What is this?

(Please note: throughout this piece, every use of “I” and “me” should be taken to mean both myself and my wife; we are equal partners in this endeavor. She has read and approved this before publication, and she has kindly let me speak for us both. It was just too awkward to keep saying “Toni and I.”)

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This is the dog who lives at my house. The question is, what does that make me?

I call myself his father; I call him my son. But of course, he’s not that; we are of different species. He doesn’t look like me at all. I don’t treat him as I would a human son. He doesn’t eat at the table. He doesn’t wear clothing. He doesn’t have Legos.

My human son would have Legos. I would teach him to read, and to talk like a pirate. We would watch The Iron Giant and Monty Python together, and play Sorry and Parcheesi and War. I would learn to play chess so I could teach him.

None of these things are true with the dog. So he must not be my son.

The law calls me his owner; him, my property. But how can that be? The measure of an individual life, the distinction between an object and a person, between animate and inanimate, is sentience. Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive: the dog can clearly do both. His perceptions are markedly more sensitive than mine, in some cases.

Not in all cases, though. His sense of taste, for instance. Not only does he regularly chew up live, squirming insects of any kind that he can catch, he also picks up anything — anything — that might resemble food, no matter how remotely, while on his walk. Sure, he grabbed that discarded Goldfish cracker, and he tried to eat the doughnut that someone dropped and then ran over; but he also picks up bird feathers, cigarette butts, flower petals, balls of lint and hair, pieces of tar and plastic, shiny things, and the excrement of other animals. He also regularly licks the tile floor in the kitchen, for minutes at a time. I have doubts about the functionality and acuity of those taste buds.

But there is no doubt that he can feel. He misses me when I am gone. He is happy when I return. He loves to cuddle, and to play tug-fetch. He has trouble with anxiety: when I change my routine, it can upset him, and he — well, he freaks out. He starts moving and breathing quickly, and he tries to get as close to me as possible, nipping at me and whimpering softly, desperately; if he doesn’t calm down at that point, the next stage is a good five minutes of sprinting, at top speed, in and out of the room where I am, throwing himself as violently as possible onto the bed or couch where I lay, barking at every turn and biting anything or anyone who intervenes. Clearly he has feelings — prodigiously strong feelings. He suffers because of it.

The mechanistic paradigm would hold that these are nothing more than reaction to stimuli and conditioned response, and perhaps so. As such, they are no different from any of my feelings, about which one could make the same argument — I smile when he comes to me and rolls onto his back because doing so ensures me a pleasurable experience, namely rubbing his belly, which feels good to my fingers, lowers my blood pressure, and so on. Such affection is pleasurable because it signifies pack bonding, which helps to ensure my individual survival: for I have allies in the hunt and against my enemies.

Whatever. The point is, he is as sentient as I. I do not think he can be considered an object. Property. No more than I.

When I come home, he meets me at the door, wagging his tail, but he is not a jumper; he likes it when I come down to his level. I crouch down, usually with one knee on the floor and the other out to the side, and he curls into me, pressing his body against my leg and across my torso, and I put my arms around him and bend low to kiss his head, and he is surrounded and encapsulated by me. Each morning when I get up, I lay on the couch to drink my first coffee, and he leaps up to lay beside me, sitting in the space made by my sideways lap. He leans against me while I pet him, and if I use only one hand, he puts his front paw on the other one and tugs, as if to say, “Why aren’t you using this hand, too?” So I do. And he smiles. Within minutes he melts, oozing down to lie beside me in the narrow space I do not occupy, his long legs lolling over the side of the futon. Often he rolls onto his back, hoping that I will gently scratch his belly. That’s his favorite.

He wants to be in the room where I am, no matter what. As I move back and forth between kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, he follows me, his chew toy in his teeth, laying down on the bed even for the half a minute while I put on my belt and pick up my shoes. Whenever I go to any door, he wants to lead me through it, the grand marshal of my daily parade.

So what does that make him, all of that? My pet? Too condescending. My shadow? Too stalker-y. My companion? Perhaps.

I call him my friend. My buddy. (I sing the song, which I learned by heart during my adolescence when the television burned at both ends.) And it’s true. But there’s more.

I named him. We call him Samwise — Sammy for short — after my favorite character in the same books that gave my name to my parents (Well, my second-favorite character, but really, The Witch-King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgul is no name for a dog. That’s a cat name. Or a bunny.). I named myself for him, because I speak for him as I speak to him. I recognize that the names, like the words, like the personality and the voice that I have created for him (He sounds like Sniffles the Mouse from the old cartoons) are all and only of and from me, not from him; but he takes them on, for me. He lets me color him in. He lets me play with him when I want to laugh, and hug him when I want to cry, and always, he makes me feel better.

So what is he, to me?
Here’s why it matters, what he is to me; here’s why I’m writing about this. Here. This is the second time I’ve had a dog-friend-son. The first was Charlie.

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Charlie died last year. He died because of a brain tumor. But really, he died because I killed him. I told the doctor to poison him, and I held him while he died.

If Charlie was my son — and just as I do with Sammy, I called him such, called myself his father; my parents called him their grand-dog — then I would not have done this. I would have fought that tumor, would have put Charlie on the medication, gotten him the CAT scan, talked to doctors about surgery, about chemo and radiation, about prognoses and time and quality of life.

If Charlie was my property, I wouldn’t feel badly about his death. When a possession is broken — and that tumor broke him, at the end, sent him into grand mal seizures, caused apparent blindness and confusion and loss of equilibrium and loss of bladder control, and I can’t imagine how much pain he’d have been in had we not had him on analgesics — you throw it away. Maybe you miss it, but you don’t regret throwing it away. I didn’t even throw Charlie away: I kept his ashes in a white box, high on a shelf, with his collar beside it, and the Christmas ornament we got for him, embroidered with his name.

But I feel badly about Charlie’s death. I regret the decision I made, even if it was the only one I could have. I know it was the only one I could have made, and the actual decision took almost no time; there was no question that it was the right thing to do, none at all. But I wish I hadn’t had to make it. I still wish he was here. I miss him. I loved him. I still do.

If he was my friend, then his death at my hands makes some sense. He was suffering. He was losing himself, and every day that he lived would have taken him further away from who he was. When you face that, it may be your friend — your buddy — that you ask to pull the trigger, to pull the plug, to end it.

But I’ve had friends. I have friends. None of the other ones live with me, and even when they did, I never, ever scratched their tummies like they liked. There’s a connection here, a trust and an intimacy, that friendship does not include. And, more, there’s this: the truth is, I don’t know if Charlie wanted me to have him put to sleep. He didn’t ask me for that. He didn’t decide.

I decided for him.

If I had a human child with a terminal illness, at some point, I would make the same decision — though I might decide differently. But still, I would decide to keep fighting or to let go. I would. Not the child. And I would never make that decision for a friend. Only for someone whose life was actually in my hands, someone who trusted me so completely, that I knew so well, that I could make that call for him. I’ve never had a friendship that close, and don’t expect I ever will.

That kind of relationship is family.

So, I guess that’s what Sammy is, what Charlie was. My family. My pack. My son.

My dog.

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