers and for short holidays, but he was really my mum's dog from that point on. Something that neither ever really got used to. So much so, that whenever I returned (including a longer stay winter to summer 2009-10) it would initiate a battle for dominance between them. I'm not sure mum was aware of this, but she always won anyway.

Earlier this year it became obvious to my mum that Herman was very ill indeed and in a great deal of pain. This was confirmed as a case of, quite advanced and quite terminal, cancer. After some time and some difficult telephone conversations we decided that all reasonable attempts to prolong his life and comfort him in his illness were at an end. However, rather than the stressful journey to the vet's surgery, she came to my mum's house and the veterinarian who had once raised him, now put him to sleep. A simple straightforward dog's life, only nine years alive, but in that time he had proved himself a good companion.

What influence might a dog have on a human life, beyond a purely practical one? Indeed, what sort of connection might there be between two different creatures?

It seems that there are various types of our emotional connections, not just within our human to human interactions but with other beings and things that share our world of care. These are all types of caring for an other we could say. The manner in which we care for a specific other individual, the personalised care we call love, seems different, for example, from the level of care we reserve for our friends. It is perhaps not wholly true to say we do not care for our friends individually, this only introduces a leveling in friendship, but we might still say that there is a level of caring we reserve for friendship, which is distinct from that for one's romantic partner (people can move about these levels too it seems, a lover becomes only a friend and a friend becomes a lover – more than friends).

So, we might label our emotional connections towards certain types of (human) individuals or people, but also there are also those connections with other beings (animals) and things (art or sport). We think that if something from this category were to be treated like the care we have for humans that there is something odd. In a certain sense this seems straightforwardly apparent, psychologists call it displacement, there is a definite absence in the person's life that they fill with an obsessive care for their poodle or their Porsche. Fine, but let's not talk about these extreme cases. What is the emotional cost for caring for an animal compared with a human? It is here that a certain type of philosopher or scientist will want an accurate measure to be made, such that we can make an accurate comparison. “How many dead strangers equal the emotional impact of one dead dog?” We want to somehow permanently fix and therefore accurately measure these phenomena so that we might be able to say with confidence that this is how it is. I can understand the want for clarity, isn't it at the basis for my discussing this subject? However, this cannot be achieved, for even one individual it is a life's task of self-evaluating and thought to discern how and why one thinks and feels the way they do towards the things they care about.

If I can't 'fix' it scientifically, indeed, if I've decided this is the opposite of what we want to achieve when thinking about situations like this, what can be said about this connection between person and dog?

Plato called the dog, the most philosophical of animals, and I agree although our reasons differ, for I believe it is the dog's reaction with an almost constant joy and wonder to the world that means they deserve this accolade. I suppose I initially intended Herman to be my hermit's guide through the (philosophical) underworld. Although I didn't even half believe this, but found the existence of it comforting in some sense. I think he performed this role outstandingly. One might query the supposed lack of intelligence a dog has (especially a dog like Herman) in this position of spirit guide. The dog teaches us, Herman taught me, life isn't difficult or complex. Life is beautiful. Joyous. Short.

Did I suffer in the same way when he died compared to my friend? You are asking the wrong sort of question.
But you didn't cry as deeply or bemoan the fates for his death? No. Perhaps because I didn't need to. The dog doesn't have the same sort of knowledge about life and suffering that we do. However, I didn't reason this at the time either.
Do you value X before Y, what category level might one set them? My dear departed friend once told me that he wanted to meet Herman some day. Although I give no thought to the possibility of a self surviving after death or heaven or such like, still the thought of them both walking together in the quiet countryside fills me with immeasurable happiness and deep comfort. Immeasurable.