Yet another (completely avoidable) dead dog story

Was at dinner with wife and some folks from out of town. Talk at one point turned to dogs and the woman beside me told me that her brother’s dog had died and he was feeling guilty about it. Initially I thought, “no, you shouldn’t feel guilty about your dog’s death,” but then she told me the story. Her brother had left the dog on a glassed-in porch and then gone out with his family and thought they would be back soon and then they were gone all day and when they came home they discovered the dog had died.

Sunny day. Glass enclosure. Apparently there were dog paw marks all over the glass wall. They baked their dog to death. No wonder he feels guilty. The reality is, they murdered their dog. How callous can you be? And how stupid? Not to realize that a glass enclosure heats up from the sun’s rays. And the dog doesn’t have the ability to sweat. Why do people not get that dogs cannot regulate their body’s temperature the way humans can. Imagine locking someone in a sauna where the temperature just keeps rising. See what they would do. And I think of that poor dog. It doesn’t know what is happening, just that it’s becoming increasingly heated up and uncomfortable and wondering why its owners have abandoned it and then finally just expiring from heat stroke or whatever happens. Just imagine its confusion and fear and pain. Heartbreaking. And completely avoidable. There will come a time when this will be considered negligent homicide. Because that’s exactly what it is.

The thought of this incident just makes me so upset. That poor animal. And those people. Really. Apparently they’ve gotten a new dog. One only hopes that they care for it better than the last one. How can people be so careless?

And then you wonder how many times this goes on each day. Every day during the summer there are stories about people leaving dogs in locked cars. “But I cracked the window,” they say. Here again, complete stupidity. Even with a window cracked, the interior of a car heats up like an oven on a sunny day.

Walking the dog

FrankieWas returning from my dog walk this morning when I ran into a couple of guys standing near the sidewalk. Plumbers, according to the sign on the van, and as it turned out, waiting for the town inspector to show up to sign off on their work on a house across the street. “What’s your dog’s name?” one man asked as he bent down to pet her. “Frankie,” I said. He told me he used to have a cocker spaniel and wondered if Frankie made a lot of noise at home. “Not much, except when the doorbell rings.”

The conversation quickly turned to how much we love dogs and how important they are and how short of a time they are with us and then one of the guys said (and I did not prompt him) that a friend of his was so torn up by the death of her dog that she just couldn’t function. Then the other guy went on to say that he knew of a woman who had to take a month off from work because of the death of her dog. This kind of intense grieving for a dead dog is news to me.

Though I first heard about this kind of debilitating reaction from Jon Katz, a writer who I interviewed in May. He said, “Our whole idea of animals is changing. They’re considered as essential to our emotional lives. They’re at the center of our homes, we give them human names and of course we’re grieving for them as if they were human. They mean that much to people.”

He also thinks that as people become more and more disconnected from the natural world around them, they find solace in the company of animals, as replacements for that other lost connection.

He did mention this notion of people grieving so deeply that they couldn’t function normally, couldn’t go to work. He’s written a number of books about dogs and one specifically about the death of dogs called Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die. He said in the interview, “At the same time I think we are losing perspective about it. If I lost a dog and couldn’t function, if I couldn’t go to work, and this happens quite a bit, and I was falling apart and I wasn’t able to do the things in life I needed to do, I think I would need to get to a shrink. Because it speaks to something in your own life. One thing I’ve learned in writing a dozen books about dogs is that people are mirroring their own lives in their relationships with dogs.”

Is this an issue that I ought to look into more for this film? Find people who are so devastated by the loss of a pet that they just quit everything for a period of time? It certainly does speak to something in our culture, since clearly this is a behavior that didn’t exist in the past. When I was a kid (in the ’60s) and a dog died, you were sad for a while but then you moved on. It was not a big deal. But now, at least according to Jon Katz, intense grieving has become a public health issue in certain communities. As Jon pointed out, “If we’re living in a culture that’s equating animals and children, we’re heading into a very strange area.”




Cemetery Guy

One of the people I’ve interviewed for the “When Dogs Die” film is Mike Thomas, caretaker at the Pine Ridge Pet Cemetery in Dedham, MA. While working on this project I began taking a class in documentary film making since I quickly learned how much I didn’t know. One of the assignments for the class was to create a video portrait of someone. Since I already had an extensive interview with Mike, and I liked him as a subject, I decided to do my portrait about him. I spoke with him a couple more times while he was at work at the cemetery. This short film then is about Mike and the work he does. It’s not exactly an excerpt of “When Dogs Die,” but portions of this short film will no doubt appear in the longer final film. At one point while interviewing Mike, he said he’d “become the cemetery guy.” I liked that line and so made it the title for this short piece. Unfortunately the line itself didn’t make it into the film.


The repairman’s cat

The appliance repairman was here at the house yesterday to fix the dryer and the gas range. He’s been here before. Friendly, heavy-set, neat. He likes our dog, Frankie, and always wants her to come to him so he can pet her. But Frankie is scared of him, frightened by his tool box, I think. Yesterday, though, after I encouraged her to say hi to him, she finally settled on the floor near his feet while he was writing up the bill for his work done.


Not the repairman’s cat; not my range.

Since he is so fond of Frankie, I asked him if he had any animals at home. That was when he told me that his cat had recently died. “I had him for 17 and a half years.” I said I was sorry to hear that and then asked him if he was going to get another cat. “My wife is having some problems right now,” he said. “She just had an operation a few months ago and she’s going to need another one. Have to get through all this before I can think about another animal.”

As he sat there rubbing Frankie’s neck, I said, “Well, at least you get to see some animals during the day, right? I imagine a fair number of the homes you visit each day must have dogs or cats around.”

“Yes, they do,” he said, “it’s the best part of my day.”

That always kills me. Someone saying the best part of their day is something unrelated to their work. Why isn’t repairing appliances the best part of his day? He’s helping people carry on with their lives. I’m elated that the dryer and the range are fixed. Shouldn’t he be happy that he has made my life better? Then again, perhaps he’s bored to death, having seen the same things over and over and over again. How many different things are their to fix on home appliances? Still, I’m always sad when I hear people say that their job doesn’t bring them happiness, that other things make them happy, like dogs and cats.

I should have asked him why he likes cats so much.

[ flickr photo courtesy of dreamo ]

One Nation Under Dog

One Nation Under Dog is an HBO documentary that explores (American) people’s complicated relationship with dogs. It’s broken down into three parts: Fear, Loss, Betrayal. Fear studies a New Jersey family that fights to keep its dog that continues to bite and terrorize citiens of their town. Loss is about how folks deal with the death of their dogs and is explored primarily through a San Francisco support group. And Betrayal explores animal shelters, people who devote their lives to rescuing dogs from shelters, puppy mills, and reveals that over a million—a million!—dogs are put to death each year. And “put to death” is a kind euphemism that’s put to the lie when we see dogs being gassed to death. Particularly gruesome sequence in the show (you’re warned in advance).

If you love dogs, it’s an important show to see. After seeing this show, you’re sure to get your next dog from a shelter.

HBO Docs on Facebook

How it all began

Recently, a friend had to put her dog down. (Such an odd phrase, but what else do you say? Had to kill her dog?) A cute little Cairn Terrier. As soon as my wife told me the news I went to our dog, Frankie, and hugged her. And thought of the day when we might have to put her down. I cried. And thought back to when we first got Frankie, a small black and white English cocker spaniel. As soon as we got her, I started thinking about her not being around. I guess I was just so instantaneously smitten with her. That’s one problem with dogs; you’re more than likely going to outlive them.

Our friend lives in New York city and the vet came to her apartment to put her dog down. Which seems very humane. I pictured Keeper sitting on the living room sofa, the vet giving him a pill and then the injection.

In that same time period, we got a “Drs Foster and Smith” mail order catalog. There was an article embedded about euthanizing your pet. I read that. Imagining Frankie on a table in the vet’s office. The needle in a leg…first the calming drugs and then the one that stops the heart. My wife said that our friend labored over the decision to put her dog down. He was in obvious discomfort all the time. But as soon as she called the vet, the dog seemed to perk up. As if he knew that soon his pain would be over.

I get weepy just thinking about it. Not long thereafter I was lying in bed, rubbing Frankie’s tummy. She lay there on her back, rear legs splayed, front lets bent at the elbows, as if in supplication. Her body relaxed. Her eyes closed. She looked happy. And in that moment I realized that that would be how we would put her down. At home, on the bed, we’d give her a pill to relax her and then I’d rub her tummy until she closed her eyes and then they would just never open again.

Why do I leap ahead 9,10 years to the death of this little dog that I love? Why does that end come to mind? Do I have to begin now to prepare myself? There are other friends whose dogs have died. They seem not to want to talk about it. Easier to talk about a parent passing away than it is a dog. Or is that just me?

Obviously bringing a dog into our lives created a lot of issues for me, particularly around death. But then I thought, maybe other people think this way as well. And why not find out? That’s when I started taking some video courses at my local Brookline Access TV station.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m looking at the project as an exploration. As one guy said, “Getting a dog means guaranteed heartbreak.” So why do we get dogs? Maybe most people don’t think about the end of the pet’s life as soon as they get it. But then again, people have multiple dogs in their lifetimes. They deal with the heartbreak. Then again, some people don’t. Maybe they don’t want to go through that loss more than once.

These are all things I’ll be exploring as I begin interviewing dog owners, people who have recently lost dogs, dog trainers, veterinarians, and other animal professionals.