The Lady with the Dog and the Mystery of Attraction

The Lady with the Dog TalkachovIn Chekhov’s famous story,“The Lady with the Dog,” Dmitri Gurov, a rich Muscovite and married serial philanderer on vacation in Yalta, becomes infatuated with a young woman he sees strolling the seaside town in a béret, trailed by her white Pomeranian dog. Gurov has had many affairs and what drives this love story is his mystification with what makes this woman different: why has she so smitten him that her memory haunts his every step even after he returns home to wife and family?

I have my own tale about another lady and her dog.

For at least ten years I have walked my dogs along a particular route through the neighborhood and onto a path in a nearby wood. No matter what time I set out, I’ve usually passed the same young, Southeast Asian woman coming from the opposite direction, dog at her heels. Does this odd coincidence count as a mystery? Wait, there’s more!

For all this time, this woman has marched past me without a hitch in her step, eyes downcast to avoid contact, her face like stone. Once or twice I have offered an amiable hello; after all, though strangers, we have brushed shoulders for years. But my attempts at congeniality elicited at best a nod and a blink; she has never stopped to chat, met my eyes or raised her lips in a smile.

As a writer, my fiction-making brain has invented a story: the solemnity of her behavior, her silence, her aura of mystery and sadness provoke an imagined drama including trauma, exile, displacement, possibly war, certainly loneliness. This of course represents my desire to bring meaning and order to an inexplicable experience by shaping a narrative out of shards of reality. I know nothing about the woman and probably never will. But that’s another story.

This past June, with my new dog – and I must point out, a quite adorable Golden Retriever puppy – I was strolling the familiar track from my house through the woods when I again met the lady with her dog. I hadn’t seen her for a while and had been wondering if her dog had died and left her bereft, or if she had moved. Just as I was thinking about her, almost as if I’d conjured her out of the brightness of the summer day, I looked up to see her coming toward me on the path.

As we were about to come face to face, I held puppy Maisie on a short leash to let the woman and her older dog pass. To my astonishment the woman stopped short, a huge smile on her face, and knelt to pet my puppy. A flurry of questions followed: What was my dog’s name? Was Maisie my new dog? How long had I had her? What had happened to my older dog? I answered the woman’s questions eagerly, and then we again went our separate ways. I have been pondering this episode since.

There is no shortage of research on dogs and their relationship to humans. The Canine Cognition Center at Yale is one place to look for the newest research on how dogs can influence our lives. Having evolved from wolves 11,000 to 16,000 years ago, domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, are truly part of our pack, loyalty as well as jealousy and empathy being a few of the traits we share in common. We know that dogs are used in speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical rehabilitation; they aid the blind, the disabled, the anxious and autistic. In lab research, the bond between human and dog has been shown to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, ease muscle tension, slow heart rate. To dog lovers, none of this is news. But here is something to consider: how is it that dogs, or perhaps any pet, can seemingly open our hearts?

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I’m brought back to my lady on the path, her explosion of warmth, tenderness, connectedness, that occurred when she saw Maisie. Is it that animals offer us love free of judgments and conditions – and we mirror their uncomplicated love in return? Does their exuberance for living awaken our own élan vital?

Our connection to our pets is not only practical and utilitarian, but also has a spiritual dimension. Perhaps it is this spiritual dimension that is responsible for our deep love for our critters. In Nepal, an entire day is set aside for a festival, Kukur Tihar, that honors dogs for their loyalty and friendship.

The Greek goddess Artemis, Diana in the Roman tradition, travels with a hound at her side. Dogs feature in Native American lore, and guard the doors to heaven and hell in the Hindu tradition. Dogs have been celebrated in myth, fairy tale, poetry and fiction. The poet Mary Oliver has written Dog Songs, an entire book of poems and essays celebrating her beloved four-leggeds.

Or could the woman’s reaction have more to do with the irresistibility of puppies? And of Golden Retriever puppies, in particular? In their profile of Golden Retrievers, Modern Dog calls out their special appeal:

“Yes, all puppies are cute and adorable, but when it comes to Goldens, they’re in a class of their own. There’s something particularly heart-melting about these bundles of wriggling blond fur, with their oversized paws, soft brown eyes, alert tails and, of course, velvet floppy ears.”

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Shall we ever understand our sudden attraction to someone? Or some dog? What is the moral of my dog story? There is no moral. There is only this: expect life to flummox you. Love may be blossoming where you least expect it.

“A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.”—Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

 

 



Dog Training Maisie and the Power of Name-Calling

Maisie dog training

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.—Talmudic saying

Our new Golden Retriever puppy is nearly six months old and her learning experiences are our learning experiences. Five times a day she whimpers to go out; five times a day we tell her: Not now, Maisie — all three of us learning what to expect from each other concerning patience.

Even though she is our fourth Golden in a long line of beloved earlier dogs, the art of dog training and the knowledge and understanding of canine behavior has exponentially increased since our last dip into dog parenting. This, I think, follows the trend in childrearing — hundreds of “experts” with completely contradictory advice: Have the baby sleep in your bed; never let the baby sleep in your bed.

The author Maisie dog trainingDuring the first weeks of Maisie’s transition from being a littermate of ten to the solo dog in our universe, she was the most adorable, cuddly, sweet-tempered puppy, but after another week or so my husband and I began noticing unpleasant behaviors. Take away a toy or a stick and Maisie’s irresistibly cute puppy face might morph into what looked like a snarl. I’m talking a display of fangs, which seemed more than mouthy puppy frolics. Cartoon dogs bury their bones all the time, but when real dogs run out the door, bone in mouth, and appear to be digging to China, growling if someone gets near, one gets worried. Our hands and arms bore scratches and scabs, and these made us ever more cautious in approaching our new pet.

And so we phoned an expert. For privacy purposes I’ll call this person Susan. Susan responded to our SOS immediately and arrived with an upbeat attitude — You can handle this. We can retrain Maisie — and oodles of information. Our sighs of relief must have been audible when on the first visit Susan, modeling a cheery dominatrix, coerced Maisie into polite manners. Susan managed this by using force. I don’t mean she used brutality; let’s just say she was out-bullying the bully, showing Maisie who was boss. Susan was not a big woman, but she knew how to square her shoulders and maximize her voice. At one point in the training session, she put a headscissors lock on Maisie and called her “a stubborn little devil.”

Maisie learns how to sit dog trainingWe’d never had to use force with our other dogs and were a bit horrified, but maybe this dog needed more discipline. Maybe we were the problem. Maybe we needed to buck up, tolerate less, use tough love. We felt badly about ourselves. How did we know what was right? We weren’t the experts, after all.

That night we read Susan’s assessment of Maisie’s problems. It read like a profile of a kid destined for prison: hoarding/stealing, aggressiveness, dominance issues. Hoarding! My gawd, we were not just dealing with the ups and downs of normal puppydom, we had a delinquent dog on our hands. This was not what we had opted for. Yikes! Would Maisie be a problem dog for the rest of her life? Were we capable of training her? Did we want that responsibility? Our attitude toward her had quickly changed from devotion to disappointment and distress.

Maisie learning to obey dog trainingLater that night, my husband and I held each other and considered returning Maisie to her breeder. Out of desperation I suggested we try another professional. This time we chose a dog behaviorist, not a dog trainer. The difference is significant and too long to go into here, but our second expert arrived with a bag full of dog treats and toys, a curious, attentive, non-judgmental manner and ready praise on her lips. This may sound Disneyish, but Maisie responded immediately to her calm, patient, non-militaristic approach. We learned that very smart dogs like Maisie love to learn. Their puppy energy can be directed toward the playful learning of games and commands for which they earn praise and hot dog rewards. We learned that the idea of dominant and non-dominant dogs is outdated and that dog behaviorists understand possession aggression as resource guarding. Dogs with leadership qualities, dogs that might be the leaders of their packs in the wild, have an instinct to guard and bury their food because they will be responsible for helping to feed the pack. Bravo for them!

This gets me to my takeaway point: how labeling … children, dogs, other ethnicities, races, genders … affects our feelings and emotions about them. What we call others and the spin we give to those names affects how we see and respond. Which sounds better to you: possession aggression or resource guarding? How about this: Your child is bossy. Your child shows leadership ability. Your child is hyperactive. Your child is energetic. Name-calling can reflect our basest instincts and our uncanny proclivity to project onto others exactly the aspects we dislike in ourselves. Or it can represent our better angels. We can choose. If we apply this insight to the current world stage, doesn’t it seem we have entered a time of malicious name-calling? Maybe we should consider that what we vilify in others might be something we fear in ourselves.

P.S. Maisie has won our hearts. She shows absolutely no signs of unwarranted aggression. She is the dog of our dreams.

Maisie dog training