One Unwavering Friend

BY DR CHRIS BLAZINA

In Oct 2021, I found myself on a train leaving London bound for the northern part of England. On days when I am not travelling by train, plane, or automobile, I live in the Southwestern part of the United States. The area where the mythology of ‘the wild west’ and cowboys sprang from in American lore. While the high desert mountain terrain of my home is in stark comparison to the rolling green hills I saw outside the window of my northbound train, I could not help but feel at home in the England’s rural surroundings. After all, there were shared commonalities.

As I was traveling, I read James Rebank’s book, A Sheppard’s Life. The passages that really struck me were those that involved a sense of belonging to the land tucked away from urban life. Rebank’s account left the impression how we are tied to the earth on which are homes and farms are built. The sense of place goes deep into our psyches. We draw strength and inspiration from it.

In scientific terms, the need to connect with the natural world has been described as an innate one by the late Nobel prize winning biologist E.O. Wilson. His argument is that as humans evolved, the need to be in the nature became embedded in our DNA. We seek it out for our well-being. But we can also see that same ancient connection became strained with the advent of the Industrial Revolution more than two hundred years ago. The mass migration to urban dwellings, leading to congestion and pollution separated many from the needed nature fix. But as it so happens, there was already a potential solution in place.

The bond with dogs is believed to extend at least 20,000-30,000 years ago. More friendly wolves started inhabitation the outer realm of man’s fire circle and over time, started to take shape as canine companions, co-hunters, and guardians. Over the course of things, dogs began taking on other vital roles in our history. Especially for those that left the rural life behind during the Industrial Revolution. But even for those that remained, our animal companions act as a type of go between for us and the natural world. They draw our attention to the trees, hedges, streams, and blades of grass. Aspects we might otherwise take for granted. Many of us come to rely upon our dogs to rediscover our surroundings, and our ancient selves, each day.

On my train ride to the rural parts of England, I also reflected on the book I had just finished writing- One unwavering friend: Heartwarming tales of men and dogs. A collection of 20 stories about famous men over the past two hundred years. Working dogs who took on different job descriptions as seen through the stories of these men. Ones that emphasized a dog’s companionship and the pull back to the natural world.

Naturalist Charles Darwin wrote his book about human and animal emotions with his dog Polly in her basket next to his writing desk. She has a cameo in Darwin’s book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), her likeness illustrating animal emotional expressions for the reader. This came at a time in Darwin’s life when his theory of evolution was gaining some acceptance and, at a personal level, his often fragile emotional and physical well-being seemed to improve. What better way for an academic like Darwin to approach emotions than from an intellectual position, with his dog literally by his side.

Writer Charles Dickens also had a special bond with dogs, especially in his turbulent middle age. As his marriage crumbled, walks with his dogs were especially important to him. Dogs become a source of inspiration. He kept little statues of them on his writing desk and carried them in his coat pocket. Dog themes also appear in his writing. Characters could be summed up by the way they treated animals. The truly villainous ones were especially bad to dogs. The sense of dogness got deep into Dicken’s mind, even referring to himself in one letter as ‘being a stray.’ At the age 12, he supported his family who were in debtors’ prison by working in a shoe blackening shop. Throughout his life he wrote letters to his friends about his latest dog’s antics, dreamed of them, and certainly found comfort in their company (some say, more than his own wife).

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had a cumulative experience of grief and loss in his later life. He lost his beloved daughter and grandson to the Influenza pandemic a hundred years ago. He had to leave Vienna at the onset of World War II, and he dealt with more than 30 cancer operations on his jaw. He confided to a colleague that the toll was great and that he was unable to love anymore. His dogs seem to help feel that void and were omnipresent in his later years. His chow dogs played many roles, including masticating his meat before Freud ate, as he now wore a prosthetic jaw. Perhaps his closest dog, Jofie also had her own couch in his consultation room where he saw patients. Freud relied on her to screen would-be patients and to let him know when time was up. He had no need for a clock.

Looking back now, I realize writing the book about men and dogs had to do in part with the onset of the COVID pandemic. If we had to keep social distance, then certainly we must find other ways to meet affiliation needs that are inherent to our very existence. As we have seen soaring dog adoptions rates in the UK and US, certainly our canine companions help with that.

Also, while I didn’t set out to do this, most of the stories in the book also concern men of a certain age. Given I am at middle age (and beyond), it was those types of stories that drew me in—maybe for companionship’s sake and maybe for a type of guidance to see how their lives turned out. In my prior research it has been interesting to see how important dogs are to middle-aged men in contemporary times, the research supports the notion of shrinking social networks as males age- usually just a partner and a dog. Many men turn to their dogs as a type of companionship and emotional comfort.

Sometimes the need to connect can also be a met in the context of hearing other’s stories. It creates a type of community even if those stories concern people from long ago. I know, for me, some of the men in the book started to feel like friends of a sort as I researched and understood more about their lives and how their dogs fit in. We all need some type of connection to see us through the good and the bad. The rural world in which many of us live sets the stage for at least one unwavering friend to join us.

Chris Blazina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and retired professor. He currently practices in the Albuquerque, New Mexico, area. His work focuses on the bond between men and their canine companions in research, historical context, and clinical practice. This is his eighth book. Blazina, C. (2021). One Unwavering Friend: Heartwarming Tales of Men and Dogs (Paperback). Published by Filament Publishing, United Kingdom.

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