Pop Culture
Sep 18, 2008, 06:34AM

Man's Best Friends

What our pets teach us about friendship.

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Photo by SuperFantastic.

Our friends are reflections of how we see ourselves. If you consider yourself pretty or funny or smart, then you want those qualities reflected in your choice of friend. The same could probably be said about your taste in music, literature, film, vacation destination, car, and so on. One of my closest friends doesn’t really like animals. It’s not an antipathy toward them, really, more like an uncomfortable laissez-faire. He recognizes that they exist, he doesn’t want to kill them (via hunting or driving recklessly late at night), he isn’t scared of them, but he just doesn’t really like them or see their purpose in the world.

You can imagine my surprise when I visited his home and was greeted by a friendly, aging retriever. Before even saying hello to his mother, the first words out of my mouth were, “You have a dog?! But you hate animals!” When I observed his interactions with the dog, though, it all made sense. It wasn’t an absence of love for the dog—at least I don’t think so—but he had a hands-off style of interaction rather than the baby talk and cuddling preferred by some dogs/owners. It was a gentle nod of acknowledgment toward the pooch, then plopping down on the couch. His dog seemed to feel the exact same way, giving a customary perk-up, only to gently go back to his previous restive state.

It seemed, actually, like my friend and his dog shared a similar outlook on life. They both seemed to treat the entire concept of the outside world with a friendly indifference. Both man and dog had a smiling and passive—if slightly distrusting—view of their environment that expressed itself in a nearly identical way when it came to interacting with people and place.

I am not that way with my two dogs. I hug, snuggle, talk in annoying high pitched voices, and generally treat them in a way that I would never treat a human being. I don’t know what that says about me, but I do see some of my own values reflected in the dogs, both of which are collies. They’re independent, easily excited, and loyal. Each, however, has a completely different personality despite being the same breed. It’s particularly interesting because the addition of the younger one, a six-month-old puppy, revealed through contrast a lot about the older, nine-year-old dog.

Everyone loves a puppy. When people come into my house, they head straight for the puppy, all but ignoring the older dog lounging in the corner. She seems so much older now, in the presence of such a young, exuberant force. But the little one is also much more outgoing than the older one was. We realize now how calm and friendly the puppy is compared to her skittish, aloof older sister.

The puppy’s outgoing nature borders on needy, though: she barks if you don’t pay enough attention to her, sidles up to you when you sit on the couch, and still doesn’t like going down stairs unless someone accompanies. The older dog has never been this way—she’s always been more a caretaker of the family. Rather than sit with everyone on the couch, she prefers to sit on the fireplace, where she can keep tabs on the comings and goings of the family. She refuses to go to sleep upstairs until everyone else is safely in their rooms. Sometimes she needs her alone time and would rather not be petted. She hardly ever barks, and would never do so for attention.

Initially, I resented the new dog a little bit. We got her while I was away, so she never quite felt like my dog the way the older one (who still waits up for me every night) does. While the puppy seemed so curious about the outside world, she seemed relatively tuned out of our moods and well-being. The older one, even as a puppy, was always keyed in to our emotions, coming to comfort my crying brother when he was a small child or nuzzling you while you were sick in bed. The older one is still there to support me.

What differentiates your best friends from acquaintances? Some of it may be random luck, shared experiences, or an ability to talk to each other. Mostly, though, it’s probably trust. You trust those closest to you, the further from that inner circle you get, the less trust shared. More than fun, attractive, exciting, or funny, people need friends to be trustworthy.

After spending a week alone with the puppy, recovering on the couch, she and I got a lot closer. Before, she needed to be the center of attention for everyone around, but now, she just wants to be the center of the family’s and my attention. She dotes on us a little bit, even in the presence of strangers. She may get a little distracted, but she treats us with ever more reverence and physical closeness as she grows up. In the morning, she rushes to greet me when I slog downstairs. My relationship with her is still different than with the older one, but I now love them both the same and can tell they both feel the same desire for my affection.

This is what I realized trust is. This is what happened with the puppy and me, with my older dog, with my best friends. While we use our social group to show a public face to the world, our closest friends are those we’d rather keep to ourselves. You own a little piece of them, but in return for it, you give back a little piece of yourself. That’s friendship: a morsel for a morsel.


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