Last fall, when I was deeply in need of a warm, distracting project, I got a puppy. She is very cute, extremely soft, and really annoying. She enjoys chewing everything, but she especially loves my shoelaces and my wrist, both of which she would carry in her mouth at all times like a prized possession, if I would let her. She is also very good at making new friends.
At puppy class, she is usually the most excitable dog in attendance. She wants nothing more than to meet someone, human or canine, and make physical contact with them, ideally as quickly and as energetically as possible. “Personal space, Sunshine!” is something I shout at her daily. Recently, I noticed something about her friend-making habits. Her default setting is excited, open, eager, friendly — but then she calibrates.
Here is her inner monologue from last Sunday, translated by me:
I’m in the car. That’s OK because I like the car. I will tell myself this so that I do not throw up. Oh we are getting out! I can do it by myself! Hey I know where we are!!! OMGOMGOMGOMG it’s MIKAYLAAAAAA! OMGOMGHI HI HI HI
OH she said to sit ok I’ll sit I’m so excited to sit see how well I can sit
OMG it’s Ramses/OMG it’s Zoey/OMG it’s another human
This is when the calibration begins.
Friend 1: Her trainer, Mikayla
Mikayla walks up to her. Sunshine sits.
I’m so well-behaved!!! Look at me not jumping on you or biting your hand or mom’s hand! I’m such a good dog, watch how well I can sit and down and stay and come!
Now I am waiting for a treat! I am waiting so patiently, with a friendly and open smile! You said “free,” and now I can have a treat! Hooray! ’Tis a wonderful day here at the dog store!!
Friend 2: Zoey the golden lab, aka Sunshine’s twin
Zoey engages immediately.
OMGOMGOMG ZOEYYYYYYY I’m gonna smack your face GRRRRR Now I am gonna climb on your back, here I come! LOOK OUT IMMA BITE YOUR FACE HAHAHAHAAA I HAVE YOUR EAR AND I AM BITING IT oh shit now you have my ear, nooooo! HAHA I flipped over OMG haha you flipped over too omg I AM SO HAPPY TO BITE YOU AND HAVE YOU BITE MY FACE IN RETURN oh no, there is blood! It’s ok, we just both lost a puppy tooth, hahaha!! HOORAY
Friend 3: Ramses the Brittany spaniel
Ramses comes over and begins to play-snarl. He bites her front leg. He plays rough.
OMG yayyyyyy playtime! YAYY- whoa whoa, watch your voice there, buddy, geez, ok, ok, calm down, I’m gonna go behind the fan now, and I’m walking slowly, and I’m gonna close my mouth and cower a bit. Deep breath. Ok, ok, we’re doing it, we’re playing, we’re being gentle, right, Ramses, right?? Yayyyy
Friend 4: My preschooler
OMG OMG I love you please pet me I will wait
(Proceeds to have her snout squished, her neck placed in a chokehold, and her body shoved to the ground by a full-body hug, despite repeated parental warnings and pleadings)
I LOVE YOU MY BEST FREN *shoves nose into human child’s face* Can I bite you just a little bit? OK NOPE! OK mom, I felt you shove me, and I smell that apple spray I hate, so I guess I can’t do that. Okay. I’m sorry. Here is my wet nose instead! I am trying so hard not to knock you down I love you *wagwagwagwagwag*
Friend 5: Sadie, my sweet, neurotic, elderly border collie
Older dog, I am your boss.
That is my water.
You shall not pass.
That is my Kong filled with peanut butter.
I am in charge of you. I am the boss.
Get the hell out of my crate. Get the hell out of your bed that I stole when I was 10 weeks old.
*5 minutes pass*
Can we play now? OMG pleeeease can we PLAY? I will swipe my paw on your back to see how you will respond. Oh. You did not like that. Now I will whine at you. Now I will lay down. Please see me, please notice that I want to play with you! Hmm what if I just …. Hrmm, let me just smack your face a bit? Is that acceptable? OH HEY you bowed! Now I am hiding under the kitchen chair, oh no here you come! Hahaha!
(Sadie snarls and bites her front leg)
Hooray! This is playing! I am being extremely submissive! I am tricking you into playing with me! You think you are annoyed, but I saw that play bow, I saw you wag your tail! We are playing, tra la la la la!
I thought about these interactions all week. Of course dogs can code switch! They are just as social as we are. I do this, too, of course. I adapt to my friends. I accentuate parts of my personality based on my company. Some friends bring out my silly side, and I have more fun with them than I would otherwise. Some of my friends bring out my intellectual side. One of them challenges me, in the best way, so that I bring my A game to my conversations with her, and I leave them feeling smarter and sharper. One of my friends brings out my ruminative and somewhat depressive side, but also makes me laugh, and I like that I can exercise and exorcise some demons when I talk to him. One of my friends knows everything about me and I am convinced we were sisters in another life.
When I first met my friends, I’m sure I was on some version of my default setting — curious, a little introverted but forcing myself to pretend I’m extroverted, a little guarded but hopefully also willing to open up. After some time, I got to know them a bit, and I calibrated. Now I intuitively adapt to these relationships, some of which are as comfortable as my favorite yoga pants.
I don’t think I ever considered my own many-sidedness in this way before. It took my extremely annoying puppy to show me that this is normal. (It is, right?)