Outside of a Dog

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OUTSIDE OF A DOG by Ann Jacobus

Groucho Marx said, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Animals can enrich children’s lives. Books about animals do, too.

While so many children’s books personify animals—and I loved Stuart Little fiercely at a tender age—not to mention that imperialist Babar, and Sneetches, above all—they don’t count; that’s the subject of another essay. We’re talking realistic fiction about real animals.

I have fond, very early memories of Make Way for Ducklings. I loved Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry, and devoured sequels. I found The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London, mind-altering and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, and Sounder by William Armstrong crushed me with man’s inhumanity. Later I read The Come Back Dog, by Jane Resh Thomas, and most recently my favorites include Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, and Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

Animals teach us and constantly remind us of some fundamental moral precepts: unconditional love for starters. “Lord, make me half the person my dog thinks I am,” sums it up nicely. They accept us without judgment. They remind us of the importance of duty and responsibility, and that compassion and kind treatment should extend not only to lesser creatures, but to the voiceless in general—any sentient being.

We had a wonderful array of dogs and cats in my family growing up. Like a lot of kids, I felt a special affinity with most animals, but not all. My great grandmother’s Chihuahua, inappropriately named Happy, and I shared a mutual contempt. A more appropriately named horse (Budweiser) ran away with me the one time I rode him, causing me searing humiliation. Other than these exceptions, I’ve rarely met an animal I didn’t like.

My own kids naturally wanted large animals. Badly. We lived overseas, and for many reasons that I explained to them repeatedly, it did not make sense to have pets. We managed to go for most of their childhoods with only fish, and an occasional rodent of some sort (not that kind of rodent).

Until fate intervened. A friend of my then sixteen year-old daughter gave her a long-hair Chihuahua.

Louie!

Not my favorite breed, as I mentioned. Louie was the runt and had some serious house-training issues so no one else would take him, let alone buy him. My husband and I were not pleased.

I’d never had a small dog and thought they were obnoxious. Louie sort of is, but as dogs do, he won our hearts and is a valued member of the family today. He’s an earnest, hard-working creature, who with our patience did a fine job of improving his toilet habits. From day one he’s been intent on figuring out what his job is, as well as his place in the family and honoring these to the best of his abilities. That’s more than I can say for some of the other family members.

Ten-pound Louie tries to pick fights with two hundred-pound police dogs, and snarls at guests (really, we’re working on this), and he wants to play fetch but refuses to release his stuffed squirrel.  But he also exhibits with us at least those traits humans admire in canines: loyalty, affection, playfulness, protectiveness.  He’s who he is. No pretense. We have all learned from his example, including how not to behave around guests or other dogs. Even my husband, an unsentimental taskmaster who spearheaded the general anti-pet policy and was vehemently opposed to Louie coming on board, loves and mostly respects him. Don’t tell him I said so.

Since my kids did most of their growing up without pets, I seem to remember them reading many books about animals. While I was writing this, I emailed my daughter, the one who brought us Louie, and asked her if she could recall any stand-out stories about animals from when she was K to 5.

She replied with: The Little Mermaid, Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles and Care Bears. I wrote back and specified BOOKS about real animals. She sent back,  “Junie B. Jones, Book #7 “Party Animal.”  She added, “When I was little I couldn’t really relate to animals because YOU NEVER LET US HAVE ANY.”

Maybe you should just get a dog.

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