The 2012 edition of the U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook tells us six out of ten pet owners, or 63.2%, think of their pets as members of the family. I’m surprised the number is so low.
Most pet owners are passionate about their furry cohabitants. And while the recession has reduced the number of visits to the vet for some households, owners are still willing to spend as much as necessary to save or prolong the lives of their pets.
Some of us anthropomorphize our pets but I’m not one of those. My spaniel/bichon mix, Molly, is cute as a button, but she’s a dog. Still she’s a living, breathing creature with some rather distinct and peculiar personality traits.
After several years of up close and personal observation, I can categorically state that my dog does not take after me. Her habits are her own. Yes, we eat, play and (blush) sleep together, something I resisted for awhile out of embarrassment before I discovered at least half the dog and cat owners report sleeping with their pets. Thank goodness she’s a relatively small dog. I don’t know how I’d manage with a spouse, a needy child and two Irish bloodhounds.
But as to the habits: I’ve been known to be obsessive, although I don’t think it rises to the level of compulsion. I’m not sure the same holds true of Molly who can’t seem to settle on a place to lie down without “prepping” it—sniffing, scratching, circling, sniffing, scratching, scratching, SCRATCHING until my “Stop it!” cuts her off and she settles down with a huff of air. Two other habits: she succumbs to the “buzzies”, a sudden urge to race mindlessly from room to room. It never lasts long and it wears her out and I get the part about letting off steam. Another skill she seems to have perfected involves staring at me when she wants something. Boy, can she hold a stare. Although I’ve gotten better at ignoring it, her expressive face and slightly wall-eyed aspect make it a little unnerving.
Nowhere in the books I’ve read about dog behavior have I seen anything about whining. I’m sure I could have stopped it earlier in her development but I was fascinated by the variety of sounds a non-talking creature could make. Molly has as many whines as impressionists have characters, with a distinctive “voice” for each of her desires: I want attention; I want food; I want to come with you; I want to go out; I’m anxious; I’m tired; I’m bored. It still amazes me she can make so many sounds; that is, when it doesn’t annoy the hell out of me.
I once read about a dog, a border collie, who knew 1000 words, most of them commands. Molly knows about thirty-five words, and considers most commands optional. She will respond to stop! for which I’m very grateful. Unfortunately, commands need to be repeated three times, which is entirely my bad as her primary trainer. I was never able to give her a command and wait the requisite length of time it takes a dog’s smaller brain to react. I’ve been told I act the same way with humans.
As for the rest of her vocabulary, she’s learned words that give pleasure—to her. For instance, Molly perceives herself to be always on the edge of starvation. Thus she responds instantaneously to words like food, feed, hungry, breakfast, treat, snack, yummy, dinner, eat as well as manger and comar, since I figured such a single-minded dog might as well learn a couple of languages. Other words and phrases that evoke a response are out, walk, good, jump, ride (as in the car), ball, toy, come see, let’s go, look, get it, home, play, and boyfriend. This last may seem unusual except the guy who works around the development, née Vladimir but everyone calls him Walter, likes to pet her and throw her ball and she goes absolutely berserk when she sees him—or, by the way, his white paneled truck. In a moment of perversion, I cried out, “Look, there’s your boyfriend!” and now she responds enthusiastically at the mere possibility of time spent with the otherwise mysterious Russian
About the ball: many dogs carry balls but Molly, after a period of time with the requisite tennis ball (pictured), has settled on a golf ball. It’s been suggested these may be too small or too hard for her, but as I just weaned her off stones, I think we’re ahead. She won’t go out without a ball in her mouth, not just because having it might mean we’re going to play fetch, but because she considers it to be a personal protection device. People often ask dumb human questions like “Do you know she has a golf ball in her mouth?” I tell them she likes to be ready for a quick nine holes.
I don’t know if Vladimir/Walter knows this, but Molly has other boyfriends, almost all of them human. The truth is (and I blush to say this) she’s pretty indiscreet when it comes to guys: anyone in a uniform or even work boots and jeans qualifies as a potential playmate. In general, Molly prefers humans to dogs for no reason I can fathom. As soon as she was old enough to get her vaccines, I took her to the dog park to socialize. She acted as if she were the schoolyard weakling in constant danger of getting bullied. Of course there were some mean ones; I remember a Yorkie with a Napoleonic complex whose stock in trade was taking chunks out of larger dogs.
There are some gentle older dogs in the neighborhood that interest Molly and one poodle she’s pretty nuts about. His owners named him Apricot but decided that was too feminine and shortened it to Rickie. He and Molly go into crouch/play mode whenever they see each other, which can be a bit problematic when they’re on leashes. The owner solves this by letting Rickie off-leash, even if we’re inches from the main road. He insists in an Eastern European dialect that “Dogs should play.” I’m tempted to respond, “They should live” but I’m not sure he has a sense of humor.
At home, Molly has two windows from which she can watch the neighborhood (front) or the wildlife (back). She has a robust, Suzanne Pleshette kind of bark; none of the yapping I’d find hard to put up with. I wish I could teach Molly to open the back door when she wants to go out but that is clearly a bridge too far. Instead, I’ve bought a removable dog door, which she happily uses seven months of the year. Nothing says spring like the sight of daffodils or the re-installation of the beloved dog door. My vet marvels at Molly’s puppy-like aspect. She looks young because I am meticulous about her appearance and general health. I play with her every day—fetch or tug-of-war—and take her for long walks. She gets the requisite injections, and takes medicine to keep fleas, ticks and worms at bay, as well as a mild antihistamine during allergy season. There is no staining under Molly’s eyes, as is common with many white dogs, because I clean them every single damned day. I brush her teeth several times a week, check her weight regularly, and get her groomed once a month. I cuddle her if she’s nervous, pick her up if she’s tired, take responsibility for her care, feeding and general training. Naturally, I’d do the same for any of my kids.