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!


  1. I'm now lucky enough to live with and be primary caretaker of two cats. The older of them (18, and quite deaf) has taken to trying to wake me up around 09:45, as consistently as though she had her own clock. "Wake up! It's time to worship me today!"

  2. I don't have anything to add, but I really liked

    "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. "

    Very true. for interacting with any other living creature.

  3. intransigentia: Yeah, it was hard to put that bit into words, but it seemed important enough of a concept to be worth making the attempt for. Also, I had something of a minor epiphany this past weekend thanks to Mr. Skip, inasmuch as I think I'm much more aware than I used to be of the difference between "appeasing" someone (or trying to) and actually being polite to them.

    It's been tricky for me to interact politely with dogs because so many of them have seemed...well, sort of congenitally rude per my own standards (and those of a lot of cats I've met). And in general I still very much prefer the company of cats. But still, when I visit a house where a dog lives, I am now much more inclined to acknowledge that it's the dog's home as much as it is the home of the humans I'm there to visit. And while I am perfectly justified in setting appropriate boundaries (e.g., no stealing my food), I can do that without looking at the dog as an "obstacle".

    And I am also again seriously thankful to Nikki for helping me get to this point. I wouldn't go so far as to call her "dog-like", but she has definitely been the most challenging of all the cats here for me to consistently "do right by", due to her insistence on getting her way (which, by the way, is something I admire tremendously in her). She's shown me how to find patience I didn't know I had, at the very least!

  4. 403: Oh neat, yay for living with cats! I'd forgotten whether you did or didn't share space with any before. Also, cats in the 18-year-old age range are their own particular brand of awesome. You're quite fortunate to have the privilege of her acquaintance! =^_^=

  5. Just don't tell your cats that they have helped you to have a better relationship with a dog!

  6. CPP: oh geez I know! Nikki would be MIGHTILY INSULTED. The other three have never met a dog (as far as I know) so not sure what their take on the canine species is, but one reason I have Nikki in the first place is because she and my parents' dog did not get along at all.

  7. Anne: It's been four or five years since I've last lived with cats, and it was clear that something had been missing from my life without them. :)

    Tammi is indeed awesome. We also seem to have reached an agreement about mornings, now - she's not allowed to wake me up, but she's welcome to curl up on the bed and catnap with us.

  8. I had a really hard time learning basic Dog Language. In fact, I am not sure I would have learned it at all if I hadn't been living in a group home with several dogs, a new puppy of my own, and a psychologist who broke down dogspeak step by step for me and wouldn't allow me not to learn it. (He was an asshole by the way. The psychologist, not the dog. Whenever I talked to the dog in my normal voice with my normal facial expression he'd berate me for "being psychotic with the dog" and told me "dogs don't listen if you're psychotic with them" and other such things.)

    The sort of dogspeak I learned seemed to mostly have to do with using incredibly exaggerated gestures and facial expression and intonation, and going into an interaction mode that is far too direct for me to sustain long-term. And with my last dog... one thing that, while it wouldn't have been enough on its own, really convinced me that she might actually be more comfortable living with someone other than me, was that unless I did that exaggerated expression and intonation and way-too-direct interaction mode, she ranged from vaguely unsettled to outright afraid. Because she couldn't read autistic body language. Which meant it was exhausting (and often impossible) for me to interact on her terms, and she had to spend her entire day around a human who she couldn't read properly and therefore was unpredictable. And to her, unpredictable was scary. She was a very jumpy dog in general, and she couldn't even predict my movement around the house, which made her quite twitchy. And of course my stimming (which was much more constant back then) really unnerved her. So I basically found myself having to either deal with a scared dog, or do the equivalent of passing for nonautistic or something.

  9. My previous dog could actually deal with my normal body language, although going into dogspeak was kind of a bonus for her because it seemed to make things clearer.

    Anyway... I'm also way very much a cat person. I loved all three dogs I've had a good deal, but interacting with them was always hard work, and sometimes outright impossible to do correctly (in a way that would satisfy them). It always baffled me... my parents would tell me that it's just not possible to form the kind of connection with cats that you can with dogs. That a connection with dogs was "special" in some way. And I don't doubt that for them, this was true. But they're dog people, as far as I can tell. For me, dogs can be good sometimes (although are almost always exhausting to interact with), I can love dogs, but cats are far more likely to both understand me and be comprehensible to me.

    With cats, there's more likely to be this whole sense of layers upon layers upon layers to the communication, and a certain kind of depth that comes partly from how cats work, and partly from the fact that I can read cats easier than I can read dogs, and therefore they appear more "three dimensional" to me upon first glance. I can form a level of connection with the right cat, that I just can't do so easily with dogs. Not that I can't form a deep bond with a dog, but that on average it's easier and deeper for me with cats.

    Unlike my parents, though, I would never generalize my experience with cats to all people. There are people who will never be able to read a cat (actually, frankly, that one even goes for many people who consider themselves cat people... but call themselves that because of the story they impose on top of cats, rather than because of the cats themselves), or form a deep connection to a cat, or even like a cat. And who might find it much easier to deeply connect to a dog, or a bird, or a ferret, or some other species. I have a friend who likes cats a lot but has discovered that she connects best to a particular species of parrot, and the depth of their bond is unmistakable (her screaming while her last parrot died was heart-wrenching).

    And growing up, I always felt like something was wrong with me because my parents usually just did not get that there was more to my connection with cats than any connection they had to cats. They spent a lot of time convincing me that you can connect better to dogs than to cats, and when I did develop a bond with a dog, they seemed to consider that proof of the fact (even though it was not as deep a bond as I've had with several cats). A few times they also tried to get me to "admit" or "notice" or something, that I really somehow valued/connected to/etc. humans over cats and just didn't know I did. There was just this flat lack of belief that on average (since each person of any species is an individual) I connected to cats, then humans, then dogs, in that order, and could have a depth of connection with and understanding of cats that went beyond what they could have with cats. I don't think the truth even crossed their minds, they honestly thought I just didn't know better.

    Anyway, I think I'm better at "general dogspeak" than you are, but only because of behavior mod as a teen. It's a useful skill, but it takes a lot out of me, the same way trying to interact with humans in a nonautistic sort of way takes a lot out of most autistic people. And then I feel all weird afterwards... off-balance, kind of, and like my head is... noisy or something. I think the directness of it is the worst part, because it requires me to be all "in front" instead of where I usually am (if that makes sense). The good part is that I can usually get a basic point across to a dog, whether it's to make friends or chase one out of the yard by using various dominance displays. But wow is it not my native language.

  10. Amanda: Yeah, what little I know about communicating with dogs in any general sense now always feels really weird to actually do, like I'm acting or something. Like now I know that (most) dogs react to me a lot better if I give them some sort of command (like "sit!") on first meeting them, but that kind of thing is NOT natural to me at all. And the "having to be in front" thing makes total sense to me -- that's how I feel around most dogs in addition to a lot of small human children.

    It's been odd to realize that from their perspective they don't likely even see how they are acting as "demanding" (which IS actually part of what I think is different about Nikki and most dogs -- she DOES know when she's being demanding, and selectively executes that mode as required, as opposed to being in it constantly).

  11. LOL, you seem to feel the same way about kids and dogs as I do.

  12. I have a 'hate small children and (rowdy) dogs' policy myself because of having spent my childhood observing herd behaviour from the outside, and hating it (I didn't even have much of a peer group until my late teens, or SF fandom in later life). Kids get into everything and make it All About Them, and pre-verbal children are something I just can't deal with. Dogs bark hysterically as I go past, presumably because I don't Sound Right, and whether that's because I'm a gimp (very mild cerebral palsy, but enough to make my gait uncommon) or because they see me as a threat to the pack, it irritates me.

    My behaviour with cats isn't ideal because I find it so hard to mask my desire for feline attention, but I never take 'cat walking away' as at all personal; it's just that that particular cat doesn't want to interact with me at that time. But I love the smell of warm cat, the deep sound of purring (I was thoroughly shocked to find I know one person who detests it passionately), and the grace and subtlety of feline movement.

    And a passing 'I am a Cat who likes People, are you a Person who likes Cats?' purr can cheer me up all day.


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