Recently, on an unseasonably warm winter evening, Paul and I were sitting outside on the patio of our favorite local restaurant, Triumph Brewing Company. Like moths to a flame, we were drawn to the dog who was sitting out there with her people. The dog, a senior Lab mix, we learned was named Mae. And she was very sweet and happy to be out enjoying the day with her people. We struck up a conversation, and I told them that I loved how they interacted with her and the reply was, “Of course. She is our friend.” And those simple words have stuck with me ever since.
I have never thought of my dogs as anything other than friends- but when people call me a dog mom, I don’t argue it. When I think of words to describe my relationship with Hazel, this is what I come up with: cooperative, trusting, fun, silly, comfortable.
I’d also use those words to describe most of my friendships. My friends and I are always happy to see each other. Same for me and my dog. While my human friends and I don’t jump on each other or spin in circles of joy, we do hug with gusto, especially after a long absence. My friends and I sometimes disagree on things. Same with me and my dog. For instance, I do not think shredding paper towels is an enjoyable activity, but I am not a dog, so what do I know.
How many of us call our dogs our best friends? It’s one of the most common clichés about dogs, isn’t it? Some of us also say we are the alpha, the boss, the pack leader and say it in the same sentence: “She’s my best friend, she knows I’m the alpha.” And I wonder to myself, what does that even mean? Can you describe what that looks like? What it means in your interactions with your dog? Are things like alpha, boss and pack leader just words you’ve heard a million times and just spit out? Or are you doing things like kneeing your “best friend” in the chest for jumping to say hello? For some people, I have no doubt, the words are just words- but, for others, I know they imply outdated dog training techniques in which dogs are rolled onto their sides and held down until they become “submissive” (read: shut down and terrified) or yanked by the neck or kneed in the chest or worse. All things I would not do to a friend.
I recently saw a comment on a thread on Facebook about the prong and shock collar ban in Toronto. It was snarky and snide and said something along the lines of “Well, until I see video of a positive trainer able to get the same results, I don’t buy it. The prong collar works great and this ban will kill dogs!” and all I could think of was the fact that I see positive trainers (a term I hate, btw) getting results ALL THE TIME and do so myself. And then I realized that this person was clearly not seeing the same things I do in their newsfeed as I do and doesn’t engage in the same communities I do and that it wasn’t unlike politics in that way (and probably lots of other things).
Here’s an example of those results. Me, teaching my best friend how to walk nicely on a leash. And that’s important to me- I am teaching her to do what I ask here, I am not correcting her or punishing her for not doing exactly what I want her to do. Because she is a being with her own interests (the dog she can through the fence just out of frame) and a speed that is generally greater than mine (four legs and all that). This video was taken in a quiet, low distraction environment. Because that’s the way you get results- by starting with what the dog can do now. And what Hazel could do at that point was exactly this and it is gorgeous.
I love Hazel and she loves me. She and I have a connection unlike any other dog I have shared my life with. We work together almost daily. We work on tricks (we have one title and are working towards another). We go for walkies, and do so in places where she doesn’t get upset and I don’t have to worry about off-leash dogs or judging looks for my “pit bull”.
We snuggle, we play. Sometimes, we get annoyed with each other. Like when I want her to cuddle up next to me with her head in the crook of my arm and she’d rather turn in the opposite direction and lay by my feet. Or when she barks at the mailman. Again.
I have responsibilities for Hazel that she does not have for me. I am responsible for her safety and for her well-being. I am also responsible for her actions, and so I am a responsible dog owner. I am in charge of what she eats and when. I am in charge of where she sleeps and when. Those things certainly imply a power differential- one that could imply that I am the boss. But, what they lack is what I get in return: the joy and companionship of another species, who like me, seeks to bond and be safe. A dog who plays my silly training games with eagerness. A dog who allows me to take a power tool (Dremel) to her nails while I hold her leg still, because she trusts me to never hurt her. A dog who steals my seat the moment I get up from the couch, not because she is dominant, but because it’s warm. A dog, whose joy at my return from a trip, is unbridled and unabashed in it’s enthusiasm.
She is my friend. And I am hers.