Romancing the Dog: The Struggle To Make A Pound Dog Happy in Beverly Hills

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  October 2012: (Actually published on November 1,  2012.)

Romancing the Dog: The Struggle To Make A Pound Dog Happy in Beverly Hills by Marion Zola Planet Publishing (distributed by,  2012.  331 pages. $12.98 paperback.
Among the most ancient of Indian proverbs is that “Whenever a human is unhappy,  God sends a dog.” .
The first and most important point to understand about dog behavior,  at least from my perspective,  is that almost all dogs are instinctively and contagiously happy and anticipatory,  unless someone is actively trying to make the dog unhappy.  Even then,  most dogs will defy the effort.  Seldom have I met a dog,  no matter how dire and painful the dog’s circumstances,  who did not demonstrate hope that everything would be better soon,  seemingly crediting humans with the ability to work miracles.  I have even met street dogs,  variously suffering hideously from mange,  cancer,  and bones broken by automobiles,  with no evident reason to think well of any human,  who tried to comfort the people who euthanized them.
Even when a dog acts unhappy,  as when being left at home while the dog’s people go grocery shopping,  the act is typically just a display performed in the expectation that the people,  being good and well-meaning,  will do what the dog wants.  If the dog’s expectations are not rewarded,  the dog will most often revert to normal dog behavior just a few seconds after the people depart,  and be happily sleeping on the sofa,  or playing with the cats,  or trying to steal their food,  if the people wait a few minutes,  then sneak a peek through a window.
There are exceptions,  such as the palpable despair of a young unneutered male pit bull I recently saw at the Tacoma-Pierce County Humane Society,  when he saw that his person was not among a group of four visitors.  He had apparently been dumped due to dangerous behavior.  He would not have been safe to adopt,  play with,  or even pet through the chain link cage door,  but he was pitiful nonetheless. . Because a dog requires so little to be happy,  and to be made even happier,  I tend to believe that if there is any sort of hereafter,  little is more likely to occasion bad karma for future lifetimes,  or more surely consign a sinner to hell,  than deliberately causing a dog to be so unhappy as to give up hope.
. Breeding dogs who will suffer that fate–and perhaps seriously harm other animals or humans too–is not just negligent and irresponsible,  but as overtly evil as pushing drugs.
. Since dogs are by nature happy,  I tend to be skeptical of a subtitle such as “the struggle to make a pound dog happy in Beverly Hills.”  Struggling to make a dog happy is misunderstanding the most self-evident behavioral trait of dogs.
The second point to understand about dog nature,  I believe, is that most dogs are naturally inclined to befriend anyone of any sentient species who is not overtly hostile and not a dog’s natural prey,  such as rabbits or rodents.  A dog may prefer the company of particular people,  but in absence of those people,  will quickly make friends with whoever is around,  of whatever species.  A dog with companions will rarely just pine away if the dog’s people go out to dinner or go away for a few days or weeks on a business trip or vacation.  Canine pining usually comes only after someone drops dead, when the dog knows that the someone will never come back.
The third point to understand about dog behavior,  again from my perspective,  is that dogs have evolved as humble yet voracious scavengers.  A hungry dog will devour almost anything.  Cat turds and roadkill are as appealing to the dog,  and may be just as healthy a diet for the dog,  as any meals a doting person might concoct.
The more a dog’s diet resembles the refuse,  offal,  and occasional rats that constitute a street dog’s diet,  the healthier the dog will be,  so long as the dog receives regular treatment to prevent parasites–especially worms,  fleas,  ticks,  and mange.  The major virtues of canned food and bagged kibble is not that they are better food for dogs,  but rather that they are less disgusting for humans to handle,  as more than one person involved in making dog food–upscale,  downscale,  and mid-range–has acknowledged.
A well-fed dog will often devour more food than the dog wants,  perhaps on the chance that hard times may be ahead,  but perhaps just to please the dog’s people.  If a dog is ill,  the dog may eat less,  and tempting the dog with special food may be necessary to stimulate a failing appetite,  but even then,  a dog refusing food is among the first symptoms that something is wrong.
Of course the first premise of Romancing the Dog is that Marion Zola and her husband Sam,  though they are longtime donors to animal causes and had pets in childhood,  do not really know a great deal about dogs when they adopt a little dog they name Mr. Chips. The idea is that readers will identify with,  and be entertained by, their misadventures in learning to be “dog people”–upscale dog people,  with no children at home,  who are capable of making costly and bizarre mistakes,  including with diet and racing back from distant places to keep Mr. Chips company,  that would be beyond possibility for pet keepers of ordinary means.
. Marion Zola,  as a longtime screenwriter for some of the most iconic television situation comedies of the past few decades,  and author of previous popular books,  can be presumed to know her audience a whole lot better than I do.  Quite likely Romancing the Dog will reach many more people than ANIMAL PEOPLE  ever has,  or will.  Just the same,  while conceding that Zola knows what she is doing as an author,  I found about two-thirds of Romancing the Dog painful,  as Zola and her husband fretted over Mr. Chips as if he were a fragile only child,  instead of letting Mr. Chips teach them the ease and joy of just letting a dog be a dog.
. Romancing the Dog shifts gears after Mr. Chips suffers herniated discs from rough handling by someone who is hired to brush his teeth,  one of many questionable “care” routines to which he is subjected.  Later Mr. Chips also develops cancer,  fighting it for 17 months.  Having recently had and lost two dogs,  one of whom suffered from a congenital back problem while the other fought osteosarcoma of the jaw for five months,   I can identify with Zola’s disappointment when surgery brings only transient relief of the back problem,  and with the stress she recounts of caring for a dog who is gradually losing the ability to do the things a dog enjoys,  but never loses the desire to attempt,  even when the effort brings injury and further suffering.

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