FACE It: What Is It About Men And Dogs?
By Michele Willens
Why is it that when women become obsessively attached to animals, they subject themselves to that "pet lady' stereotype? And yet, when men wax poetic or make their daily rounds of the local dog park, we are moved and wooed. "I think it's easier to be disparaging to women who have pets because it harkens back to some old gender valuation that such a woman is a spinster," says San Francisco family therapist Traci Ruble.
Think about it: What do Call of the Wild, Old Yeller, Travels with Charley, Lassie, All Creatures Great and Small, The Art of Racing in The Rain and Marley and Me have in common? Yes, they are all about dogs and they were all written by men. The last significant book penned by a woman on the subject was Jill Abramson's The Puppy Diaries, which went away quietly. By contrast, two new books are already hitting the charts: Off The Leash, by Matthew Gilbert, and Travels With Casey by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Even the authors admit there is something inherently amiss here. "We tend to find a woman a little pathetic if she lavishes her dog with love and attention," says Gilbert, "but we often find it so sweet when a guy does it."
Clearly, it's the surprise factor, watching the gender that tends to be more buttoned-up emotionally melting in the presence of their pets. "There's nothing more appealing to women than seeing a strong man get emotional around animals and children," says New York psychologist Dr. Vivian Diller. She says, however, that such emotional attachment does come with qualifications: "These men are still the masters of their animals, so it's safer to be vulnerable with them. And that side still is under their control." Or as author Denizet-Lewis puts it, "We feel safer opening up our heart to a being who isn't going to break it."
Sexist or not, this enables men to touch us with their actions...and words. "The fact we are less emotional makes us more likely to need the freedom to break down in front of our dogs," says Denizet-Lewis. "That, in turn, inspires us to write long and flowing sentences, get published, and eventually purchased by people who need reminders that men can be kind, vulnerable, blubbering messes."
Not all guys turn into instant blubbering males, by the way. I keep encountering a subset I call 'men who love women who love dogs,' in which their eventual turnaround is a relationship enhancer. Kathryn Retsky desperately wanted a dog even though her husband, Marv, was lukewarm. The kids are grown, after all, and the Encino, California couple loves to travel. Now it's Marv who would take a bullet for Winnie Rose. "I often hear Marv telling her how beautiful she is, how much he loves her," says Ms. Retsky. "Seeing that just makes me love him more."
Likewise, attorney Gerry Chaleff (most recently with the L.A P.D) resisted when his wife, Pat Benson, decided last year that she really wanted a dog. "When Sammy starts wiggling and squeaking, Gerry's face just lights up," says Benson. "I've been both astonished and at times amused watching my ever-analytical husband try to figure out what Sammy is thinking." Former Congressman Mel Levine gets it. He recently canceled a speech due to a "family emergency." It turned out his dog had a health issue. "I had decided, when my first one died when I was 11, that I'd never get another," says Levine. "But my wife insisted and the dog is sort of like our child."
My brother Ron always feared dogs until his second wife arrived with a pair of them. But it was the addition of the English bulldog, Jugs, that sent him over the top. Maybe it was because he saved her once from drowning, and another time from choking on a spool of dental floss, but they became inseparable. Ron was a basket case when Jugs died, but she has been replaced by Mack, a French bulldog. "Now I can't imagine life without dogs," he says.
And then there is a friend who told me that he too had been skeptical about his wife's doggie desire. He relented and a few years later, he says, "I came home one day and realized I wanted to see my dog, but not my wife." They are separated and yep, he has canine custody.
Bottom line: perhaps we haven't evolved as much as we think. Why else would we still be surprised by, attracted to, and fans of men who open up via their dogs? Let's hope this is good for the guys and ultimately, the rest of us as well: "Maturity and psychological health are always about integrating what we previously wanted to deny in ourselves," says Dr. Ruble. And as author Matthew Gilbert adds, "It's not necessarily a bad thing if a guy can eventually learn to transfer these feelings onto someone who can talk back."