Trust, Loyalty and Devotion

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Why is it humans can’t trust like dogs can? Loyalty and devotion rarely make it to an honest description of any human.

Hachiko (original)
Hachiko, the original

I watched a movie yesterday that truly broke my heart – “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” starring Richard Gere about a dog’s loyalty to his master. Of course I’ve heard of devoted and loyal pets and lots of stories similar to this one exist, but I hadn’t heard this particular story before.

It was recently made famous in the US with this 2009 remake, but I just saw it for the first time. Not having heard of the story, I was not prepared for what would happen based on the synopsis “based on a true story of a professor and his loyal dog” listed under the “For Kids” section available for online streaming video. I was looking for a feel-good brain-simple movie to occupy my mind while my hands worked on a craft project – this movie was not a good choice for that.

Before I go on, I need to pause right here and tell you something about me: I don’t cry over movies. I realise I have a soft spot for dogs, and it can pull my heart-strings painfully – particularly when dogs are mistreated, but that usually just gets my ire up with steam coming out of my ears. Yes, I am occasionally emotionally manipulated by other’s stories, but I do not cry over a story, a movie or even someone else’s plight. I’ve been called heartless, Ice Queen, and similar joyous nicknames because I can rarely show such a level of sadness only based on someone else’s view of their world. I’m a horrible liar, anyway, so trying to fake it only makes things worse. It’s not that I can’t empathize or support someone having a hard time, of course I can and do! But tears, in particular, have never come easy for me, won’t come in response to someone else’s pain unless I honestly share in it, and when tears do come, I feel embarrassment and humiliation to have witnesses as much as, or even more than, the feelings that produced the tears in the first place (my fuse to anger can be incredibly short, though, and I’ve often wished things were the other way around for me – something I’m working on). Even when I was a little kid, I never cried over a movie… But this one had me bawling by about two-thirds in wondering how they could possibly say this movie is for kids?!

Hachi Dogs Tale Movie
Images from “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale”

The movie begins with a boy giving an oral report in class on his chosen hero. When he says his hero is his grandfather’s dog, he gets laughter in response… Shift scene to when Hachi is first found as a lost pup at a railway station. The story is pretty simple, and of course Hollywood applied some creative license though not as much as you might think. I looked up the story of Hachiko online and found many sites on the original story. Turns out the pup probably was not a foundling after all since most reports indicate where he was born, but the main story is the same: he has only about a year and a half with his master before Master doesn’t come back. Hachi spends every day looking for his master, waiting patiently in the same spot at the same time, every single day for the next DECADE! In the movie, some of the creative license applied suggested things like Hachi may have tried to warn his master that last day not to go to work, stay home and play (anecdotal evidence exists of devoted pets who try to warn their masters before they become hurt, ill or die), and that Hachi may have tried to follow the train tracks in an effort to find his master at the other location but doesn’t know which way to go when the tracks split. The idea Hachi may have found a bed in the train yard is probably the most likely possibility, but I won’t discount the others presented – for all we know, it could have actually happened that way. Fast forward nine years and change to an aging, arthritic and street-dirty Hachi slowly making his way to his usual waiting spot… and I just lost it! Sobbing so uncontrollably my own dogs are checking on me because they’ve never seen me act this way and don’t know what to do about it. It actually crossed my mind that it would be funny if I wasn’t so heartbroken. The last time I cried like that was when we lost GumTung, our adored black lab, and more than half our current pack was not there to see it then.
Hachi at train station
On the one hand, I recognize this story’s significance in Japanese culture to represent loyalty. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn this story has changed some people’s lives; sometimes another’s hardship can do that for us. All I could think of, though, was “why didn’t they at least take him to the funeral to see his master’s body? Dogs grieve too!” Never understanding why his master didn’t return for him had to be heart-wrenching for Hachi despite his unfailing devotion. Dogs live life simply: day to day, hour to hour, minute by minute. To have less than two short years with a loving master and then spend every day of the next nine years, nine months and fifteen days alone and waiting for him (May 24, 1924 to March 8, 1935)… It literally breaks my heart.
Seriously, think about that for a minute…
What other animal would be so devoted for the bulk of their lives, or even a small portion of their lives? Do you honestly believe any human would ever even consider such a thing? Humans are such what-have-you-done-for-me-lately creatures, we probably wouldn’t last beyond Day Two (Day One, in all honesty, if we don’t get some kind of communication for why we were stood up). Yet Hachi, despite over nine long, long years of being repeatedly let down when his master doesn’t come back for him continued to trust, day after day, for 3,575 days that “today my master will come.”

Why is it that humans can’t trust like dogs can? Put simply, humans can’t be depended upon. This idea is introduced to most of us as young children with broken promises and repeated failings of the other humans in our lives – everyone from parents to siblings to friends to strangers. We all let people down sometimes, and we are taught very young that everyone does it, nobody’s perfect, so you have to just learn to deal with it. Many of us “learn to deal with it” by doing for ourselves, becoming independent, self-sufficient, and – the hardest one for so many – don’t trust! Trust is a huge emotional block for a lot of people, and yet trust is the very first thing a dog will give you – unconditionally. Dogs can learn not to trust, yes, but it takes a lot of repeated abuse over a long period of time. It’s simply not their first instinct – humans have bred dogs for millennia upon millennia to be companions and helpers to us, so it takes quite a lot of intended teaching for a dog to learn the concept “don’t trust” from a human. When a dog does learn “don’t trust”, it’s often generalized to “don’t trust humans” because they are far too smart to just think “don’t trust the stick” or “don’t trust the cage” and not recognize a human is responsible. And no other creature, large or small, abuses or hunts simply for the sake of entertainment (even cats will eat after toying with their prey). The adage “the more people I meet, the more I love my dog” makes a bit more sense now, doesn’t it?

My eldest, living dog is my sweet baby girl, Artemis. She turned ten years old last November and I sometimes wonder how much more time I will have with her. Although she is not Akita (she’s a Shepherd-Shar Pei mix), her looks are a bit similar to the dogs that play Hachi in the movie.

Left: Hachi from the movie. Right: Artemis
Aging Hachi from the movie and aging Artemis

Artemis is one dog I never really had to work on training. She came to me at three months old, incredibly smart, took no time at all to learn basic commands, never needed potty training despite having never been indoors prior to living with me, and always exhibits a desire to please. In fact, getting her to come indoors under her own steam was the first thing I had to actually teach her. When she was young, she used to play the me-first pushy games pups will play for attention, but she quickly grew out of it when other, younger pups arrived in need of attention. There was a period of time, about two to three years, when she got very little attention due to the revolving door of rescues coming through our place. But, no matter what, I know I can trust Artemis to do only what’s necessary, and she will absolutely trust me when I say it’s enough.

We once rescued a Staffordshire Terrier who came to us in heat (unfortunately we didn’t catch this development at first), and she immediately attempted to fight for her right to breed. Artemis, having been raised with a Pitt bull pup as a playmate, learned long ago how to use her body to put down and hold a much larger dog without drawing blood, and this 35 lb. staffy was certainly no match for her. In a split second, Artemis had the staffy on her back and held down helpless while Artemis barked loudly in her face. After a full minute and things had calmed a bit, I told Artemis to let her up, she obeyed and began sauntering off like she’d done a good job, but I wasn’t quick enough to take control of the staffy before she lunged at Artemis again, caught her hindquarters and clamped down. Artemis screamed and looked back at me in shock – like she couldn’t believe I failed her. I had. I learned a lot about introducing a volatile element to a stable pack during the time we housed that staffy, and quite a lot I wish I’d handled differently, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over that look. Just as a dog’s job is protect us, it’s our job to protect them, maintain the safety and stability of the pack. I failed that day and many others. The fact the dogs are so willing to forgive and move on is little solace. With dogs there is no negotiation, no such thing as wait, pause, hold on a sec… You have to stay on top of every moment in a potentially volatile situation, defuse it the instant it presents and before it erupts. If not, there may be  irreparable damage done, physically and emotionally, and there’s no explaining why this happened or promises how we will avoid it ever happening again to make it better. I suppose it’s actually better this way, more honest, because maybe we are more likely to actually try to live up to the simple expectations dogs have of us without the broken promises.

I’ve wished for a Star Trek holodeck-type simulator to be able to practice dealing with potentially dangerous situations until my response becomes immediate, second nature, and rarely missed. Of course, such a simulator could help in learning how to deal with all sorts of potentially unpleasant experiences and might even help me learn to control my temper.

Hmm, yeah, well, while I’m wishing… I wish for universal trust between humans to be like a dogs trust: unconditionally given and received, but most of all warranted.ō

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