“My dog loves me no matter what; she’s my best friend. She understands me better than most people.”
“I shouldn’t have to give treats to my dog to make him listen. I’m the alpha in this household.”
“I’m trying to figure out if Tiffany really enjoys being a therapy dog. Sometimes I’m not sure.”
We all make pronouncements about our dogs. And because they don’t have verbal language, they can’t dispute what we say. And although the science of exploring the intelligence and emotions of dogs is young, we can’t help feeling that we know all about our furry companions. After all, we live with them every day. We must know them.
I suspect what we say about our dogs says more about ourselves than it does about our dogs.
In his book, Dog Days, Jon Katz wrote about his lovable lab, Clementine. Clem, he said, would follow anyone with a cookie in her purse out to her car and ride out of his life forever without a qualm.
Living with my own friendly retriever, I believe Honey would also happily ride home with a stranger. (And if you’re getting any ideas, stop it right now. I would hunt you down and hurt you real bad if you ever tried it.)
But I don’t think it’s as simple as Jon Katz seemed to. Honey would look back to see if we were following. She’d adjust to living happily with a new family. But if she saw us again, Honey would remember and go right back to being happily in our presence.
I think Jon Katz’s Clementine would have done the same thing.
And that’s why I think Katz’s firm insistence that Clem would follow the nearest cookie holder without pause tells us much more about him than it does about her.
When I first read Katz’s statement about Clementine, I didn’t recognize it as a statement about the nature of dogs or even the nature of a particular dog. I recognized it as a wound. His statement resonated deep within me as being self-protective more than factual.
In his wonderful blog, Bedlam Farm Journal, Katz reflects on life and healing and spirituality. He’s open and generous in what he writes and shares about his attempt to heal old wounds and grow as a person. When I read it, I wonder if 5 years from now, Mr. Katz will bring a more nuanced understanding to Clementine’s behavior.
Of course, maybe I’m doing the same thing. And you can tell more about me by how I reacted to Mr. Katz’s words than you can about him from writing them.
Dogs serve as a blank canvas for our emotions. We project onto them understanding and empathy or even apathy or willfulness if that serves our needs or image of ourselves. And the real challenge is to see them as they really are, not as we wish them to be. To give your dog credit for the complexity of his emotional life without feeling it exactly mirrors yours.
My dogs from over the years have taught me about myself. Seeing the choices I’ve made on their behalf and how I’ve responded to the challenges of living with them has brought sometimes painful realizations about the kind of person I am.
But living closely with dogs has also taught me about them: I’ve learned that dogs can be fearful or have poor social skills; recognized that dogs have strong preferences and like to spend their time with compatible people and animals; and recognized that although they adapt well to a life they have little control over, they still need autonomy and decision-making to round out their lives.
Have you ever thought something was true about your dog just to be surprised to find out later it wasn’t? Do you ever wonder if you’re overestimating or underestimating your dogs capabilities? Is there anything you say about your dog that says more about you than about her?
Or am I just full of horsesh*t?
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