Our Family Pack

Why dogs my best friends—and yours too

The Nolan family: Back row: Kelly, Fergus, Reilly; Front row: Bonnie, Delanie

The Nolan family: Back row: Kelly, Fergus, Reilly; Front row: Bonnie, Delanie

Photo by Tom Angel

One of the worst weeks in my life was when I went away to sixth-grade camp. I didn’t like the food, I didn’t like sleeping with seven other girls, I even missed my bickering family a little, but most of all I missed my dog.

I wrote letters everyday delivering instructions for ZuZu’s care and messages to give her. She was the first “person” ever to greet me joyously, and she did it every weekday when I came home from school. Imagine what raptures awaited me after being gone for a week.

When I returned, ZuZu was gone. Dead, and I don’t remember how or why. All I remember from that time was feeling like I had lost the very best friend I would ever have.

The saying, “A man’s best friend is his dog,” is not an old homily passed down through the ages. It was one part of a moving statement made on behalf of a dog-loving man who felt just like I did at the end of sixth grade.

In 1870, Charles Burden was the owner of Old Drum, the best hunting dog in Warrensburg County, Missouri, and Leonidas Hornsby was Burden’s dog-hating, gun-toting neighbor, who shot Old Drum dead when he came into Hornsby’s yard.

Burden sued Hornsby for damages. The case made it all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, where Senator Charles Vest eulogized the dog in his closing argument, which included the line: “The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.” Burden won the case. Today, a station erected on the Johnson County Courthouse lawn, in Warrensburg, on Sept. 23, 1958, immortalizes Old Drum.

Of course, dogs weren’t always man’s best friends. If you trace your neighbor’s Pekinese back far enough, you’ll find a gray wolf. That heritage may not be evident in a Pekinese, but if you’ve ever had a dog with even a bit of wolf in him, his ancestry is obvious. Our pup Molly literally stalked my 5-year-old son Reilly one night as he sat engrossed in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She snuck up to him, crouched and pounced. If she had been interested in anything besides licking him to death, he would have been a goner.

Scientists used to think that dogs first became domesticated when early man hunted the animals for food, killed the adults and took the puppies away for fattening up. The puppies became tamed and then valued for their company more than their meat. The theory makes sense. When our dog Fergus had 13 puppies, we could barely stand to give them away to good homes, much less eat them.

But that theory turned out to be wrong. Now scientists think it happened like this: The bravest of the wolves began to hang around human settlements, not because they liked people, but because it was so easy to get food there. They could scavenge the garbage (one of many wolf-like traits that dogs still have) and raid the caves or huts where meat was kept. Puppies that were distrustful or fearful of humans would drift away from the villages, heading back into the wilderness, but the ones that stayed—after a few generations—would become primitive, and then domestic, dogs.

One hundred thousand years later the domestic dog has spread all over the world except for Antarctica. Whereas there are only some 150,000 wolves left in the wild worldwide, there are more than 50 million owned dogs in the United States alone, and millions more unowned. Dogs have thrived because of their great adaptability, high intelligence and, most important, their use of social cooperation—the power of the pack.

The characteristics of a wolf pack are very similar to, and perhaps stronger than, that of the nuclear human family. In fact, we’ve watched our mother and daughter dogs for signs of familial feelings and found them in two ways. Fergus is very bossy to her daughter Bonnie, just like most moms. And Bonnie, in times of great sadness or trauma, goes to Fergus for comfort.

The best example of this is the time when Bonnie came home from her spaying procedure at the veterinarian’s office. She went up to her mother and put her head down against Fergus’ neck. Fergus snuggled her own head against Bonnie’s, and they stayed that way, very still, for a few minutes.

We humans living in dog-human packs tend to look for human characteristics in our dogs. But the reverse is also true: humans taking on the habits or characteristics of their dogs.

In the book Winterdance, by Gary Paulsen, the power of the dog-human pack is illustrated in a unique way. After working with dogs from some years, Paulsen decided to enter the Iditarod, the arduous, 1,180-mile race through the Alaskan wilderness. He and his 15 dogs survived temperatures down to 60 degrees below zero, blinding wind, snowstorms, frostbite, dogfights, dog murderers and moose attacks before they crossed the finish line. Through their mutual love of the race and their dependence on each other for survival, they truly become a pack.

Dogs and their humans can become a pack without having to undergo life-threatening conditions, however. A Minneapolis study showed that 99 percent of respondents in a study of 500 owners considered their dogs to be family members. And about a third of respondents of dog-owning families felt closer to their dogs than to anyone else in the family.

Indeed, dogs can make better family members than people do: They are far less judgmental, they’re not moody and they don’t nag. In her book Pack of Two, author Caroline Knapp writes about hearing the following from a friend: “The thing I love best about my dog,” the woman says, “is that she will never walk into a room and say ‘Honey, I need some space.’ “

Conversely, a dog is the one “person” who can still be with you yet allow for feelings of solitude. Dogs bring a feeling of consistency, comfort and continuity to their owners, and can even bring such feelings to non-owners.

There have been many studies on the beneficial results brought about by petting dogs, or even being in the same room with them. Blood pressure goes down, erratic heartbeats stabilize and a general sense of calm prevails when one is in the presence of a dog. And literature on the effectiveness of dogs as healing agents has flourished since Boris Levinson, an American child psychiatrist, began using his dog Jingles in his work with severely disturbed children in the 1960s.

Pet therapy is now used in a wide variety of settings: Depressed nursing home patients have been shown to become more cheerful and interactive when visited by dogs. Prison inmates allowed to care for dogs have become less violent and more responsible. Visits by dogs have helped to ease feelings of despair and loneliness among AIDS patients and terminally ill cancer patients. Elderly veterans, emotionally disturbed children, recovering drug addicts, troubled inner-city kids—all have been soothed by the presence of dogs.

And that’s just from run-of-the-mill, untrained dogs-about-town. With a little training, dogs can have even greater beneficial effects. We’ve all become accustomed to the idea of guide dogs to the blind in service, but how many of us give a thought to the amount of training involved?

Guide dogs must be able to navigate sidewalks, streets, stairs, busy parking lots and more, avoiding all obstacles, including overhead ones that may injure their owners (but not them). Other dogs are trained to assist the deaf, alerting their owners to a variety of sounds. They will signal on a door bell’s ringing, phones, smoke alarms, crying babies and much more, but must learn to weed out the rock music from the apartment next door and the police siren down the block.

Dogs can also be trained to pick things up, open and close doors, pull wheelchairs and dozens of other physical-assistance tasks. A New York epilepsy center is even working on a program of seizure-alerting dogs. And there is a large category of dogs that are trained in other service tasks, such as rescue dogs that search out survivors in catastrophic situations like earthquakes or assist in finding missing persons.

One of the largest and most important group of service dogs remains largely unknown today despite the significant number of lives they saved. Four thousand dogs served the American forces in Vietnam as trackers, scouts and companions.

It’s estimated that the dogs that served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1971 saved more than 10,000 lives. Dogs and their handlers served at the point of infantry patrols to provide early silent warnings of snipers, ambushes, mines, booby traps and other threats. The Web site of the 47th Dog Scout Platoon provides photos and details on all the dogs in that unit, including such anecdotes as how one soldier’s life was saved when his dog, Wolf, bit his hand to prevent him from walking toward a trip wire hooked to a bomb, and how one dog, dodging cross-fire, dragged a wounded soldier into the brush.

Of the 4,000 dogs that served in Vietnam, only 200 made it home. Though the dog handlers pushed strongly to take their dogs home with them, the government feared they might carry disease and had them destroyed.

As I write, my dog Fergus pushes open my heavy front door with her big, black head and enters the room. She hasn’t taken a bullet for me or performed any feats that would warrant a guest spot on Letterman, unless one counts knocking over the fence with one shove an amazing feat. We got her from the Humane Society right before she went into her first heat and ended up with the 13 puppies mentioned previously.

Now, both Fergus and Bonnie, the one puppy we kept, are both spayed and chubby and lazy and loving life. They have enriched my life in the small everyday ways that most dog owners experience. They greet me warmly every day whatever my mood, show enthusiasm whenever I spend time with them, and make me feel unconditionally valued. My daughter, who has been called the Jane Goodall of dogs, considers Fergus and Bonnie her best friends. We get plenty of love, companionship and fun from our dogs. But I suppose the most important thing I consistently receive from my dogs in this hurried, chaotic, unpredictable world is solace.

No one puts it quite as well as Charles Vest did 131 years ago: "Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and poverty, in health and sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow, and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. When all other friends desert, he remains. … If fortune drives the master forth, an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace, and his body is laid away in the cold ground, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death."