What We're Really Talking About When We Talk About Dogs
The wild narratives we make up about the inner feelings of animals and what they reveal about our other relationships
Well hello! I’m so glad you’re here. Welcome to the Sunday essay. (If you’re new, find more about ‘It’s Not Just You” here.)
I used to make fun of women with small, cosseted dogs. So naturally, I ended up with a 21-pound spaniel named Luna, whose coloring is embarrassingly similar to mine. He gazes at me with a level of focus and dewy adoration not seen since Nancy Reagan was on the campaign trail with Ronnie. It's both cringy and very satisfying to be so beloved.
Or so I thought.
Last weekend I realized Luna is deaf. And he probably stares at my face so intently because he's trying to decipher what I want. I've been babbling to this dog for five years, all the while thinking he is sweet but maybe a little slow because he never picked up spoken words like other dogs. Turns out I'm the slow one.
We were staying with friends, and they pointed out that Luna didn't seem to respond unless he could see me. So we ran around calling him from behind doors or sneaking up while he was sleeping and shouting "treat!" The dog definitely can't hear us, and thinking back, he's likely never heard a word I've said. (Which he may have in common with my ex-husband. Ba-dum-bump.)
I've been making up stories about his doggy motives and personality since he was a puppy. But he isn't exceptionally chill; he just can't hear the doorbell. And he's not willful; he doesn't know I'm calling unless he can see me wave.
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Clearly, I know nothing about anything and maybe should not have been allowed to raise kids.
But dog owners know I'm not the only one who invents fantasies about a pet’s inner life. You can hear it at the dog park: "Ralph is feeling a little sensitive today because Madison took his toy this morning." Or: "Taco is such a diva. She's just barking to show off." Really?
We don't just fill in pet silences with our hopes and anxieties. We do it with other humans.
Now that we're interacting more via text or Slack or dashed-off comments on social media, our judgments about whether people are reacting badly or why they're silent are even more off-kilter. Our brains paper over the sensory gaps of those platforms with narratives forged by our egos and expectations.
People way overestimate how well they communicate their thoughts and feelings. You know how it is; five colleagues leave a meeting, and each of them has a different idea of how it went. And these misunderstandings are exaggerated in politics. One recent survey found that Democrats and Republicans perceive the opposing party to be far more radical on issues like guns or immigration than they are.
Not long ago, I ran back to my apartment right after leaving. When I came in, Luna was sitting with his back to the door and his nose in the air. It sounded like he was singing very faintly—just a wispy existential yodel of longing. He didn't turn around till I walked right in front of him, then he dissolved into his usual full-body undulations of joy. I took Luna’s dreaminess as a sign that he was like me, someone who tends to float around in their own head. A canine Goethe!
But this lunacy isn't surprising. We see ourselves mirrored in the humans and creatures we love. And the inverse is likely too. If we don't like someone, the filter through which we view them can turn everything they do into something ugly and other. It's all about expectations.
The first time we met Luna, he was in a chaotic kennel where every dog seemed to be howling or barking or jumping, except for him. He was curled up in a crate, asleep and oblivious. When I touched him, he lifted his head and just looked at me, dazed but not alarmed. I scooped him up, and he tucked his head into the crook of my arm and went back to sleep as if he trusted me.
Or so I chose to believe.
It didn't occur to me that Luna was so tranquil because he couldn't hear the racket around him. My kids and I showed up intending to bring a dog home, so our hearts were primed to believe that one of these creatures was meant for us. And then we reverse-engineered evidence that he was the right one for our wacky little family.
But maybe it doesn't matter that the story I tell about that day is mostly imaginary. It is true that he was the right dog. The fundamental fantasy might be the idea that we operate on logic at all. The heart always leads. Even if Luna can't hear us, he knows when he’s loved. We all do. As Maya Angelou put it, people may forget what you say, "but they will never forget how you made them feel."
A few images from the week that was.
See more of artist Mel Hofmann’s work here.