The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
I don’t pry into my dog’s affairs. She is free to go about her business (except for the scooping) without my advice. Besides, who needs to ask? Food, rest, halitosis – these are her brand.
Cats, whose human I have had the pleasure of being, live by a different standard. A world ruled by cats would be one of recreational stalking, relaxing on clean laundry and the refusal of food for no reason.
Cat ways are secretive, arcane and elitist, available only to the initiated. Dog ways are populist. From drooling to scratching to barking, the dog, no matter the airs and pretensions of its human, is the regular guy of the pet world.
Yet there is one way in which cat and dog behaviour converges and is equally inscrutable – and that is in how they make the decision to retire from their “duties.”
I have known older cats who are excellent mousers one day, and then the next seem to exist in a far-off, mouse-free galaxy while vermin, first timidly and then brazenly, flout the laws once enforced by the feline constable, multiplying and feasting, feasting and multiplying. One cat I knew even demanded a second litter box in her dotage. I suppose it was her version of a gold watch at 65, as well as notice that the mice were now someone else’s problem.
At least the cat did work at one time, and even had something of a law-enforcement career. Her retirement may have been abrupt and completely self-serving, but ghosts of mice past testify to the effectiveness of her terror while she was employed.
The dog, on the other hand, with its “man’s best friend” conceit, seems to me just a skilled propagandist. Canine apologists (mainly dogs themselves) have carefully massaged this lie for hundreds of years, to the point where the dog is now a complete free-rider, the house guest who never leaves, the indigent third cousin who keeps reminding you of how close the two of you once were.
There was a time when a Labrador retriever actually retrieved, waiting patiently until the master blasted a duck out of the sky. The only things our Lab ever fetched (and keep in mind that I do love this dog) are an afternoon nap and someone else’s tuna sandwich.
Now that traditional canine work has been outsourced to factory farms and security firms, the skilled apologist argues that a dog’s work, in a time of grocery stores instead of hunting and house alarms instead of barking, is companionship. Possibly. A dog may offer the childless the opportunity to nurture, and the bereaved a source of solace. As for me, maybe I lack ingenuity, but I find it difficult to cultivate a friendship with someone who sleeps 22 hours a day.
Presumably, if you have never worked you can never retire in any logical sense. Have we dog-owners been feeding freeloaders, lifelong retirees, all this time? Sure. One reason we have pets is to remind us of the life we would pursue if only we could.
Cats I have known assumed entitlement in a fashion normally found only among the super-rich in human society. They are the pet world’s 1 per cent, and their owners the 99 per cent desperately trying to sate the avarice of the four-footed ruling class with food, treats and toys.
Who wouldn’t choose a life of pouring pure contempt on others with complete impunity? With the cat, I can observe up close the life of the powerful as I endure the dismissive glare of a critic about a foot-and-a-half long. Somehow the feline is always able to convince me I owe it something.
A dog is different. Attempting to be imperious while you’re panting, slobbering and wagging your tail is unconvincing, not to mention that the visits to the public canine lavatory known as the street create a scene where no pretense of dignity will survive. And of course you bow to the dog’s supposition that you are a partner in this cheerful eliminative action.
Here again is an example of the dog’s cunning device. As it gets older, and these public forays become more frequent, the dog who never worked for anything casts us “owners” more and more in a sort of levelling drama in which bipeds and quadrupeds are all dogs together.
Cats whose human I have been would not countenance such a travesty, knowing that I am not cool enough to be a cat and never will be.
Yet the dog keeps us on the leash, and this is because part of us shares with the dog an ambition to be an eternal retiree, cultivating perfect indolence in a world where everyone barks his mind freely between snacks. Be it lying on the beach, eating French fries in the park or napping on a winter afternoon, dog and human see themselves reflected in each other, with one crucial difference: Humans have wallets.
It is we who must pay the bill for the consummate sloth to which human and canine alike aspire. After all, someone has to work so everyone can have fun. And isn’t it great that millions of dogs agree?
Mark Harding lives in Toronto.