KNAPP: Notes from Dogland

DOG SCENE I:The lock to my front door is jammed: canÕt get the key in, canÕt get the key out, the key is stuck at the halfway point. IÕm trying to get out of the house to take the dog out and this annoys me no end. I slam down my bag, drag the dog back inside, storm into the kitchen muttering, rub olive oil on the key, then go back to the front door. Bingo: key slides in, problem is solved. The dog is not aware of this, however. The dog is six or seven steps behind me in this process, still fixated on the fact that I am angry. So when I finally lock the door and turn around, there she is, an expression of the gravest concern in her eyes. She looks up at me imploringly, then leaps up and places her front paws on my arms. Her ears are flat back and her tail is wagging madly; she curls her upper lip back, baring her teeth in her version of a smile, and cranes her neck up to lick my face. She is saying, and quite clearly: Please donÕt be mad, I didnÕt do anything bad, I swear. My heart melts.DOG SCENE, II:I am on the phone with a friend, having an argument. It is a painful conversation -- a rift has been developing for some time -- and I am at a stressed-out point somewhere between rage and tears. I chain-smoke while I talk and listen, glare out across the living room, tap my foot on the floor. Then I look down and see the dog, who is on her bed, about six feet away from me. Again, she is staring at me intently. When our eyes meet, she wags her tail very gently, just the tip, and flattens her ears slightly in an expression of sweetness. Her gaze is not imploring, the way it was during the key episode, but it is deeply concerned, and I have the sense she understands two things: that I am in pain and that this is not her fault. SheÕs just worried, and she stays this way -- staring at me, observant and concerned -- until I get off the phone. When I hang up and breathe a sigh of relief, she watches me for another moment or two, then shuts her eyes and falls asleep. She apparently has made the determination: everything is okay.I am consistently amazed at how well this animal can read me, at how tuned in to nuances and shifts of mood she is, at her emotional vigilance. Canine empathy is a wonderful and well-known phenomenon, but it can also be a rather daunting one: it reminds you, and often, that the responsibilities involved in living with a dog extend well beyond the basics, well beyond the realms of feeding and walking and veterinary care, reaching onto much deeper and more complex psychic territory. When I look at that little doggie face, its expressions of pleading and concern, my heart melts, yes. But I also think something else: God, it would be easy to fuck this animal up. Canine sensitivity, it turns out, is an exquisite thing, but it can be dangerous in human hands.This point becomes very clear when you spend some time talking to animal trainers and animal behaviorists, who are unanimous in the opinion that just about every behavior problem an animal exhibits can be reclassified as a training problem or (more accurately) an owner problem. Sometimes consciously, often not, we teach our dogs to be fearful or aggressive or unresponsive or just plain crazy, teach them that our emotions are their emotions, teach them that we are angry at them when in fact weÕre merely angry at the front door or the friend on the telephone. The human capacity to project oneÕs own fears and fantasies onto others is nearly limitless, and when the dog -- innately relational and sensitive to the dynamics of the pack -- is the "other" in question, life can get very dicey indeed.Classic example: in my first months with my dog, Lucille, I came dangerously close to giving her a whopping case of separation anxiety, a co-dependent trap thatÕs very common among new dog owners. I hated leaving the dog alone -- hated it. Hated seeing those wide eyes staring after me as I moved toward the door without her, hated the expression on her face, which I read (possibly inaccurately) as forlorn and alarmed, hated the ancient feelings of abandonment it stirred up in me. So I made a big deal of things, praised her, cooed at her, promised her IÕd be gone only a little while, pled with her to be good, loaded her up with toys and hollow bones filled with cheddar cheese. But (and this is a point most of us are all too willing to forget) the dog doesnÕt speak English. When I talk, she hears tone (anxiety), not content (reassurance), and she got the underlying message I communicated very clearly: my attempt to leave the house was a big, scary event and she had every reason to be worried. So IÕd finally ease my way out the door and sheÕd do what any self-respecting anxious puppy would do: eat the laundry hamper and tear up six pairs of underwear.It took an embarrassingly long time, and a great deal of effort, for me to undo the messages, to leave the house without making a fuss, to ignore the dog on my way in and out, to communicate that my comings and goings were normal and natural and no cause for alarm. WhatÕs amazing to me is how easy it is to create problems in a relationship with a dog, and how effortlessly -- perhaps unconsciously -- people do so. Behaviorists have developed various code words for some of the more common dynamics: thereÕs the St. Francis Syndrome, in which owners take a certain twisted pride in how bad their dogs are and how much they, as owners, are willing to tolerate (ÒYour dog only ate six pairs of underwear? Well, mine ate the piano!Ó). ThereÕs the Napoleon Syndrome, in which a man (usually short and lacking in self-esteem) gets a vicarious thrill out of his dogÕs aggressive tendencies and therefore subtly encourages them. ThereÕs the Victim Syndrome, usually engaged in by fearful women who acquire dominant dogs and then encourage them to be so overly protective that the owner becomes a virtual prisoner in her own home, unable to go out with the dog (which has been subtly urged to menace strangers) or to let anyone in (same reason). If the owner has a problem, the dog can (and very likely will) inherit it, which is why you find dogs and owners with shared self-esteem problems, shared fears and phobias, shared struggles with power and dominance, even (increasingly and alarmingly) shared medical problems.Last summer, my boyfriend and I rented a house in Vermont for a week which, at nighttime, was riddled with moths. The lights would come on, the moths would start flickering about by the lamps, and the boyfriend would start leaping about in annoyance. Armed with a magazine or a book, heÕd stand by the wall and start whomping any insect that happened by. Lucille found this horrifying, and at the sight of it sheÕd cower on her bed, ears back, head ducked slightly, tail wagging urgently. Today, she is the proud owner of a major phobia involving houseflies: bugs outside donÕt bother her a bit, but if she sees a single fly zipping around the living room, she regards it nervously, looks at me, then gets up, slinks off the sofa and runs upstairs to hide. In her mind, insects flying inside mean big, mad, scary men and loud noises and her reaction is to flee. At present, I am happy to report, this is her most serious psychological problem. With a little luck -- and, more to the point, with enough sensitivity to both of our emotional states on my part -- it will be her only one.

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