People say that their dogs love them unconditionally, but I spend a lot of time worrying about how my dog really sees me. Does he prefer my husband? Can he only stand my kisses? Anyway, what does love mean to a dog? I overwrite these fears by allowing myself the illusion popular with pet owners that inside he is just a small person. I can interpret his behavior any way I want by giving him intent when he brings me his toys or silently leans his head on my knee during a stressful phone call. And when I started teaching him tricks, the hobby served to expand the illusion. I said, “Go to bed,” and he curled up on his blanket and allowed me to pretend we were speaking the same language. I said, “Touch,” and he nudged my palm with his nose – a little secret handshake.
But soon I burst the boundaries of this anthropomorphic impulse. On a rainy day, I sat down to teach my little mutt a trick I saw on YouTube: “Hug,” which involves putting his paws over my shoulders and cute snout next to my head. In the early stages, I was faced with the harsh truth that my dog doesn’t know what a hug is and the concept is completely untranslatable. I stared into his eyes from beneath his mustached brows, wondering if my only hope was telepathy. And then maybe my consciousness brushed his own for a moment, because suddenly I could see the trick from his perspective.
I realized that if I could lure him to my shoulders and reward, he would find out what to do for his cookie. At first he paced up and down and sighed and offered other behaviors – lying down, sitting on his hips – apparently in hopes that I might decide that I wanted these instead. But by lowering my shoulder at the right angle, I invited him out for his snack, and on the seventh or eighth try, his weight felt less hesitant. Next time he climbed up without hesitation. At that moment I didn’t have to wonder what was going on in his head. His only wish on earth was to know what I wanted and I could feel his satisfaction as soon as it clicked. When I tried to pretend my dog was thinking like a human, I managed to think like a dog for a moment.
Before I adopted my pet, all of my hobbies promised self improvement. I strove for perfect balance in yoga and tried to impress my friends by learning to bake. My urge to own dogs grew out of an opposite instinct that I could not yet admit to myself. Self-restraint seemed reassuring. I spent long nights on Petfinder, flipping through pages of possible fees, each an excuse to decline invitations, skipping exercise classes for slow walks, and stopping work in the evenings when the sky was still light.
But in my first days as a dog owner, my old habits took over. I worried that my new acquisition was nothing out of the ordinary: a mutt on Medium’s small side with glossy black fur, an extra-long nose and ears that stick out at the corners of the bat’s wings when in flight. I fell in love with the obedience class where it showed what I thought was my ambition. Soon the teacher asked him to model his impeccable sit-stay while the Labradoodle puppy was peeing in a corner.
I had transferred my zeal for self-optimization to the ignorant creature I had brought home from the pound. And I didn’t want to stop training so I went online to find simple movements – like “army crawls” that can be achieved by luring the dog forward in a “down” – that my puppy could understand with no problem, and confirmed my sense of his superior intelligence. He propped himself up on my arm as he learned to balance on his back legs, what the pros call “sit pretty”. As soon as he could hold the pose, I taught him to do it when I said, “Put it up,” and then fall to the floor and pretend to be dead.
At some point I realized that my new pastime was of no practical use – neither for me nor for the dog. It was a make-work economy fueled by artisanal goodies. Professional trainers will tell you that dog stunts serve a purpose because they “strengthen the bond between you and your pet,” as explained in “The Great Trick Book for the Best Dog Ever” (a gift my husband thought was a gag ). . But that wasn’t my experience. Our common pursuit shows me the nature of our connection, which is not necessarily unconditional, but depends on the most humble conditions. If he’s hungry, I’ll feed him; if it itches, I scratch it; and when he finds out what I want, I’ll give him a treat. The shape of the finished trick doesn’t matter to him – or, as I’ve learned, to me.
It turns out that in my free time I don’t want performance, but rather an escape from the idea that I need to improve. Although I’ve tried to live this way all along, the only way I can do it now is by merging the spirit with an animal and giving up my whole human self in the process. Some days I feel like I’m transforming into a person who is no longer busy trying to change me – until I notice the obvious paradox and dampen my hopes.