Should I take my dog to Southeast Asia?

Lucy got me through grad school, but I'm not sure she'd travel well.


Cary Tennis
February 19, 2009 4:33PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm coming to the end of six years of grad school in America. I'm European. My experience here has been a very alienating one. I've lived a solitary existence and been under extreme psychological pressure at times, for complicated reasons I won't go into. I believe I only got through it without having a breakdown because someone gave me a dog, Lucy, about two years ago. My companionship with this creature has been the still center of my being for these two years. I didn't want to take her at first because, being a nonresident alien, and not knowing where I'd be going next, I couldn't commit to the dog for her lifetime. However, the person who gave her to me promised to take her back if it turned out that I couldn't keep her. In the past two years she's looked after Lucy every time I've gone away. Lucy loves her, jumps in the car as soon as she arrives and leaves without a backward glance at me.

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Now I've been offered a job in Southeast Asia. If I bring Lucy she'll have to endure a hellacious 30-hour trip in the bellies of three different planes, followed by 30 days of quarantine. She's always been emotionally fragile: is scared of bumps and loud noises, and strangers, and other dogs. I'm afraid of how traumatized she'd be by this trip. Her original owner will take her back, but she has a gang of other dogs who no longer accept Lucy as one of them. They won't let her up on the bed or the sofa, though, as I said, Lucy isn't a bit reluctant to go back there. If I brought Lucy to Southeast Asia, once the hellish trip and the month of quarantine was over we could maybe get back to our old life. However, I'm also aware that I'll have a real job, and won't have as much time to devote to her as I've had while a grad student who can work at home. I'm also not sure how dog-friendly a society we'll be living in, though I know some of my future colleagues there have brought their dogs from America.

As for me, I'll have an exciting new job, and there will be people whose welfare I'll be to some extent responsible for, who need my help, and I think that would compensate in a way for Lucy's absence. However, I want to be able to feel that I've done the right thing by this beautiful dog who has kept me sane in the last couple of years under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. It would break my heart to think that she was pining for me, or wondering why I don't return for her. There's no way to really tell what dogs think and feel. Lucy seems to like me and her first owner equally. There are drawbacks and advantages to living with each of us. So, my question is, should I leave her or should I bring her?

Dog Lover

Dear Dog Lover,

On balance, I would suggest letting the dog return to her original owner and her pack while you get settled in Southeast Asia. I think that is the best thing for her and for you.

It's not so much the discomfort of the flight and the 30-day quarantine that raise concern, but the prospect of a dog cooped up in a new apartment, alone all day in a new environment, that spell trouble for you, your dog and your neighbors.

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When dogs are fearful for their survival, isolated from their pack and unable to find a food source, they bark, scratch and chew. When they sense a threat they bare their teeth and sometimes bite. When they hear noises outside their door they bark and leap and scratch. This behavior is normal for them but it invites cruel recriminations and punishment from humans. Since you will not be around, you will not be able to protect your dog from other humans, or to control your dog and prevent her from offending those humans. So you are inviting a bad situation to develop. You are doing your dog no favors. I strongly suggest that you do what's best for the dog, which is to let her return to her original owner and her pack.

I love dogs. I watch them all the time. I have observed dogs carefully for many years. What you describe about how her old pack treats her at first, upon her return, sounds normal. Dogs often snap at and threaten the new dog, or a dog they used to know who has been away. It's not that they don't accept the dog at all. They just want the dog to come back in at a lower pay grade. What they want is for the dog to exhibit a certain conciliatory behavior that indicates the dog accepts her place in the hierarchy. Once the new dog shows that he or she accepts her place, things will go fine. Certain dogs will periodically attempt to achieve higher places in the hierarchy by challenging others, so the pack will occasionally seem anarchic. But it is no more anarchic than a typical corporate boardroom. I doubt that Lucy will have much trouble getting back into the pack, especially since her former owner will ensure her a place in the household.

They will let her up on the couch eventually. Or she will accept her place on the floor. But when they growl at her or snap at her, they are not suggesting she leave; they are simply maintaining pack order.

We do dogs a disservice when we liken them to ourselves. I think we honor dogs by honoring their difference. I hear humans speaking to dogs as if to a child, each time with greater urgency: "Si-it. Sit. SIT!" Does the dog know that each inflection of the imperative is meant to convey greater conviction and urgency, and that her failure, on the first command, has led to the more urgent inflection of the second, and that her failure on the second has led to the more urgent inflection on the third? Does the dog understand the statement, "Stay with the group!" or "Get back from the edge of the cliff"? I somehow don't think so.

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Still, one human trait I do not mind attributing to dogs, though no doubt they exhibit this trait for reasons alien to us, is loyalty and a love of service.

So think about it this way: Lucy will be proud to have served you, and she will not resent you for leaving. She will understand.


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Cary Tennis

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