Friday, March 23, 2012

Learning From My Dog

This is Hashbrown.

Hashbrown is a darling one-year-old mutt that we picked up from our local animal rescue when he was twelve weeks old. He is, perhaps, the most pampered dog on the face of the planet, where "dog" is defined as an animal too large to fit in a purse.

You see, Hashbrown is treated as the baby of the family. He gets carried, coddled, and cuddled like a baby, particularly by my eldest son, in whose arms the dog can be found in about 23.7% of each day. Here is a story that may help you understand the degree to which this is true:

My husband and younger son were on the porch, watching Hashbrown chase butterflies in the backyard. Suddenly, Hashbrown yelped -- he'd run into a branch and hurt himself -- and raced over to where they were standing. As he sat there staring balefully up at them, my  son came to a sudden realization. "Dad, I think he wants you to kiss his boo-boo!"

"No, he doesn't," my husband replied, as though that was ridiculous. But as the dog continued to stare, he decided to give it a try. Sure enough, once he gave Hashbrown a kiss, off he went, back to happily chasing butterflies. You see? Hashbrown is so carefully loved and protected that he manifests learned behaviors normally only seen in three-year-old humans.

Baby of the family. I'm tellin' you.

Anyway, none of this has a thing to do with what I learned from Hashbrown. I just wanted to introduce you.

The other morning, I had an epiphany -- a realization that came from one of those moments of true empathy with an animal, where for that space in time you feel your similarities more acutely than your differences.

Is it just me, or is the routine act of petting an animal, and their tendency to constantly solicit it, generally considered part of their other-ness? Because petting them is soothing to us, we can tend to think of our companion animals as there for our purposes, rather than their own. Yes, we may realize that the act of soliciting petting is for their own sake, but since that's something we don't see ourselves as doing, it still seems other.

On Wednesday morning, I wasn't due into work until the afternoon, so I lazed around in bed watching Parks & Rec re-runs with my hubby. I cuddled up to him, watching with my head on his chest while he absently stroked my hair. Our eldest opened our bedroom door and Hashbrown came barreling in at full speed, promptly wedged himself in between us, and rolled over to have his belly scratched. I laughed and got up to change out of my pajamas.

I wondered to myself, what goes through Hashbrown's head? Why is he such a cuddle junkie? I walked past the mirror and noticed my hair, smoothed down from its normal morning madness on one side -- where my husband had been petting me. Suddenly, I realized that Hashbrown jumping up and licking me the second I walk through the front door is not really any different from me swooping in to give my hubby a hug and kiss when I first get home. Hash's blissed-out reaction to getting his belly rubbed is pretty much the same reaction I have to my husband's back rubs.

What's the difference, really, between a dog's desire to be petted and a human's desire for the comforting touch of a loved one? Not much. Human infants need to be soothed and pleased by touch as much as any companion animal does. The differences, as I see it, are only two: (1) As we age, we unconsciously perceive subtle, societally-imposed boundaries on human touch and reserve it for times that are "appropriate," and (2) because of the human ability to communicate verbally, we can become confident and secure in the love of our families and require less tactile reassurance, as well as communicating our own feelings without the use of touch.

This is interesting to me, because I come from a very non-tactile family. My origin family aren't huggers. They don't touch as a matter of course, or even generally in extraordinary circumstances. There's no hand on your arm, no pat on the back, no mussing up your hair. If hugs happen in my family, I'm virtually always the one to initiate them, and that really only began as a young adult. (None of this is to say they aren't loving, mind you, in their own way. And of course, it excludes my grandmother's rule of kissing everyone on the lips by way of greeting.)

So I've always known that what I deem socially-appropriate touch doesn't match up with what many other people believe to be appropriate. Over the years, I've had to learn not to be unsettled when a co-worker or a relatively new acquaintance hugs me or touches my arm. And I admit, it's still uncomfortable for me, sometimes even when I'm the one to initiate it. It makes me think about how much our early life shapes our perception of touch, and what is and isn't appropriate.

The thing is, touch is healthy. Anyone who has had a baby in the last twenty years has doubtless been exposed to articles and advice on infant massage, the bonding that occurs from the skin contact during feeding, the role of touch in cognitive development, etc. Most of us have probably also read articles about the health benefits and immune-stimulating effect of hugs and massages, such as this one from CNN.

In short, what I learned from Hashbrown is that we should all be indulging our inner puppy, giving and getting positive touch in whatever way is appropriate within our own personal boundaries. Unlike Hashbrown, I'm not going to be cuddling up to people I just met any time soon. On the other hand, I'm going to be a little less worried whether a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old feel it's uncool to get the occasional hug from Mom. And my poor hubby might risk hug overload. (Don't feel too sorry for him. I think he'll survive.)


  1. This is a very interesting perspective. My kids are very cuddly and I always say they get it from Paul. Our family isn't much into hugging and kissing. Other then Grandma I can only remember getting hugs or kisses from family 6 times in my life. I remember being a bit surprised when I went for my checkup when Melissa was a few weeks old. The midwife said, "She has such pretty lips. I just know you are kissing them all the time." It had in fact never occurred to me to kiss my daughter. But I started after that. My kids get lots of kissing and hugging. They even get into territorial disputes with Paul. For about a year I had problems with Russell yelling "I want a hug!" repeatedly when he was already sitting on my lap and hugging me. One day I realized he calmed down when I put my cheek to his cheek. Sometimes it still feels like an alien experience being hugged and cuddled so often.

    1. Exactly, exactly. It's still weird. But your kids and my kids are going to grow up with considerably less hang-ups about it. The last time you were here, Melissa ran up and threw her arms around me when I walked through the door, and I was just so happy about that! It meant as much to me as when one of my own boys spontaneously gives me a hug, because it meant she knew I'm a person who loves and hugs her.

      Also? I'm kinda sorry about that whole six times thing. I used to hug John when you guys were little (even though he hated it), but you and I were always at odds. And though I hug your kids a lot, off the top of my head, I can only remember hugging you as an adult twice on hospital visits, on the day you got married, and when you gave me that beautiful shawl. That's not representative of how much affection I have for my little sis!