Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dogs as Rorschach Tests

Since the early 1990s, we have had two dogs at a time. It’s a long story involving a beloved creature--part of my life since I was 17--who was failing. At the time, our reasoning was that since she was so very old and so important to our family and children, it would ease the inevitable difficult transition to get the follow-on dog before that happened. Happily, the energy of the new puppy perked her up and led to some bonus years with a good friend. When she finally died, which involved its own very hard lessons we didn’t learn very gracefully, Michael and I naively thought we’d revert to a single-dog existence. Until Harriett called one day to let us know that she had our other dog. This was initially news to us, but sure enough, she did, so we were back to a two-dog existence, This has become our norm.

Interestingly, Michael and I at least are not really “dog people,” or even “animal” people, at least in the sense of most of the true animal people we know. We’re not drawn to all creatures everywhere; we like individual personalities and our connections are specific to those beings. At the same time, these friends have enriched our lives, and our children have grown up comfortable around dogs, which seems like a positive thing, especially when I see so many students come through our home who do not have even a minimal base-line comfort. Shea, of course, is hugely animal-focused and it seems inconceivable that she’ll live without a variety of creatures she’ll collect over time. It will be interesting to see how that plays out--as with so much about her.

This is a long way of getting to a relatively recent realization: Sophie, our rescue dog, is a remarkably accurate way to read some categories of people. Let me first say here that the dominant (and my favorite) dog of our current pair is Hattie (named after Harriett, the source of all dogs and more in our lives), a cheerful, loving, incredibly happy and athletic creature. Tom and Harriet have a film that captures a flavor of Hattie’s special approach to life here. (The wire mesh at the top of the wood fence is to keep her from going over, which she was doing regularly until the extension was added. She never ran away, she just liked to visit with whoever was on the other side. Then, she'd come back and sit by the front door.)

Sophie, on the other hand, is needy. That short statement doesn’t begin capture the full extent of this reality. Likely due to some combination of her intrinsic temperament and early life experiences (she was found running free, very thin, when she was about a year old), she’s fearful and neurotic. In fairness to her, she’s also very smart, completely sweet and pretty even-tempered. In any event, her neediness means that she hangs close. Very close. If I’m sitting in one chair in the living room and get up and move to another chair two feet away, Sophie will get up and move with me, so as to stay within her desired closeness radius. For about five minutes at a time, it’s endearing. After that, we draw upon compassion. Shea showers her with love and Michael and I accept her for what she is, appreciating the good points and working with the rest of it.

Recently, we’ve noticed that there are people who make a beeline for Sophie upon entering the house, and the rest of us might as well not exist. If one of us starts to explain about her neediness and to describe what to do if her her attentions start to wear, the inevitable response of this person is “oh, I love needy dogs.” Then we have a pretty good indication that there are going to be many points of departure between us and the visitor. To be honest about it, we’re finding that this usually indicates that we’ll differ on almost everything.

Upon reflection, this is generalizable, within reasonable limits. How visitors attend (or don’t) to members of the household is telling and generally correlates to how well we hit it off. I think the connection is the level of courtesy revealed upon entry. Those who are or turn out to be favorites usually greet every member of the household, human and canine, regardless of their personal preferences or choices in life. Thus, human-focused people acknowledge the dogs even if they don’t wish to touch them (or wash their hands after doing so); animal people greet each child as an individual, even if their enthusiasm is reserved for the dogs. Others ignore the dogs completely--and those folks are likely to ignore the children, too, beyond a cursory salutation. Those with a fear of dogs (we always ask first) who turn into friends usually inquire about the dogs, even if we’ve sent them outside during the visit to make the guest more comfortable. Bottom line: we tend to like people who are courteous, open-minded and interested in others, even those outside their personal experience or preferences.

Probably this is all remarkably simple-minded and that it’s just occurred to me is a symptom of something or other revealing and unflattering. On the other hand, it’s been a diverting way to start what promises to be a nice weekend, and thinking about it has provided a pleasant break from the overarching stress of closing a phase of my life. Moving out of the law school is more than just ending that era; in many ways, it’s the beginning of the end of my university connections, though those will persist another year or two before retirement. Since I’ve been employed by this university since I was 16, it’s a big change and a loss in a lot of ways. I’m not particularly graceful about change and even less so with endings, so it takes some working through. Today, as a break from the sorting, pitching and shifting of years (decades?) of accumulated belongings, I’m going to treat myself with more family photo organizing. It’s a summer weekend at a glorious time of year in Urbana. May your weekends be as wonderful as we hope for ours to be.

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