Since I last wrote, I’ve been thinking about what I said about me and Ripley, how we communicate. Working with Rocky, my service dog in training, I am noticing I need to focus on being precise with commands and signals. Consistency, above all else. Of course, all dogs want consistency. Try changing a dog’s dinner time, and you’ll see that right away.
Ripley and I seem to operate at a place beyond language. The more I thought about it, the more I realized we’re like an old married couple. It’s like when your wife says, “I can’t find my coffee cup,” and you say, “Did you look in the pantry?” Because you happen to know she has a tendency to grab things out of the pantry for the dogs when her hands are full, and sometimes puts the coffee cup down on one of the shelves, then closes the door and loses the mug. Or you say, “That guy came by again, about the whatchamacallit,” and your wife knows you mean it was the repairman coming to replace the filter in the swamp cooler. You also know when her “No,” is a kidding no, and when it is a serious no, not only by the tone of voice, but by the body language that goes along with it.
Sabrina and I have been together for twelve years; that’s one year longer than I have been with Ripley. We’ve also had a lot of space in our relationship. Sabrina, up until she retired in December of this past year, worked four ten-hour shifts each week on graveyard, with a one-hour commute in each direction. So , four days out of the week, we spent about an hour together each day – and that was over a brief cup of coffee as she was waking up. I’m not complaining. We both love having time to ourselves, and even now, living together full time, we manage to create a good deal of separation in our days, because it is what we are comfortable with. It makes us appreciate the moments when we are truly together. Vacations are always an absolute hoot.
Let’s compare this, though, with my relationship with Ripley. When she was younger, not yet my service dog, she was with me except when I was at work, which was four days a week. Also in those years, she was still my solitary companion most nights. Since 2011, she has been with me 24/7, never leaving my side except for a few rare occasions. When I was hospitalized for surgery for four days, she stayed with me at the foot of my bed all day, and Sabrina took her home at night. When I have certain medical procedures, such as mammograms, CAT scans and other imaging procedures that might be dangerous to her, she has to wait outside of the room until I am finished, and this past February, she was not allowed to accompany me in an ambulance. (I couldn’t speak at the time, or I may have insisted.) But other than that, she has been with me every moment of every day. She accompanied me to work until I could no longer work. She rides in cars, on golf carts, on buses, and on airplanes with me. She goes to concerts and movies and restaurants with me, shops with me, and sleeps with me. She has been on the gurney with me in the ER, laid at my side on the bed when I was having EEGs performed, and is right at my feet for every blood draw. I am never a single unit walking down the street. I am two – Michelle and Ripley.
No one knows me better than Ripley. Sabrina jokingly complains that I never walk in a straight line; she’s always inadvertently bumping into me. Ripley never misses a step, and we never bump. She knows exactly when I will wobble, how I will meander and turn. I don’t have to give her commands to pay attention. If someone tries to distract her, asking to pet or interrupt, she either assesses the situation on her own from my body language, can tell I am saying to ignore, or if it’s not quite clear, she stops and makes direct eye contact, waiting for direction. I say, “Yes,” and she will allow one pat. She can tell when I’m tired, when I’m sad, when I’m happy, when I’m not well, and all of that is mirrored in her own behavior. Of course, many of you have a dog that does this to some extent, yes? Imagine this same thing amplified, by a well-trained dog who is at your side every moment of the day. Here’s how close – when I visit the house of a friend, I sometimes forget, and go use the bathroom, closing the door, without taking Ripley with me. Big no. She is scratching on that door in two seconds flat. Not on her watch, she says. No closed doors.
I just finished reading A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. As he explored his own growing connection with the rescued dogs, Kotler began digging into scientific research for answers. One question he had was about how dogs and humans seem to be able to communicate so well. It turns out that human emotions are not evenly distributed on the face – the left hemisphere of the brain handles emotion, controlling the right side of the face, so for figuring out what someone is feeling, we tend to look to the right side. This is called “the left-gaze bias.”
In 2007 in the U.K., some researchers did an experiment with dogs, showing them images of other dogs, monkeys, inanimate objects, and people. When the dogs saw the first three things (dogs, monkeys, objects), their eyes worked evenly across the image. But with the images of people, guess what? They had the “left-gaze bias.” Their eyes moved immediately to the right side of the face. They were trying to figure out what the people were feeling! I actually saw this experiment being carried out in a PBS documentary, Dogs Decoded.
Taking it another step – back to my opening statement about being an old married couple – Kotler talks about the fact that we learn to communicate with our dogs by face reading and face mimicking. Here’s a quote from his book:
The skin is elastic, but only to a point. Any action repeated over and over again will eventually leave a mark. Wrinkles, creases, and smile lines are those marks. The reason couples who have been married for a long time start to look like one another is because couples are emotionally resonant. They tend to feel similar things at similar times, so their faces wear in the same way. And the same thing happens between humans and dogs. In the process of trying to understand one another, we’re slowly reshaping our faces to resemble one another’s. (p. 244, A Small Furry Prayer)
So not only do Ripley and I understand each other – we’re starting to look alike.