This is a companion piece to our Pet of the Week segment, where we profile a pet and their owner from our community. Usually, we get a little time with the pairing, and as much information as we can gather from a brief interview. This time, however, I was able to spend time with a dog who is very much part of my family, and this encouraged me to pause and think a little more carefully about why keeping pets and people together is important—not because it’s the mission statement of PAWS/LA, and our funding depends on it, but because there’s something in the relationship between human and animals that speaks to our better natures, our best selves.
The dog in this case, is named Clementine, a tiny pug-mutt bundle belonging to my brother, Ross, and his wife, Brooke. Clemmie was rescued during the pandemic and needed a lot of healing. Whatever had happened to her before she was adopted wasn’t pleasant. Physically, she was fine, but psychologically, she presented as frightened and skittish. There were clear signs that she’d suffered abuse of some kind, and her relationship with humans was clearly rooted in fear. Every noise would set her off barking, and she found it difficult to be left alone for even an hour. In fits of fear, she would behave maniacally, ripping apart shoes and eating furniture. She was hostile to other dogs, which was dangerous given her diminutive size, and the likelihood of her coming out poorly in a fight with a larger animal.
None of this was helped by the fact that my brother lives in a noisy neighborhood, where it isn’t unusual for fireworks to fire off randomly throughout the day and night. These sounds would send Clemmie darting beneath a chair where she would crouch for hours, shivering. When she saw humans interacting with each other, she would become fiercely defensive, mistaking affection for aggression; she was always trying to “save” us from hugs and embraces.
It was difficult, but I know that Ross and Brooke loved her from the start. They stepped up as every pet parent should, even when Clemmie often required more care and attention than a newborn baby. She was a significant presence that changed the way they lived. But instead of growing frustrated and abandoning her, they worked hard to help her process and adapt to her new life. In turn, her healing facilitated their growth. Of course, Clem’s personality remains skittish, and she still likes to pick fights with other dogs she meets on the street, but generally she is calmer, more at ease, and now capable of spending an hour alone in an apartment.
The bond she has with her owners is starkly evident. Last weekend, Ross and Brooke went out of town, and we took Clemmie to the desert to watch her while they were gone. For the first day or two, she appeared despondent and lethargic, lying around for hours, moving only to eat. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that dogs miss their owners as much as owners miss their dogs, and there is far more nuance to the relationship than an animal simply needing fed and sheltered. Watching Clemmie’s change in behavior, provided significant testament to the power of this bond. Even my brother, who is usually stoic to a fault, had to walk away quickly once he’d dropped her off, so that he wouldn’t start to cry.
After a day or so, Clemmie grew accustomed to her new environment, although it was interesting to see her connection to my brother and sister-in-law continue to play out indirectly. She was more drawn to my father and myself than to my mother, because as males in the family, we bear a closer resemblance to Ross. Certain smells also clearly reminded her of home, and she made her base of operation the spare bedroom that Ross and Brooke usually stay in when they visit, as if some comforting essence of them lingered there.
Besides all this, the human-animal bond finds maybe its fiercest expression in the way animals interact with children, in this case my son. Kids and animals love without reason, without thinking about it; they love simply because love is their nature, undisturbed by the hardening experiences of adult life. Watching them together was watching something pure, even when they tormented each other; even when Clemmie jumped up and accidentally scratched Isaac; when he splashed her with water, or she knocked him off a wall. Any slight or inconvenience was forgotten a second later, when they were lying together, and he was rubbing her belly.
I do not know what makes our bond with Clemmie any different from that shared between millions of owners and animals throughout LA and beyond. Really, it is something beyond expression, something that defies description. At the end of the day, it hardly matters. Just because something can’t be described, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The bond is real, and we see it everywhere. This is why we can’t allow hardship to separate animals from their owners. It is precisely at times of hardship that the bond is most powerful, and in the crucible of existence, with all its raw suffering and joy, animals and humans work in a way that ensures the growth of one becomes the growth of the other. It is not a linear, causal system, but a dynamic relationship of give and take, a dialectic of love and respect. At least, it should be.
Our blog is managed by Ryan Hilary with additional contributions from the PAWS/LA team. Are you a member of our community and have a great idea for a post (or maybe want to write one yourself?). Reach out to Rhilary@pawsla.org.