2006

I was crying, yelling at the air and the trees and the marsh to reveal my dog to me. It was the first time I was allowed to walk Max by myself. I walked him along the sidewalks of our expansive neighborhood to the baseball field. I unhooked his leash, so he could roam and sniff at will. My mother always warned against that. But I had seen my brother do it, and Max had never strayed too far or failed to return to him.

 

I followed Max’s stiffened tail around the perimeter of the field. He started to edge into the surrounding woods to sniff, and I called his name. He edged further, and I increased the pace of my walk. Max, come! I said as strongly as my 12-year-old voice could manage. He stopped and looked at me. Then he turned right around and continued into the woods. I ran as fast as my skinny legs would allow. But it wasn’t fast enough. Max was out of sight, and the branches, bristles and marsh were too much for me to overcome.

 

MAX! I cried. I tried to collect myself. I tried to sound warm and inviting. MAX!! I screamed desperately. Try again. Max, come here! Come on bud! That was better. MAAAAAXXXX!!! I shrieked. And short-lived. I couldn’t hear the branches crunching beneath his paws. I couldn’t see his white and brown coat camouflaged amid all the dirt and trees.

 

I took out the family cell phone I had brought with me and called my mother’s phone. Mom I don’t know what to do I lost him and I can’t see him anymore and he won’t come when I call him and I can’t go into the woods they’re too thick and I don’t know what to do what if he doesn’t come back. All my mom said was to keep trying and that she would be there soon.

 

She drove to the park and got out of the car. I showed her Max’s entry point into the woods. Maaax! she called, succeeding much more than me at sounding like a person to whom you would want to return. Come here, Max! Her voice inflected at the end. I heard crunching. After thirty minutes of me searching and yelling, it took only one call of my mother for Max to come back to us. He sure knew who was in charge, and it wasn’t me.

 

To be honest, I was lucky I got Max to walk with me in the first place. If my mom had been home, he would have wagged his tail excitedly when I asked, Wanna go for a walk? He wouldn’t be able to hold himself still enough for me to clip on his leash. He would have jaunted his way to the end of the driveway. Then he would’ve stopped. I’d pull on his leash. Come on, Max. Let’s go! He’d sit down. Max, come on bud. I’d pull harder but wouldn’t be able to move him. Then I’d try the authoritarian approach. Sternly, I’d say, Max. Let’s go. Wouldn’t work. So I’d relinquish my authoritarian role, and Max would take command.

 

He’d happily walk back towards the house and through the front door I held open for him. He won’t go again, I’d tell my mom. Ugh, Max. What is the matter with you? She’d looked at him. He’d wag his tail at her and smile. She’d put down the laundry and walked outside with Max and me.

 

Max would march right out of the driveway, across the street, and onto the sidewalk with us. My mom would walk us to the end of the street, then she’d turn around and head back to the house. So, of course, Max would stop. And this time in public. The neighbors could see. How humiliating. After one feigned attempt at pulling Max across the street, I’d yield and walk back to the house.

 

***

 

Max loved his people – like an infant to his mother, and we all were his mother. When any of us left the house, Max, standing in front of the glass front door and sadly watching us leave, wanted to go with us. When we returned, he, wagging his tail and blocking us from coming into the house until we had pet him, wanted to be near us. When I sat on the couch, Max would get up from the spot he was occupying on the rug, circle around the coffee table, sit down in front of me between the table and the couch, leaning into either the couch or my legs, and present his head to me for patting. After a few moments, he would lie down and drift off into sleep.

 

As soon as I moved, he leapt up and looked at me. I pet his head and walked into the kitchen for a snack. Max followed. Someone came to the door. It was Nick. Max rushed over to him and began licking his hands, his face and his legs. My brother sat down on the couch or the kitchen stool and over Max went, leaning into him and requesting a petting. When we ate dinner as a family Max didn’t sit next to the table begging for food; he lied underneath the table at all of our feet, surrounded. When I went to bed, Max followed and jumped up onto - or, as he got older and my bed got taller, was lifted onto - the bed. He moaned satisfactorily as he curled up and placed his head on his paws.

 

***

 

It seemed that as much as I was attached to Max, he was attached to me. And each of my family members for that matter.

 

In a typical assessment of human attachment, the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test, secure attachment is described in the following way: “the infant shows signs of missing the parent upon separation, greets the actively upon reunion, then settles and returns to play”. This sort of description of attachment can be used to describe dog-human attachment as well. In dog language: upon separation, the dog stands by the door where the parent exited, upon reunion, the dog seeks contact with the owner then settles and continues to play/explore.

 

In addition to secure attachment, it is possible a dog could exhibit insecure-avoidant, insecure-resistant, or disorganized attachment to its owner as well. But say a dog, like Max, forms an insecure-avoidant attachment with his first owner in North Carolina, or his second owners on Cape Cod, or both. Does that attachment style carry over to his subsequent owners: my family and me? What if he formed no attachment to them whatsoever? Is it too late to form a secure attachment to us? That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case.

 

Interestingly, a study looked at the formation of new bonds in dogs living at rescue shelters - dogs like Max. Even dogs as old as 8 years old, behaved in a manner that fulfills the three criteria of attachment - (1) the ability to discriminate and respond deferentially to the object of attachment, (2) a preference for the attachment figure, and (3) a response to separation from and reunion with the attachment figure that is distinct from responses to others - after exposure to and handling by an individual on three consecutive days.

 

So the damage wasn’t completely done. While there were certainly behavioral effects of Max’s mistreatment, his ability to form relationships with us was not one of them.

But those relationships differed based on who we were - a parent, a teenager, a child. I’m not sure exactly what gave me away as a subordinate. My size? My unassuming demeanor? My age? Or was it how my family members interacted? Did Max pick up on each of our positions within the familial structure?

 

It’s certainly possible. There is evidence that dogs possess a rare (in animals) trait of social cognition. They can read human communicative signals indicating the location of hidden food. They know what humans can see. They seem to recall their owners’ faces upon hearing the owners’ voices. They make reasonable and logical social inferences. And they are faster to solve problems after human demonstration. It seems natural that they can also infer the familial rank of those in the environment in which they live by the same sorts of social cues.

 

Why do dogs show such human-like characteristics as attachment behaviors and social cognition? Researchers suggest that the exhibition of these traits is the product of thousands of years of domestication. It is still unclear exactly why and how dogs were domestication. However, geneticists are able to determine certain traits that differ between dogs and their closest relative, the wolf, and, thus, were the product of domestication. Those include things like reduced skull, teeth and brain size, reduced aggression, increased social cognition capabilities and attachment. All of these traits predispose dogs to cohabitate with humans.

 

02

You're not my Mother

I

I

2006

 

I was crying, yelling at the air and the trees and the marsh to reveal my dog to me. It was the first time I was allowed to walk Max by myself. I walked him along the sidewalks of our expansive neighborhood to the baseball field. I unhooked his leash, so he could roam and sniff at will. My mother always warned against that. But I had seen my brother do it, and Max had never strayed too far or failed to return to him.

 

I followed Max’s upright tail around the perimeter of the field. He started to edge into the surrounding woods to sniff, and I called his name. He edged further, and I increased the pace of my walk.

 

"Max, come!" I said as strongly as my 12-year-old voice could manage.

 

He stopped and looked at me. Then he turned right around and continued into the woods. I ran as fast as my skinny legs would allow. But it wasn’t fast enough. Max was out of sight, and the branches, bristles and marsh were too much for me to overcome.

 

"MAX!" I cried. I tried to collect myself, to sound warm and inviting.

 

"MAX!!" I screamed desperately. Try again.

 

"Max, come here! Come on bud!" That was better.

 

"MAAAAAXXXX!!!" I shrieked. That wasn't. 

 

I couldn’t hear the branches crunching beneath his paws. I couldn’t see his white and brown coat camouflaged amid all the dirt and trees. I couldn't breathe through my tears.

 

Why did Max want to leave me? Why wouldn't he come back when I called for him? He could get lost and never find his way back again. He could roam all the way to the road and get hit by another car. He could starve.

 

I took the family cell phone out of my pocket and called my mother’s phone.

 

"Mom I don’t know what to do; I lost him, and I can’t see him anymore, and he won’t come when I call him, and I can’t go into the woods they’re too thick, and I don’t know what to do what if he doesn’t come back," I rambled. 

 

All my mom said was to keep calling him and she'd be there soon.

 

She drove to the park and got out of the car. I showed her Max’s entry point into the woods.

 

"Maaax!" she called, succeeding much more than I at sounding like a person to whom you would want to return.

 

"Come here, Max!" Her voice inflected at the end.

 

I heard distant crunching. After thirty minutes of me screaming, it took only one call of my mother for Max to come back to us. He sure knew who was in charge, and it wasn’t me.

 

***

 

To be honest, I was lucky I got Max to walk with me in the first place. If my mom was home, he wagged his tail excitedly when I asked, "Wanna go for a walk?" He couldn't hold himself still enough for me to clip on his leash. He jaunted his way to the end of the driveway. And then he stopped. I pulled on his leash.

 

"Come on, Max. Let’s go!" He sat  down.

 

"Max, come on bud." I pulled harder but couldn't move him.

 

Then I tried the authoritarian approach.

 

Sternly, I said, "Max. Let’s go." It didn't work.

 

So I relinquished my feigned authority, and Max took command.

 

He happily walked back to the house and through the front door I held open for him.

 

"He won’t go again," I told my mom.

 

"Ugh, Max. What is the matter with you?" She looked at him.

 

He wagged his tail at her and smiled. She put down the laundry and walked outside with Max and me. Max marched right out of the driveway, across the street, and onto the sidewalk with us. My mom walked us to the end of the street, then tried to sneakily turn around and head back to the house. Max stopped.

 

Why did he only go with mom? He loved walks, at least I thought he did. He sure got excited enough about them. Did he just like mom better? Or was he on some kind of power trip? Why did he have to make a scene? The neighbors could see. How humiliating?

 

After one feigned attempt at pulling Max across the street, I yielded and, defeated, walked back to the house.

 

***

 

Max loved his people – like an infant loves his mother, but we all were his mother. When any of us left the house, Max wanted to go with us. He stood in front of the glass door and watched us leave.

 

He looked so sad, abandoned. I'm such a terrible person for leaving him, I thought. He didn't know where I was going or when I'd be back.

 

When we returned, he wagged his tail and blocked us from coming into the house until we pet him and he licked every inch of skin - hands, face, legs, feet. When I sat down on the couch, Max got up from the spot he was occupying on the rug, circled around the coffee table once or twice and sat down in front of me between the table and the couch. He leaned into the couch and presented his head to me for patting. After a few moments, he lied down and drifted off into sleep.

 

As soon as I moved from the couch, Max leapt up and looked at me. I pet his head and walked into the kitchen for a snack. Max followed. Someone came to the door. It was Nick. Max rushed over to him and began licking him. My brother sat down on the couch or the kitchen stool and over Max went, leaning into him and requesting a patting. When we ate dinner as a family Max didn’t sit next to the table begging for food; he stood or underneath the table at all of our feet, surrounded. When I went to bed, Max followed and jumped up onto - or as he got older and my bed got taller, was lifted onto - the bed. He moaned satisfactorily as he curled up and placed his head on his paws.

 

He wants to sleep with me, I thought smugly. He likes me best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seemed that as much as I was attached to Max, he was attached to me. And each of my family members for that matter.

 

In a typical assessment of human attachment, the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test, secure attachment is described in the following way: “the infant shows signs of missing the parent upon separation, greets the parent actively upon reunion, then settles and returns to play”. This sort of description can be used to describe secure dog-human attachment as well. In dog rhetoric: upon separation, the dog stands by the door where the owner exited, and, upon reunion, the dog seeks contact with the owner then settles and continues to play or explore.

 

In addition to secure attachment, it is possible a dog could exhibit the less-desirable insecure-avoidant, insecure-resistant, or disorganized attachment to its owner as well. But say a dog, like Max, forms an insecure-avoidant attachment with his first owner in North Carolina, or his second owners on Cape Cod, or both. Does that attachment style carry over to his subsequent owners: my family and me? What if he formed no attachment whatsoever to his first family? Is it too late to form a secure attachment to us? That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case.

 

One study looked at the formation of new bonds in dogs living at rescue shelters - dogs like Max. Even dogs as old as eight years old behaved in a manner that fulfills the three criteria of attachment - (1) the ability to discriminate and respond deferentially to the object of attachment, (2) a preference for the attachment figure, and (3) a response to separation from and reunion with the attachment figure that is distinct from responses to others. And they did so after exposure to and handling by an individual on just three consecutive days.

 

So the damage to those dogs and to Max wasn’t completely done. While there were certainly behavioral effects of Max’s mistreatment, his ability to form relationships with us was not one of them.

 

Still those relationships differed based on who we were - a parent, a teenager, a child. I’m not sure exactly what gave me away as a subordinate in my family. My size? My unassuming demeanor? My age? Or was it how my family members interacted? Did Max pick up on each of our positions within the familial structure?

 

It’s certainly possible. There is evidence that dogs possess a rare trait of social cognition. They can read human communicative signals indicating the location of hidden food. They know what humans can see from their differing perspectives. They seem to recall their owners’ faces upon hearing the owners’ voices. They make reasonable and logical social inferences. And they are faster to solve problems after human demonstration. It seems natural that, using the same sorts of social cues, they can also infer the familial rank of those in the environment in which they live.

 

But why do dogs show such human-like characteristics as attachment behaviors and social cognition anyway? Researchers suggest that the exhibition of these traits is the product of thousands of years of domestication. It is still unclear exactly why and how dogs were domesticated. However, geneticists are able to determine certain traits that differ between dogs and their closest relative, the wolf, and, thus, were targets of domestication. Those traits include things like reduced skull, teeth and brain size, reduced aggression, increased social cognition capabilities and attachment behaviors. All of these traits facilitate the cohabitation of dogs and humans.

 

Part 02