Monday, August 29, 2011

Communication Crossover: Canine Edition

This past weekend I visited some longtime friends (a couple) who have no cats, but who do have a dog. His name is named Skip, and he is about eight years old.

Skip and I have somewhat of a turbulent history, in the sense that when my friends first adopted him (at about a year old) he was so intimidatingly hyperkinetic and gregarious that I frankly had no idea how to handle his presence. I spent many a visit following his arrival in my friends' household trying to avoid Skip and silently attempting to will him away from sticking his nose in my food (or my butt, for that matter).

My instincts were also apparently more than a little bit "off" because somehow at one point I got it into my head that if I gave him my pizza crust he would leave me alone. As you can probably imagine, this is NOT what ended up happening. What ended up happening was that Skip determined I had to be the world's biggest pushover, and thus for as long as he's lived with my friends he's had a tendency to follow me around, well, like a puppy dog.

Now, of course I don't literally believe humans can be divided into "cat people" and "dog people" in a strictly binary sense. I've known plenty of folks who've lived happily with both species (and also with rabbits, goats, chickens, and even llamas in the case of my grandparents!). But in general I am quite comfortable describing myself as, by and large, a Cat Person. Cats have always just seemed a lot more respectful of others' personal space, "oh hai, here's my butt in your face!" moments notwithstanding.

They also generally smell better than dogs (superficial, I know, but it's true...most dogs I've met smell disconcertingly like stale cheese, whereas cats smell like lavender and autumn leaves and fresh earth to my admittedly atypical olfactory system) and they're (generally speaking) a lot more inclined toward the "parallel play" type of interaction I tend to prefer with most living creatures, at least when I'm expected to remain in the presence of said creatures for any length of time.

With cats, you can just be in a room doing your thing and they'll be doing their thing, and even without constantly being in each other's business, there's this wonderful ongoing invisible-reciprocity thing at work. Of course there are exceptions to this (I actually just sat down again after a brief but intense game of "run madly around the house" with Nikki, who had been pestering me with her most emphatic "I AM BORED, COME ENTERTAIN ME, HUMAN!" door-scratching routine) but on balance I meet far more "parallel-inclined" cats and far more dogs who seem to want and need a heck of a lot of "face time" and very direct forms of acknowledgment.

Dogs, by and large, tend to put me into the same vaguely-agitated state that small children (of the age when kids tend to be yelling "LOOKATME! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT THIS! WATCH!" about everything) or human extroverts (of any age) do. As if they're constantly breathing down my neck going "Why are you so quiet? Are you upset? Are you bored? Are you lonely?? Are you okay? Are you SURE you aren't sad???", and then basically proceeding to repeatedly hassle me for some intangible response that I have no idea how to give.

That said, I've known a handful of truly excellent canines, such as my grandparents' old Australian Cattle Dog, Matilda. Matilda was outgoing to be sure, but she was so polite, and I remain indebted to her to this day for helping me find my way back to the house after I got lost in the snow as a youngster one winter. But overall at this point in my life I see dogs the same way I see children: fine, as long as they're other people's, and as long as they're not constantly jumping up in my face.

Which brings us back to Mr. Skip. At eight years old he's far from being a sedate dog but he's definitely mellower, and he's gotten a whole lot more thoughtful and patient. He still follows me around and gives me every manner of piteous begging-face, but his manners have improved tremendously and he is long past the age when he would actively stick his snout into my plate (or worse).

Anyhow, this last time I visited my friends and Skip, one really interesting thing I discovered was that there is actually some amount of crossover between relating to cats and relating to (at least some) dogs. Or at least there seems to be.

My guess is that it's something to do with practice -- as in, when you live with several nonhuman creatures day in and day out, you sort of end up shifting into a mode where you very readily and automatically start seeing them as "stakeholders" in the environment you share with them.

And when you experience that perspective-shift, suddenly you stop being as annoyed by whatever actions of theirs you don't quite understand.

Or something like that, at least.

In any event, during this past visit I actually managed to have a lot of fun interacting with Skip. The coolest part was where he approached me and taught me how to play a game he liked (one which mainly involved him running around the dining table playing a variant of "keep-away" with one of his toys). His humans had no part in showing me what to do; I just followed Skip's lead and found him to be a wonderfully clear communicator.

Again, partly I suspect much of this is due to the fact that he's older now than when I first met him, and I'm a lot more comfortable with mellow(er) older dogs than with hyperactive puppies and young dogs. But I am quite sure that something else -- something on my end -- has also changed, and I would wager my cats (especially Nikki, who is probably the most regally demanding cat I've ever met) are largely to thank for it!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cat Music, and Music Cats

The tomcats in Diane Duane's (excellent) cat-wizard novels are portrayed as quite thoroughly fascinated by song (given that this is what they view their caterwauling-at-the-ladies as being). Real-life cats also of course sometimes communicate vocally, though of course personality and circumstance will strongly influence how much and in what ways they will engage this particular channel.

That said, I've definitely noticed varying responses to human-made music on the part of my feline housemates. Cora, Nikki, and Shadow mostly seem indifferent, though it could just be I've not played anything they've had strong feelings about one way or another yet. I've talked to several humans who have described their cats seeming to despise most instances of "human caterwauling".

Brodie, on the other hand, seems to love music. If I am playing something he likes he will hop into my chair, curl up in my lap, purr loudly, and even drool on my arm until the song is over.

I have no clue what this is about, especially as it clearly isn't a feline universal. He seems very relaxed when "his" songs are on, so maybe something about it reminds him of happy warm snuggly kittenhood days?

As for Brodie's taste in auditory entertainment, that tends to run toward the "folky female vocalist" band of the musical spectrum. Bonus points if said vocalists have the ability to cover a large octave range. Far and away his favorite artist right now is Joanna Newsom, especially the song On A Good Day. He also enjoys Joni Mitchell. (And he even likes it when I sing along with what's playing, though I will not be posting a video of that!)