Dog people

Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and their poodle. Source: LIFE Magazine Archives

Part I. Childhood Fear

Once upon a time, I was terrified of dogs.

This was not supposed to be my heritage. I was supposed to love dogs. But, in a strange turn of events, the whole reason I developed a dog phobia was because of my father’s deep love of dogs.

The story goes like this: When I was about six years old, my family was living in an apartment complex while we waited for our new house to be built. There wasn’t much to do around there and so my father would often take us girls out for walks. He was thrilled one afternoon to discover that one of our neighbors had a young, handsome doberman pinscher. Dad grew up with dobermans and was enamored with this dog. From then on, whenever he saw that the dog was outside, he’d take us girls out to watch and admire.

On one particular evening, we were watching this boisterous doberman chase a collie in frenzied circles around a patch of grass. I was clinging to my father’s leg, trying to avoid being run over by these whirlwinds of energy, but apparently I wasn’t paying much attention. The dogs, too caught up in chase to notice me, bowled me over and trampled me to the ground. They weren’t malicious in any way, but I screamed and cried like someone had deliberately tried to kill me. I was whisked inside–while I’m sure my father was shaking his head in regret over his totally wimpy girl child.

For years after that, I would cower in fear whenever I saw a dog. I was petrified around them and never dreamed of wanting one. For all my six-year-old mind new, dogs were bloodthirsty monsters.

Part II. What Changed

By the time I was 10 or 11, however, something changed. I wish I could remember what positive event changed my mind about dogs, but I made a complete 180 in my opinions about canines. I became obsessed with them.

Like today, back then I read everything I could get my hands on as a child. My all-time favorite Christmas present was a beautiful, glossy, hardback book of all the dog breeds. (Aside: I found this book on a recent trip home and brought it back to Charlottesville with me. I am not ashamed to say that I enjoyed reading it again the whole way back.) For my birthday, I asked for a subscription to Dog Fancy, which I read religiously. I watched the dog shows whenever they came on TV. I begged my mom to always let me go in pet stores so I could compare prices on the dog supplies list that I was already making (so, not much has changed). My sisters and I started a successful pet-sitting business in our neighborhood and I became a small-time expert on calming old Yorkies, walking rambunctious lab mixes, and chasing and capturing escaped West Highland white terriers. (My decision to never get a terrier was solidified during this time.)

And. Like today, I waited a very long time until I could get a dog of my own. When I turned 14 or 15, I finally got to pick out Emma from an adorable Aussie litter on my birthday. It was the happiest day of my young life.

Part III. A Family Who Loves Dogs

I often wonder what it was that triggered my switch from phobia to obsession. As I’ve grown older, the only hypothesis I’ve been able to create is that this shift was caused by the emergence of my family heritage. My paternal family is known for their love of animals, especially dogs. The Farsons would rather die than be accused of being cat people, although I’ve learned that they show kindness and sympathy to all animals. Even cats. Animals are a critical part of living. And to live without a dog in one’s life, well, what’s the point of that?

Although I never got to see my dad’s family that often, the Farson clan lived vividly in my mind from all of dad’s stories about growing up on farms in Indiana. His childhood always sounded so charmed and idyllic to me: Wandering corn fields with a pack of faithful dogs at his side, swimming in ponds, building forts. Dogs were always a central part of his childhood and I longed for them to be a part of mine.

Since I was little, I felt a deep connection with my dad’s mother, whom we call Gran. I rarely saw her, but I felt like she understood me. Gran is spunky, energetic, and hilarious. She is a woman who can fend for herself and always has. She raised five highly intelligent children, mostly on her own, and despite all of the obstacles that life threw her way, she is the most optimistic and joyful person I’ve ever met.

Gran is also devoted to dogs. She was likely responsible for the many dogs that my father grew up with. After her children had grown up and left, she worked full-time for the local animal shelter. She eventually adopted a lovely and devoted doberman named Chance, who was the true love of her life.

This Easter, Gran came to visit my family in North Carolina and I was thrilled to get to spend some time with her. Our time alone was spent taking Dublin for a walk around town and I loved every minute of it. I felt so much joy getting to share the company of this woman, my grandmother, whom I rarely saw and yet felt intensely connected to. We talked like had spent years together. And this was mainly because we saw eye-to-eye about dogs. She could read Dublin’s body language like I could. She suspected, as I did, that the Siberian husky we had just passed had likely tried to run away several times. She knew all of the breed stereotypes, all of the problems that keep dogs in shelters, all of the ways people could love dogs better.

My dad’s sister and her family recently went on vacation to the Outer Banks and left their precious, foxy mix breed Sadie with my parents for a few days. Gran apparently called the house four or five times to check on how Sadie was doing (probably nervous that my dad was roughhousing with her or teaching her bad habits, as he is wont to do). Mom joked that Gran would never have called if my cousins, her grandchildren, were staying with us. But the dog! The dog must be looked after.

My dad shares his mother’s devotion to dogs. He acts like Dublin is his dog. He taught her most of her Frisbee tricks, walks her around town, and takes her canoeing with him on Lake Norman.

I think the main reason that my parents don’t have a dog now is because my mother isn’t wildly fond of them. Her family had dogs, like most good suburban 1960s families, but they were not necessarily dog people. They were good and kind to their dogs, but their attention to dogs did not extend much beyond tolerated family pets. (My maternal grandfather may be the one exception to this family rule, for he is a universal animal whisperer. He can mystically charm animals that hate all other people, including squirrels, feral cats, and peacocks.)

But this overarching devotion, this need to share one’s life with a dog, that is something I inherited from my paternal family. That is my deep and lasting connection to the family that I rarely see and yet feel that I will always understand.

Did you grow up among “dog people”? Or did you acquire the trait later in life? Do you think it can be inherited?

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6 thoughts on “Dog people

  1. I am 67 years old. I’ve had dogs in my life for nearly 50 of those years. My most continuous time has been since 1985. My dogs have been more than pets to me. They have been my companions, my guardians and my therapists. They have been there through some of the most challenging times of my life: my bout with cancer twenty-two years ago; the death of my parents; two divorces and the death of a spouse from breast cancer. They have been my family. And, while I realize that they are animals I also realize that they give us a valuable connection to their lives and their love and to something that cannot be quantified, qualified, or categorized. I have found more human qualities in my dogs than sadly that I have ever found in human beings.

  2. Great post. I have always been a dog person, even though I was bit in the face by our family dog (an American Eskimo named Shibu). My mom was definitely a dog person, and I think we would’ve had at least 5 at a time if my dad didn’t put his foot down.

    After I was bit, I do remember being weary of neighborhood dogs that would bark at me a lot, but with good reason. I was always pretty dog-savvy though, so I could spot a friendly one pretty quickly. Both my brother and I grew up to adore dogs and get our own.

  3. I absolutely believe dog love can be acquired. Given my own family history with poor dog sense, I *have* to believe this. =) At the same time, I absolutely envy children who got to grow up with and spend their lives around dogs… I mean *really* integrated into the family with dogs. In my family (which, if you include extended relatives, is very large), there are few dog lovers. I always remember being separated from the dogs whenever we visited the couple aunts and uncles who happened to raise them. As much as I wanted to touch them and just hang out with them, I couldn’t because I was a strange child to them, and they were not socialized well with children.

    It’s probably just as well. My earliest dog memory was a scary one, too. I’m thankful that I wasn’t traumatized.

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