Learning Curve


Me and Yogi

Growing up, I was never either a cat-person or a dog-person, I was an animal-person.  I didn’t understand how (or why) anyone could like just one sort of creatures when there were so many wonderful animals in the world.  My own backyard hosted not only cats and dogs, but birds of all sorts, frogs and tadpoles, groundhogs, (or woodchucks, if you prefer), skunks, opossums and raccoons.  For a time, we owned rabbits and ducks (still a bone of contention between my mother and me, since behind my back she gave them to my uncle, who ate them).  For a short while, when I was very young, we even had a horse.  (As far as I know, my uncle did not eat him, but who knows?)

But for the most part, it was dogs and cats, and it never occurred to me that I should have an affinity one way or the other.  Being told I “must” be one or t’other sounded ridiculous (a little like the old “you can like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but not both” argument).

Little by little, though, I got away from dogs.  It wasn’t because I didn’t like them, it was because it seemed I never lived anywhere where that would easily support having one.  I didn’t like the idea of leaving a dog all day long, particular in an apartment.  (Don’t jump on me — I know plenty of people who have plenty of dogs in plenty of apartments and it works out just fine.  I’m just not comfortable with the idea.)  Cats — let’s face it — are easier.  If I wanted to go away for a few days, all I had to do was put out extra food and water and maybe an additional litter box and I was good to go.

Over time, a natural affinity for cats arose.  I understand cats.  I communicate with them easily.  Not so with dogs.  I’m not sure of that’s due to time and distance or some other lacking on my part, but it takes me awhile to suss out a dog, to read its body language, to get into that “pet owner sixth sense” groove and feel comfortable.

After nearly 20 years without a dog in my life, Ed and I adopted Tucker and Bella in 1998 as 10 week old pups.  Bella was with us for 11 years; Tucker for 12.  I look back on their time with us through a bittersweet lens and a real sense of regret, because while I know I did well by them a lot, I also feel I let them down in some ways due to ignorance.  I just didn’t understand them.  I had to really work to comprehend their body language (where, with cats, it was instinctual).  I didn’t understand their motivations (how hard is it to understand “food” and “love?”).  I’m not beating myself up over it (well, not always…), but I’ve definitely taken note.

Which is why I am reading a lot of dog books, really good books, stuff by Stanley Coren and Patricia McConnell, book that will help teach me to be a better dog owner.  Because, you see, I want to do it again.

No, I don’t miss standing out in hip-deep snow and minus 10 windchill saying “Pee, already, will you?!”  No, I don’t miss cleaning up dog turds in the yard (or worse, in the house).  No, I don’t miss having to stop every two feet while on a walk so Tucker can make his territory.  No, I don’t miss Bella’s growling fits and fear aggression.

But I miss them.  I miss the fact of them, those warm little personalities in my life.  I miss having Bella sit shoulder-to-shoulder with me in the yard, resting gently against each other.  I miss her gathering up all the dirty laundry and bringing it to me in the morning, wagging and growling all the way.  I miss Tucker’s gentle eyes and manner, his ability to blend into the background outside and seemingly vanish (we didn’t call him the Grey Wizard for nothing), and his enormous loving personality.  I miss the companionship.

Yes, I get love and companionship from my cats, but it’s of a different variety.  My cats are not anti-social felines.  Gypsy likes her space now and then, but she’s just as likely to land on your chest for a purr session.  And Tuna…well, Tuna should have been named Velcro.  But dogs….

It may be all psychological, but there’s a safe feeling with a dog in residence.  I’m not trying to romanticize, here.  I’m well aware that during Bella and Tucker’s tenure, any intruder would more like have been treated to pizza than a bite in the ass.  Still, I felt like a kindred spirit with them.  There was something solid to their souls.  Cats (at least the two I have now) are more ephemeral.  (I did have one cat, though, Gil, who I believe would have snatched the life out of anyone who tried to hurt me.)

In thinking about all this, I believe it goes back to two dogs in particular.  Both were of working breed stock.  Yogi, my very first dog, was a Border collie.  Jacques was a Shetland sheepdog.  With them, I felt a connection (far more than I felt with Jinxie — another pet who “mysteriously vanished,” thanks folks) or Scottie — who was really my father’s dog.)  We were connected.  That is what I want to rediscover, to recapture and hold in my hand and heart, that ancient partnership.

But I must be worthy of it.  And that means education.  That’s means understanding that it’s my job to learn to communicate with them, not theirs to intuit my every desire.  It’s my job to set the rules and, thereby, give them confidence and purpose and security.  And it’s my job to just let them be dogs.

In the end, what else can they be?

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About Melissa Crandall

Longer ago than I care to admit--although I will--I cut my writing teeth on fanzines and media tie-in novels. Since then, I've moved on to narrative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and essays. I write to explore and understand the world around me, the things I see and experience nearby or from a distance. If I shake myself up, cool. If I shake you up, even better. Not gratuitously--what's the point in that?--but to set what I know, or think I know, on end and realize, "Well, doesn't it look different from this side!" My work is neither sexually explicit nor graphically violent. Let's face it - your imaginations will come up with things far worse than anything I could write, no matter how descriptive. Besides, it's just not my thing. I live in Connecticut with my supportive husband Ed, a cat named Ruby who might just think she's a dog, and an epileptic Australian shepherd named Holly who isn't quite certain anymore who she is, except she knows she loves her mommy.
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