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Anthropomorphism Is Inevitable (Or, I said “Shit” and He Sat)

Anthropomorphism is inevitable. As humans, we understand the world around us by seeing in it things that we ourselves would do, see, know, etc. It’s narcissistic really, borderline megalomaniacal (which is an incredibly entertaining word to say aloud, by the by). Despite my best and most ardent attempts, I’m afraid that I am really no different. In fact, I may be worse than most. If I see a child running across the street, I will invariably give that child some squeaky, high pitched voice and make them “say” terrible, obscene things- if only for my own amusement. Animals are no different. A good friend of mine owns an extremely intelligent French poodle who, as it happens, is also extremely hyperactive. As such, I usually “speak” for her in a rapid fire succession of high quality verbs and adjectives- albeit so thateverywordrunstogetherrenderingthemvirtuallyindistinguishable. Another friend owns a German Shepherd who has, perhaps unfortunately for her, been characterized as an anxiety-riddled xenophobe whose German accent is so thick and stereotypical that it seems more appropriate for a Mel Brooks film than a dog.

Still, for as bad as I anthropomorphize these animals, no creature has it worse than my own dog, Woody, a good natured, sweet and tolerant creature who is so even tempered and well mannered that I occasionally forget that he is, in fact, a dog.

Woody is, unquestionably, a mutt. My best guess regarding his genetic origins has settled on German Shepherd and Golden Retriever. His face is undeniably German Shepherd and boasts the biggest, kindest set of brown eyes that anyone could ask for. The rest of him, with the exception of his curved tail and springy hind legs which certainly also give him away as German, is undeniably Golden Retriever. He weighs no more than about forty pounds and has long, silky and yes, golden hair. When we take walks in public places, fellow dog owners rarely fail to stop and compliment me on how good looking and how well-mannered he is.

“What a sweet face!” they say. “And so polite, too!”

He and I have worked hard on this last bit and so it is nice to be recognized by fellow dog owners for it. “Sit” is a common command and I’ve trained him to do so as a way of saying “please”. If he wants something, he sits. Need to go outside? Sit at the door. Need some food or water? Sit in front of the bowls. Want to be pet or paid attention to? Sit in front of the person patiently. It’s a good system and one that has worked really, really well. Too well, I think sometimes- his understanding of this arrangement is uncanny and seems to me a bit too prescient.

So well-mannered and calm is Woody that it occasionally surprises me when he does get excited and behaves like a canine rather than a furry, mute human who has chosen to walk on all fours. And yet, Woody is indeed a dog. He will chase a tennis ball for hours and has systematically annihilated every stuffed toy I’ve given him. He never fails to leap up at the mere mention of the word “cookie” and is at my side as soon as he hears me reach for my car keys or the leash. When we hike (and we do, quite often), I let him off the leash and he tears off down the trail as much as a hundred yards ahead of me or until I whistle, at which point he will skid to a stop, turn around and come running back to me as quickly as he can muster. This works very well for me, as it turns out. If I hike three miles, he has invariably done five.

It is late as I write this. Woody is at the foot of my bed, lying on his back in a very indecent manner and breathing heavily as he sleeps. A few minutes ago, I looked over at the leash laying in the window sill and felt very fondly towards what it is and what it represents. I have always wanted a dog of my own and to have one now who has become my constant companion is among the best things that I can think of. I reached over and picked it up only to fumble at bit due to  the late hour, unravelling it so that the metal buckle rattled against itself.

I’ll let you guess who popped up, looking around in a frenzy. His face immediately broke out in a goofy dog smile as he looked at me, then the leash and then the door as if to say, “So… Yeah? Ready?!”

A book regarding dogs that I recently read at the recommendation of a friend said that the biggest mistake that people make about their canine friends is twofold: that we assume that they react to things around them as we do- with consciousness and the ability to forecast what may or may not happen next and that moreover, we underestimate how effective their method of contending with the world- namely, associations- is. Perhaps most importantly, the book contends, is the power with which these associations are made. To wit: I picked up the leash thinking about how much I love my dog and the place that he now has in my life, conceptualizing about both my present world and what life may or may not be like without him. He heard the sound of the metal buckle and immediately recalled his association of “leash” to “walk”- which, in his mind, is pure pleasure. The end.

Something very similar happened this afternoon as he and I went on a hike. He was, as ever, off leash and tearing prepositionally around the trail- up, down, in, out, over, and under. At one point, he had gotten a bit too far ahead of me around a corner where I couldn’t see him and so I whistled loudly. It wasn’t long before he came around the corner at full tilt, his ears laid back on his head and grinning maniacally. When he reached where I was, he followed his training, skidding to a halt and sitting down in front of me. I rewarded him with a small treat and snapped to give him the release command to let him begin to walk ahead of me again. Contented and enjoying the day, I did not notice the ice on the trail ahead of me and, as one might imagine, I slipped. While I didn’t fall, I certainly wasn’t expecting to slip and, as one might in that moment, I uttered a curse word and my dog reacted in a very peculiar manner.

Let me be quite plain here. I said, “Shit!” and Woody sat. I’m laughing about it now as I think about it, just as I laughed then, much to his confusion. After all, he has only learned to associate the hard plosive ‘t’ sound with “Oh, I put my hindquarters on the ground now and get a treat! Cool!”

As ridiculous as this is (and believe me, I realize that it is indeed ridiculous), I thought for the rest of the hike how this sort of thing must happen with G-d all of the time. I’ve been thinking a lot about the future- where I’ll be, how I’ll get there, what I want to be doing and whatnot- and have been praying (or, perhaps more accurately, trying to pray) for guidance, for some semblance of wisdom- for some direction. I can’t help but think that perhaps G-d has been grabbing the proverbial leash out of sentiment and I’ve been mistaking Him, thinking that we were going somewhere. I can’t help but think that G-d said “Shit!” and I am sitting.

Though I suppose that I shouldn’t blaspheme and think that G-d curses. That’s just more anthropomorphizing.

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