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We went downtown to the food truck festival and wandered around with our dogs.

We came upon a young man with a blazingly white Siberian husky, a beautiful and exotic creature who looked to be a few months old. The man was very proud of the dog; he said he had gone to Alaska to fetch her. They looked very happy together. Good for them.

There are some people who scoff at purebred dogs and the human vanity that designed them. I know people who are distressed by the industry that produces them and who think it less than moral to participate in a system that incentivizes puppy mills. (Which are virtually unregulated in Arkansas; we might have as many as 1,000 in the state.)

They will tell you about the thousands of dogs languishing in shelters. Some of these people are real heroes, who spend their free time ferrying Arkansas' unwanted canines to states with more rigorous spay and neuter laws, where there's actually a demand for mutts.

Others might point out the problems inherent in selectively inbreeding animals for certain traits; how undesirable genes might be concentrated in a line. Purebred dogs are more at risk for inherited diseases. They're not as healthy as dogs that wouldn't make the cut at Westminster.

And there are even those who would liken pet-owning to slavery, and as we learn more about the moral agency of animals it might turn out that they have a point. I believe my dogs love me but I have no illusion about the transactional nature of our relationship. They are descended from the cleverer wolves, the ones who dare to come close to the fire and charm the two-leggers into feeding them. So now Paris looks up at me with pleading in her golden eyes and I snap her off a corner of my cracker. (She knows to look grateful, too.)

But I will have my dogs, and I think if anyone wants one, they should have the sort of dog they want, even if it's an expensive and curated thing. For it's not the purebred dog's fault that men manipulated its ancestors. My first dog was a Dalmatian that I always remember as a soft-bellied puppy, smelling softly of sour milk. Growing up, my family had a full-blood cocker spaniel and a papered German shepherd with one of those lengthy show-dog names that we just called Lady.

And for 12 years we had a red dachshund forever underfoot. The only time I saw my father cry was when he came home from the vet's after learning Duchess had stomach cancer and had to be put down.

Our Coal only passed as a black Lab--his mother was a golden retriever.

They were all good dogs.

Still, I don't think I'll have another dog that isn't a rescue. I am too much aware of the meanness of our kind toward creatures who are capable of joy, affection and loyalty and who cannot comprehend duplicity or betrayal. Every stray, every unwanted puppy (or kitten) is on our account.

Many of the stories of Arkansas rescue dogs are recounted in Home Sweet Home, a new book from Little Rock-based Et Alia Press which combines photos by Whitney Bower with text by Grace Vest (information at homesweethomearpup.org). Cash was found in a dog park, badly beaten, with broken legs and ribs. Someone had shot him with a BB gun.

A chain was embedded in Django's neck when he was found--the wound was infected and he had heartworms. When a puppy mill went out of business Tripp and other remaining dogs were locked in a school bus and left to die.

Rocky survived Hurricane Katrina; his family couldn't take him with them when they were rescued from their flooded home. His family put him and his sister in the attic and told first responders who subsequently alerted animal rescue volunteers. When they arrived they found Rocky and his puppy book, that had his shot and vet records. But his sister Daisy was gone.

I suppose there is something wrong with me that I feel so strongly about these animals and only a vague and astonished sadness for the suffering that afflict human beings around the world. I know the world is cruel but my life is as circumscribed as it is comfortable, and while I can know how horrible it is in Puerto Rico or California's wine country, I find myself at an emotional remove from those tragedies.

There are three rescue dogs in my house--Paris and Dublin who were abandoned as puppies, placed in a box beside a Waffle House dumpster--and Audi, who mysteriously appeared in our neighborhood, rubbing up against the legs of a neighbor (who thought she was Dublin on a walkabout). I know how dear and fine these creatures are, and how vulnerable.

While anthropomorphising is incorrect, dogs do have a psychology. They have motives and emotional insight and are capable of remorse and empathy. They are not like us. For all I know a dog's brain may be a blameless swamp of light and shadow, but they possess more than the suggestion of a soul. A dog is something like an angel, a being composed largely of love, designed to help us cope with this rough life.

Sigmund Freud understood the unique role of pets in the lives of people--the importance of having a dependent soul about the house to love and reflect love.

"It really explains," he wrote, "why one can love an animal with such an extraordinary intensity; affection without ambivalence, the simplicity free from the almost unbearable conflicts of civilization, the beauty of an existence complete in itself that feeling of intimate affinity, of an undisputed solidarity."

Pets--dogs especially--are widely regarded as reservoirs of innocence. In their mammalian faces, we may believe we are able to discern something like a personality. In any case, they pique our empathy and we are liable to become excessively sentimental about them.

Or, as Edith Wharton wrote, explaining all that needs explanation, "My little dog, a heartbeat at my feet."

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 10/17/2017

Print Headline: The heartbeat at your feet

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Archived Comments

  • Jfish
    October 17, 2017 at 7:43 a.m.

    Good column Philip, we currently have two rescues and will never anything but rescues. I do wish the dog breeding industry was more regulated.

  • nharlan
    October 28, 2017 at 8:21 a.m.

    Philip, I enjoy all of your writing and read everything you have in the Dem-Gaz. I especially loved this piece and your other writings about your pets in your life. I am active in our local rescue group, Hot Springs Village Animal Welfare League, serving on the BOD and doing publicity and photos of our pets. I am an advocate for rescues and do my best to influence friends and family only to adopt rescues, for even those set on purebred pets can find them if they look. Keep writing for the animals, as we need to do what we can to get Arkansas to be more supportive of kindness toward animals - pets and farm animals - and work against puppy mills. Any publishing you do can and does help, as does this sensitive article. I would say, "my dog is a heartbeat at my feet, and my cat is a heartbeat in my lap," as we love both, as well as birds, guinea pigs, pet rats, and others. Thanks again for sharing your writing.

  • Packman
    October 28, 2017 at 9:22 a.m.

    Thanks for a great article Philip.

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