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The Family Dog

By Kate Thompson  

Along with the growth in family therapy has come a new understanding of the position of the dog as a member of the household. Although many families seem to function without one, and some of them might even be said to function well, it is a view held in common by many modern specialists that this is a result of a compensatory mechanism similar to that observed in individuals who lose the use of a part of their brain. The fact that these families have accommodated to their insufficiency does not negate the fact that a defect exists, and one that could be rectified by a far less complex procedure than neurological surgery.

Every home should have one. This is the view of an increasing number of the world's leading psychologists and interactional therapists. The dog, it seems, occupies a position in the family roughly equivalent to its instinctual soul; an aspect of human nature which, if not altogether lost, is at best an atrophied suggestion of what it once was, something like the appendix.

A dog, then, is vital to fill the vacancy. Alternatives have been tried, but a satisfactory replacement has not yet been found. Llamas looked promising for a while, particularly because of their resemblance to the communal hearth-rug of times past. It was discovered, however, that they are inclined to get restless and forget where their feet are during the mating season, and even neutered llamas spit when they are annoyed. Tigers proved to be over-qualified for the position; they hog too much of the fire and tend to eat small children, thus reducing the family's chance of getting properly established. The common cat is a poor substitute for a dog. It is easily offended and cannot be persuaded to carry responsibility.

Horses are good, but too big for most families. Goldfish blow bubbles and die all the time. Tortoises think too much, which isn't the point at all. Tests are still being carried out on bank voles and naked mole rats but the safest bet is still, beyond doubt, the domestic dog.

But, having established this, where does the concerned parent begin? Dogs are easy enough to come by, but will any old dog fit the bill? Emphatically no! So, assuming that there is not an inherited line of beagles or Cumber spaniels, what kind of dog should the family invest in?

What is the use of having an instinctual soul if it vanishes under the table at the first sign of stress and refuses to come out until everything has calmed down again?

A wise dog is best, and failing that, a happy one. A dog that has lost its sense of humour tends to sleep too much and sigh all the time, thus casting the other members of its family into a chronic despondency. I have seen it all too often: sad-eyed children returning from school and dancing round the kitchen trying to infuse a depressed collie with enthusiasm. This is family life turned on its head. It is the dog's business to dance and generate spirit. Innocent as this scenario may appear, it is far from it. The children may be dancing now, but when they turn into hollow-cheeked, dejected adolescents it will be too late to reconsider your choice of dog. Similarly, a timid dog will do little to help the family find balance. What is the use of having an instinctual soul if it vanishes under the table at the first sign of stress and refuses to come out until everything has calmed down again? Such a dog will clearly not earn its keep.

You cannot be too careful. A small dog may seem like an attractive proposition; it will be cheap to feed and it certainly won't hog too much of the fire. But small dogs can present serious problems. Children can quite easily pull their ears off or glue their teeth together, either of which can result in severe communication difficulties within the family group. In addition to this, small dogs often suffer from feelings of inferiority, which make them smoke too much and consequently get irritable and snappy, particularly in the mornings.

But beware of going to the opposite extreme. A very large dog, while appearing to be the heart and soul of the family, can have a severely detrimental effect. To maintain its bulk and good spirits, huge resources are necessary, and the effort required to feed and exercise such a colossus can impose terrible strain. Gradually, almost imperceptible, the family's energy will be sucked towards their furry focal point until all its members are circling around it like listless satellites, entirely unable to break free of their orbits.

To sum up: the ideal dog is of moderate size, neither too demanding nor too retiring. It should be of solid stock, though pedigree dogs should be avoided where possible on account of their arrogance and their tendency to develop expensive habits such as sailing and grouse-hunting. A few specific breeds have also proved unsuitable: pit bull terriers are closely related to tigers and have similar defects. German breeds, such as Alsatians, Doberman Pinchers and Rottweilers may appear to have forgotten the war but will suddenly remember it when you least expect it. Lurchers are unstable.

If in doubt, your local family therapist will usually be willing to advise on your particular needs and help you to interview candidates. Do not be disappointed if your ideal dog takes some time to be found; it will be well worth the wait in the end. Good luck.


Kate Thompson lives in Kinvara, Galway. She has published a book of poetry, There Is Something, and a novel, Switchers.
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