(Tales of the Animals Part 3 – or so)
One of the dogs is totally self-realized. She knows what she likes, she manages her own happiness and while she cares deeply about the people around her she does a great job of owning her own feelings. One of the dogs is extremely co-dependent, and I say this not in an anthropomorphic way but in the way of observing dog breeds and individual dog behavior. Her experience of the world is tightly wound with your experience of the world and your ability or inability to interact with her at any given moment. Yes she can self-entertain, and frequently does, but she really needs you to be involved in what is going on, even if that just means you are in the same room or watching or approving in some way in order for it to be a deep source of pleasure.
I recognized the behavior, that “I’m okay if you’re okay,” franticness not in my own dog but in a strange dog of the same variety while walking around Boston. I love dogs and if it was at all practical I would take my dogs with me wherever I go, so I am that crazy lady who likes to stop and talk about your dog or the breed or the behavior or the fashionable collar or whatever because I miss my dogs and so I comfort myself by talking about yours. A quick aside, I also love my cats and would like to take them wherever I go but that just seems silly to even consider. So I saw the Pit mix happily walking along with its person and a Spaniel companion and my heart said, “awww,” because as I have learned as the owner of a Pit mix they are wonderful dogs, I was totally wrong about the breed, and they are a smiling delight of fur and slobber and kisses.
I watched them walk ahead of me for a while, smiling to myself to see the happy wagging tail of the Pit. The Spaniel was walking in front with intent, the Pit was to the side of the person and I noticed a funny thing after about a block. Every couple steps the Pit would look up to its person’s face and then would wag its tale a little harder if the person looked down to it. One step, two steps, check on person, everything okay, yes, then I am okay, in fact I am great, one step, two steps, check on person, and so on until they turned off the street and went into their building. That’s Apricot when she is in the Pit part of her brain. When she has a ball she is in the Lab part of her brain and there is nothing else required for happiness. But in the Pit part of her brain a big preoccupation is the status of her people.
When we talk about co-dependence in humans it is a negative description for a relationship. The goal is to be responsible for your own happiness and to be able to feel whatever it is that you feel without relying on the approval or needs of anyone else. But in dogs, for many dogs that have a job to do co-dependence is required. They respond to what we need them to do, herd the sheep, move the cow, take the person across the street, detect the contraband, etc. and they have to check-in with us to make sure they are doing it right, that they are making us happy which is what we have bred them to do for years and years, and what makes them such perfect partners in so many aspects of our lives.
So that’s what I’m learning by living with animals and by watching animals when I go away from my own: the things that you think you understand, the things that you think are easy and black and white are not. Nothing is only one thing, every relationship has good and bad, every part has hidden complexity, everything we do requires a willingness to look from a different perspective and challenge ourselves to learn something new.