Saturday, January 18, 2014

D is for Dog

Decades ago, I first heard about Brigflatts Meeting House in Cumbria, England from a Friend in Vermont. I still have not seen it, despite two hikes to the top of Pendle Hill and a pair of visits to Swarthmoor Hall. I am not interested so much for its connection with Basil Bunting's magisterial poems (in fact, Bunting is buried at Brigflatts) but rather for the pens where sheep farmers could leave their dogs while they attended Meeting for Worship and participated in the business of the Meeting.

These would have been working dogs, perhaps the remote progenitors of the Rough Collie my family had when I was growing up. Unlike the early farmers of Brigflatts, few Friends have working dogs these days. I know Quaker farmers, and even Quakers who have raised sheep and lambs, but not all of them feel they need or want a dog. If they were to have one, it would be as a "pet" or companion animal —and the numbers of pet dogs are on the decline in North America, both relative to the population (percentage of households owning dogs) and, since the 2008 financial crisis,  in absolute numbers. Needless to say, there are still tens of millions of dog and cat “owners” in all OECD countries. Many Quakers are among them, including at least two of my acquaintance who work in the heart-rending but rewarding area of companion animal rescue. However, the longer-term trends are not good. (I attach recent overall figures for pet ownership in the United States and Canada, although trends from the period before the financial crisis are not shown.) I am one of millions of people who grew up with a dog but who does not have one as an adult. (My favorite breed is still the Collie or, failing that, the Sheltie.) It is one of my regrets and one I see no realistic way to rectify in the foreseeable future.

The reasons for the relative decline of dogs (and increase of cats until ca. 2008) have been thoroughly chewed over, so to speak, by scholars, pundits, and owners of businesses catering to companion animals. The major culprits are money and time. With the hollowing-out of the middle class and the increase in working hours to try to compensate, a lot of people can no longer have pets, especially dogs. Despite the dearth of statistics of any sort about Quaker life, we can hardly be immune to these broader forces. This decline is a small but noticeable index of other changes in our lives as Friends, although little seems to have been said about it.

Owning a dog forces people to be social and to meet those who would otherwise be unfamiliar. So often we spend our days at work and our First Days at worship with people all too like ourselves. Dogs bring introverts out of themselves, induce an acceptance of routine, and force almost all owners to consider how to handle potential or actual conflict with other dogs or cats or with other humans in relation to dogs. Walking a dog is a small-scale peace-building exercise sans pareil. Perhaps most of all, dogs are sloppy by nature and compel us to cope with imperfection, in exchange for more loyalty than most of us can muster. Along with a pooper scooper, dogs hand us a mirror with which we can see ourselves.

Some might object that, as is true of other parts of life, correlation does not equal causation. Perhaps those who get the most out of kibitzing with strangers, regardless of the weather, are the ones inclined to life with the canis familiaris, rather than seeing one's responsibility to the dog as an opportunity to get out more. While this may be true, there remains a broad swath of our Religious Society that no longer owns dogs but who probably would have a generation ago. As I have said, the biggest reasons are finances and time, and we may not be able to do much about either in the face of daunting socioeconomic realities. But before these changes accelerate —and while we still have a large core group of Quaker dog owners— we should ask ourselves what we are beginning to lose. Quakers have had period of great activism, and others of relative quiet; indeed, an earlier period in Quaker history is called Quietism. Is there any way to mitigate those factors —including a decline in dog ownership— that draw us into ourselves as individuals, rather than reaching out to others? 
This is as close as I get to having a dog in my home these days — a teapot which I bought 25 years ago. Photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, I identify with what you say about dogs.... Your post makes me want to get to the letter I in my own blog, and tell the story of how poodle Irma came into my life.