By Joyce Wayne
The saying goes, “dogs are a man’s best friend,” but I’d prefer to narrow that down to children and older people. We are the ones who suffer most from loneliness and isolation. Committing to a dog for a pet and companion is an effective and joyful way to push negative thoughts out the door. It’s next to impossible to feel lonely or unhappy when playing with your dog or just snuggling on the sofa together. According to science, simply petting your dog brings down blood pressure and walking the dog does a better job of keeping you healthy and active.
As a young child, Scottie, a small brown and white terrier, lived next door to my family. Our neighbour, white-haired Mrs. Tripp, who seemed ancient to me when I was five years old, was extremely generous with Scottie’s time. Kindly, she allowed her dog to dig under our white wooden backyard fence to play with me. Looking back, I must admit that I was a lonely child. My parents were much older than the other parents on our street in suburban Windsor. While the other kids on the block each had sisters or brothers to keep them company, I was an only child.
Back then, it seemed obvious to me that a dog was the answer to all my problems, but my parents, who were immigrants from Eastern Europe, objected. Neither of them grew up with pets. Neither had the slightest idea of what to do with a dog. They were having enough trouble acclimatizing themselves to the 1950s suburbs without adding a strange four-legged creature to our tense, little family.
Still, my growing attachment to Scottie moved them. Instead of a dog, my parents decided to adopt a cat. She was an orange tabby, full-grown. I named her Strawberry. My mother and father assumed it would be easier to house a cat than a dog. They were wrong. Strawberry preferred to sleep with me at night, which my parents believed was wrong. According to them, animals slept in a cage or at least on their own bed in the basement.
They bought a bed for Strawberry, set it ten steps down in the basement and shut her in every night. Understandably, the cat loathed this confinement. Every morning when my mother opened the door to the basement, there was Strawberry, at the foot of the stairs with a sly smile on her face, poised to scratch.
Before long, Strawberry disappeared, and I never saw her again. Getting a dog for a pet was out of the question, according to Mom and Dad. How would they handle a dog if they couldn’t manage a cat? They had no idea, so I was left on my own.
It wasn’t until 25 years later when I was home alone freelancing as a journalist, that my partner and I adopted a dog from the Toronto Humane Society. I’d been thinking about Mrs. Tripp’s Scottie and how he’d kept me company 25 years earlier.
Polar, the name of our new dog, was a Dutch Canal dog, according to my partner. Actually, I believe he was a big, beautiful, obedient and loving mutt who came into my life at just the right time. Polar and I were alone together every weekday when my partner worked in another city. We enjoyed our walks in High Park, and I found myself talking to Polar as if he were my best friend. Maybe he was back then.
After Polar, I’ve always tried to keep a dog. When my daughter, who is also an only child, was old enough to come home alone after school, I knew it was time to find the right pet for her. We’d had birds, fish, and cats, but none of them could be the loving company that a dog provides. We went to the pet store (back when dogs still came from puppy mills) and bought Chester. The pet store owners assured us he was a Shih Poo, a cross between a Shih Tzu and a Toy Poodle, with a gentle temperament.
In reality, Chester was a white-haired mutt with an ornery temperament. He was a small dog who earnestly believed he was the boss of the entire house, including me. During our 12 years together, I was forced to replace the hardware floors in the living room three times. (Chester didn’t appreciate being home alone, and he had his special way of showing his displeasure.) But my daughter, Hannah, loved him with all her heart. After school, she would race home to be with her puppy. She and her girlfriends adored playing with Chester, and his presence, however demanding at times, brought a humorous dimension to our lives. Chester slept on Hannah’s bed every night, so she was never alone when the boogeyman made a visit.
Today my husband Sandy and I own a beautiful, gentle, Great Pyrenees, white with caramel-coloured markings. His name is Rufus. He’s a little dog in a huge dog’s body, all 161 pounds of him. Rufus exhibits the sweetest temperament I’ve ever observed in any living creature. He’s calm and loving and never in a hurry, so he’s perfect for us as we age.
In fact, the benefits of owning a dog increase as we grow older. Numerous studies show that dogs can mitigate pain and help us heal. “Pain can be thought of as both a physical and social experience,” said Michelle Gagnon, assistant professor of psychology and health studies at the University of Saskatchewan. “Anxiety, depression, having support or being dismissed can all have an impact on how we experience pain,” she said. It makes sense that spending time with a creature that brings you joy and doesn’t invalidate your feelings can help you feel better.
“The things that you can gain from pets and some of the positive emotions that could be elicited from having the pet around you could have an impact on the pain experience itself,” she added.
Most of my close friends have a dog as a pet. We enjoy trading stories about their quirks, follies and how they make us laugh. Throughout the pandemic, as we meet from across Canada on Zoom, we relish focusing the camera on our dogs, both tiny and huge. These are the happiest moments of our get-togethers.
Our dog Rufus’ specialty is guarding the front door of the house, which he does every time a package is dropped at the door. What Rufus loves most is to stay home and be close to us. This winter, when the wind blew open our front door while we were away for hours, he sat calmly in front of the door, guarding, and awaiting our return. I’m not sure precisely what guarding means to Rufus, but I do know that his bark is much bigger than his bite. I doubt very much if Rufus would ever bite anyone and never has. Yet, it’s both humorous and comforting to know that he sees himself as our great protector.
As a little child, I wanted a dog more than anything in the world. Now, as I’m growing older, I can’t imagine life without one.