Some years ago, a letter to the Naples (Florida) Daily News was headlined “Feasibility issue keeps dog park backers from getting a plan with bite.” It described the difficulties faced by dog owners looking for public places to take their pets.

The dog park finally got built, but in Naples as elsewhere, it’s still a hassle finding places to take my border collie, Chelsea. She loves going for walks, but not dog parks. When we first adopted her, I took her to one in Michigan. She promptly set up shop underneath my park bench, waiting for me to figure it out. She still keeps her distance from other dogs, but eight years later that’s mostly because she’s now almost blind.

A different story. My point here is this: if dogs are thought of only in terms of duck or pheasant hunting, or as a fashion accessory tucked in the owner’s forearm, with a rhinestone collar coordinated to match today’s ensemble, or as security for a car dealership's inventory, then expecting others to worry about dogs or their owners makes little sense.

But those who think this way are misguided. As Jon Katz explains in his book, The New Work of Dogs, very few canines these days are saving travelers in mountain passes (St. Bernards), herding sheep or cattle (collies, shepherds, corgis), catching vermin (terriers), or rooting out badgers (dachshunds).

Instead, they mostly serve as companions. Research has proven them to be remarkably good at improving both the mental and physical well-being of their owners. That’s why dogs are regularly taken to children’s hospitals, and nursing homes. It’s why the reward for good behavior in some prisons is access to a dog.

If you live with one, all this is old news to you. But many remain ignorant. The companionship meaning of dogs is especially true in retirement communities, where many have lost spouses and live alone. I made that one of the main themes in my novel, Just Bill.

My point again is this: in actual day-to-day life, dogs are often the first line of defense against depression, boredom, loneliness. For this reason it’s long past time for us to recognize that, for a great many people, dogs have become fundamental, not incidental.

If I’m right, it makes sense for owners to be allowed to have their leashed pets with them in public parks and on beaches, not just at dog runs. Some more enlightened restaurants have followed their European counterparts by making dogs welcome, at least on outdoor patios.

In our time—complicated and dehumanized in many ways--the main work of dogs is to be with us, to help us to live. To help us, in fact, to be more human.


DOGS AND CULTURE WARS IN PARADISE This photo of two cocker spaniels makes me think of an old saying: "Let sleeping dogs lie.&qu...