The day our board tried to put a moratorium on dogs
By Ruby R. Benjamin, Ed.D.
I live in a dog-friendly neighborhood. At any time of the day or night I can always meet at least one four-legged furry friend within a 10-block area. I often know the name of the dog before I know of their person. And even if I forget the person’s name, I always remember the dog’s.
The dogs in my hi-rise apartment building come in all sizes. There’s Rosie, a 5-pound Chihuahua (in the photo with me) who could easily be overlooked by Scooter, a magnificent 125-pound Ridgeback, who lives four floors down from me.
Maggie, a wily 6-year-old Westie, always barks at Nanda, a beautiful boxer, who forgets she’s 75 pounds when she stands on her hind legs to hug and kiss me.
Some of the dogs come with disabilities, like Linus, a sweet rescue, who has only one eye. Others come with quirky habits like Alfie, another Westie, who has sneezing spells when he gets excited. They are all my canine companions.
One day, the residents of my co-op received a letter under their door. It was a directive from the Board of Directors imposing a moratorium on dogs. It stated that no new dogs would be allowed in the building and that those of us who had a dog would have 90 days to replace her if she died. For many people, that is hardly enough time to mourn a beloved family member. Furthermore, if anyone had multiple dogs and one died, only the last one to join the family could be replaced.
I was outraged. I knew from the research and from personal experience the impact that dogs have on our mental and physical health. I’m not just thinking of service dogs that lead the blind and otherwise disabled, but of all the ways pets creep into our hearts and souls and bring us companionship. Pets chase away the hours of loneliness, especially for those who have lost spouses, partners, children and friends.
Patty, an elderly neighbor, was quite saddened when she read the “Dog Letter.” She participates in a program where young Labradors-in- training visit her each month. She feared it would end. At 89, she was limited in her activities and looked forward to the visits, not only to chat with the volunteer who brings the dog, but to enjoy the dog. The visit invariably brings back fond memories of her childhood days in Ireland. As an only child whose mother abandoned her at 18 months, she was brought up by her grandmother on a farm surrounded by cats, dogs, pigs, chickens and horses. At age 10 she was sent to the U.S. to live with relatives who found her a burden and finally sent her back to Ireland, alone at 15. She read me a story she’d written about feeling sorry for a lone calf who had just been sold and was alone outside a tavern. She could empathize with the calf, and lay down beside her to comfort her. She told me that she was always happy to host the dogs, to see them relaxed and sprawled out on her floor. It reminded her of when she was a child. How could the Board deny Patty her memories?
It wasn’t long before the dog owners and dog lovers in the building formed a committee to address the Board’s directive. Many residents joined in writing letters to contest the directive and urge them to reconsider. We wrote that dogs make us exercise by walking them, they give us joy by their playful antics and they enhance socialization with other dog people. When I walk down the street, no one pays attention to me. But when I have a dog at the end of the leash, I am transformed into a very interesting person. People smile at the dog and me and they often stop to inquire after the dog’s name, age and breed.
Zoe the long-hair dachshund with Teddy Bear, a Maltese
Dogs are magnets. I often suggest to my patients to get a dog and take her to a doggie park. It’s a fun place for a relationship to start. Above all, dogs are teachers. They teach us to enjoy every moment of every day, to delight in the simple joy of a long walk, to never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride, to take naps, to thrive on attention and to let people touch us. They also teach us to dance around and wag our entire body when we’re happy, and, when someone is having a bad day, to be quiet, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently. “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face” said a wise Ben Williams.
The directive was rescinded! Today, dogs and their guardians are living and loving well in our co-op.
Dr. Ruby Benjamin is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City with individuals and couples. She specializes in relationship issues with self, others and, sometimes with canines. She is on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health, the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and is a consultant to Doctors without Borders, Peer Support Network.