Confessions of a Doggy-Mama

For the first time ever, I’ve got a small dog. This means that sometimes he sits on my lap while I work at my desk. He is good at it, as a breed from the AKC’s non-sporting group it’s one of the many things he’s been bred to do, just hang out.

The other day while I was sitting at my desk looking at my calendar (with Hugo on my lap) I realized that it was Hugo’s one-year anniversary for the day he came to live with us. So I decided to take a commemorative picture using the Photo Booth program on my Mac.

I struggled to set him at the right angle while simultaneously trying to stay out of the shot. Time after time the photo was just not right. In one I looked like I was choking him, when in reality I was trying to help him face the camera built into my computer monitor. In the next one he looked like he had no neck. Another problem was that there is a five-second countdown on Mac Photo Booth that beeps, so every time Hugo heard the beep he’d move his head, cocking it or turning to orient to the sound. We had many a blurry or just plain bad photo on our digital “roll”.

What happened next was, I am sure, pure chance but the doggy-mama and humorist in me created a little narrative to spice things up. So here are the two versions of what happened, one told by Kelly-The-Dog-Trainer and the other told my Kelly-The-Doggy-Mama.

Kelly-The-Doggy-Mama says: After patiently allowing me to prop and pose him repeatedly and unsuccessfully, a frustrated and slightly vain Hugo decided he’d had enough of this photo shoot and the crappy shots it was producing, and knew he needed to take things into his own hands (paws). He stretched forward from my lap to the desk, hit the click pad with his paw (which takes a picture), and used the five-second-countdown to re-position himself on my lap at an angle for a very distinguished profile shot of himself. In essence he took his own picture! The one we ended up using to email his friends and fans about his anniversary. The one that ended the boring old photo shoot.

Now, I know how very anthropomorphic this version of events is, and I know that it is a narrative I made up for my own amusement, so no harm done. I got both a good chuckle and a good picture out of the deal. What I didn’t do was take it to the next level and sign Hugo up for the next session of Photography 101 at the park district. Because I understand that despite the good photo, Hugo’s intentions were most likely not to take a good photo and end the photo shoot; he is not the next Wegman. He is just a wiggly dog.

Anthropomorphism is only dangerous when people don’t acknowledge that one can’t possibly know the mind or intentions of another creature, and that any story or “reason” that we ascribe to the behivior of another, especially another species, is purely our own projection, or as in my case, for my own amusement. When people actually believe these made-up stories or interpretations, and dogs get punished for ascribed emotion or intention, that’s when dogs get into trouble. Trouble they can’t really get out of because they didn’t come up with it in the first place.

Ever have to defend yourself in an argument either for something you didn’t do? Or for someone else mistakenly assuming what you meant by a certain comment or action? It is very difficult to apologize for or correct an action that wasn’t yours in the first place. It happens to dogs all of the time.

Dogs get labeled spiteful, dominant, jealous, you name it, because people are being anthropomorphic and because the dogs can’t talk back and tell us we’re wrong. These stories may make humans feel slightly better (though personally I don’t know how, I hate the idea of my dog choosing to be a jerk to me), or maybe it just allows us to blame the dog for our training, communication, and management failings, absolving us of any wrong doing or responsibility. Maybe a little bit of both.

But the dog trainer in me knows that a large portion of a dog’s reaction to me has to do with past experiences of some sort. Dogs do what works for them, what’s been successful in the past, and what will keep them out of trouble and/or make them happy. They do this because they live in the moment and because they are creatures with a brain stem and all creatures with brains learn pretty much the same way.

Now for the more likely version of the event:

Kelly-The-Dog-Trainer: After many shots and much manipulation Hugo, a very young and energetic dog, got restless and perhaps even felt unbalanced and insecure on my lap and stepped, with one paw, onto my desk and happened to land on the click pad of my computer. Having stabilized himself with this leverage, Hugo was able to reposition himself comfortably and securely on my lap, ironically just in time for a very distinguished photo.

This version may not be as fun, but as long as I understand that my stories are for my benefit I can have my cake and eat it too. And Hugo doesn’t have to go to photography class. (Some would say he doesn’t need too….)


Hugo, In Repose, One Year Later

The Guide to Getting a Dog – Free on Dunbar Academy