What my dog taught me

If I could have genetically reproduced, or wanted to, I would have spawned this dog. She is me, and I am her. She is a short, chubby, anxious little beast with a bark much more potent than her bite, which she reserves for me alone.

She makes a lot of noise, just for the hell of it, just to hear herself talk. She is oppositionally defiant, needy, and frequently pushy about getting her needs met. There is never enough, and she always wants more. She notices everything, hears everything, and can sniff out something out of the ordinary at unfathomable distances. Once she has the scent of the object of her affection, she will cry like a human infant and scream at the top of her lungs. She is 15 pounds of willful and reckless abandon, taking a plunge long before looking, goal directed to a fault.

What I’ve learned from the wily canine is how to make the most out of a less than optimal situation. I lack ritual in starting my days, and do not consider myself to be a morning person. In fact, I generally consider myself a menace to living things before 10am and a couple of cups of coffee. Left to my own devices, I would stay up late and sleep until noon, but the tiny bladder that is my dog has other plans.

She has taken to sidling up on my stomach shortly after sunrise, when the light begins to filter through venetian blinds and traffic noises have picked up on the street below. If I don’t stir, she begins to whuffle, a distinctive cross between a sneeze and a sigh. If that doesn’t get my eyes open, she begins to whine, then escalates to crying and near-howling, and finally barking. Some days, she will stand with all four feet on my chest while barking.
This is great fun for the little cur, and she makes the best of having a bad mommy. She makes waking me up a fun routine for herself, and she gets what she wants to boot.

When a dog has emotion, positive or negative, their reactions are immediate. If she likes something, she demonstrates happiness by dancing, barking, tail-wagging, jumping, and even smiling. Yes, smiling. Canine body language and mannerisms are more complex than most people comprehend. There’s a planting of the front paws on the ground, rear up high, tail wagging that means let’s play. There’s a hind-leg stance that means she wants me to come here, and there’s a one paw held up that means she’s confused. And those are the same signals every time. Consistency is a lesson that I forget most of the time, but it’s essential to establishing trust and confidence in oneself.

The other thing my dog, and every other dog I’ve ever had as a companion, teaches me is the unconditional nature of love, affection, loyalty. She does not care a hair about my aesthetics, or my weight, my height, my skin color. From what I understand, canines are literally color blind. The visual cues that we humans rely on to make judgement about character, and worthiness, do not exist for her. Her judgements operate on a far more acute level than visual acuity. She judges by standards that are largely invisible and incomprehensible to us.

We believe that a dog’s brain is less complex than ours, but we cannot possibly understand their incredible system of sensory input. Their noses are exponentially more sensitive than our, and relay information that allows them to discern individual traits in much the same way as we utilize fingerprints. My dog recognizes me from a distance by my scent, before she can see me or hear my voice. That’s why dogs greet each other with sniffing of more private parts, because therein lie their stories. We humans must relate our stories to each other with language, but dogs need only their highly sophisticated olfactory organs.

The last thing my dog teaches me is forgiveness, and the art of a short memory. If she errs, and I fuss at her, she has an immediate reaction to the displeasure in my tone, but she carries no grudge. Our next interaction is not based on the last one, although she will come to expect certain elements of ritual and routine. If I fuss at her each time she makes the same error, one would hope that would eliminate the error, but sometimes not. She goes past the negative reinforcement in record time, because her memory really isn’t that long. Positive reinforcement, however, apparently goes much further, so instead of chastising her for the error, if I show pleasure when she does the correct thing, I’m likely to alter her behavior more quickly in that way. Positive reinforcement works better for me, and for her, and that’s a lesson I need to remember. No sense beating myself up for my transgressions, because I’m likely to keep repeating them.

My dog is not tremendously complicated. Her vocal chords do not produce speech as human bodies do, but she tells me what she wants and shows me how she feels nonetheless. I had to learn her language a bit in order to determine how to care for her, and how to respond if there is something wrong. Caring for a dog involves quite a lot of attentiveness, appreciation, and acceptance of her being exactly what she is supposed to be, no more and no less. It would be a very good thing if we humans could do likewise in our dealings with each other. Human relations don’t always have to be quite so complex.

It’s not that hard, even without opposable digits.

Published by annzimmerman

I am Louisiana born and bred, now living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Fortunately for me, I was already living in NC before Hurricane Katrina decimated my beloved New Orleans. An only child, I now feel that I have no personal history since the hurricane destroyed the relics and artifacts of my childhood. As I have always heard, c'est la vie. My Louisiana roots show in my love of good coffee, good food, and good music. My soggy native soil has also shown me that resilience is hard-wired in my consciousness; when the chips are down (or drowned)...bring it on.

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