Saturday, June 9, 2012

So Sophie

I have had two dogs in my adult life. The first, Roxanne (you're singing that song now, aren't you?), I adopted during the pivotal summer after my sophomore year in college. Pivotal, because that was the summer my best friend at the time (and wife now) and I decided that perhaps it was indeed worth risking the ruin of a great friendship in order to engage in a romantic relationship. In truth, the whole get-Sean-a-dog idea was sort of hers to begin with. The fact that I went along with this plan before we started dating is one of many signs I missed during the two years prior.

At the shelter where we found Roxie was also a litter of eight-week-old Lab-mix puppies. They were rolly-polly, fluffy, and looked exactly like what you picture when you picture a puppy. I had pretty much decided to take one of those little guys home when we went to look at the older dogs. Somewhere in that depressing cell-block was a little stray, not barking like the others, instead, lying at the front of its cage with its paw just through the bars.

"What's wrong with his eyes?"

The staff answered us, and we in turn answered this question a lot throughout her life. It turns out that with mixed-huskies, you can get blue eyes, brown eyes, or a combination of both. For Roxie (who was always assumed to be a boy, due to her wolf-like bearing and fairly butch countenance, I guess) it manifested as one blue eye, and one that was half-blue/half-brown. Not blind, but sorta strange-looking.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that we love, and have always loved, all of our dogs. It's possible, however, to love a creature very much and still be entirely aware of its flaws. If you don't believe me, ask your parents.

At three months old, Roxie was deeply entrenched in her awkward stage. Her ears stood from her head like traffic cones, and dwarfed the rest of her head. Her tail, eventually a proud, curved buccaneer's plume, was at that time too long and straight, giving her the general appearance of an over-sized rat. Still, she won us all over, and came home with me that day.

She lived that pivotal year with us, and thirteen pivotal more. She moved four times with us. She caught 3,200 poorly-thrown Frisbees, fetched 11,600 sticks, and chased several-hundred pump-faked tennis balls (she was always absolutely sure that you'd throw it the next time, even if you'd faked her out two dozen times in a row). She had significant separation-anxiety issues: being left alone for a few hours one time resulted in her eating a whole bag of Hershey Kisses (wrappers and all), and another time polishing off a box of staples (the vet called her an "indiscriminate eater"...and probably called his boat "Roxie"). She  knew she wasn't to be on the furniture, in fact even when we would cheat and invite her onto the bed or couch she never seemed remotely comfortable .  She never had any obedience training, but somehow knew commands like "get over here" and "go away." She could be fenced in by a fence, even if you accidentally left the gate wide open. She averted her eyes whenever Jen and I as much as kissed.

The day we had to put her down, after a prolonged and agonizing decline, was one of the worst of my life. We didn't deal well with the grief and the loss, and too soon were back in the market for a puppy. By this time the Internet was in full swing, and my wife started spending a lot time trolling around on sites like this. Her ratio of visits to this site and dogs that we've gotten as a result is very close to 1:1.

Jen found a litter of, as it turns out, "Lab-mix" puppies who were being fostered a couple of towns away. We test-drove two puppies that day. One was all-black, and passed every puppy-selection criteria we knew. For example, she was content to pretty much fall asleep when you rolled her onto her back and cradled her in your arms. Whether it was because I was on the rebound, or because I had some kind of Messianic instinct to save the bad girl, or because I was told that black-and-tan-mixed-breeds make the best dogs, or...who knows, but I rejected this little goody-goody dog in favor "Scooby" (immediately renamed, because everyone knows Scooby is a boy--and a stupid name) who pretty much failed all of the same little tests.

We now suspect that "Lab-mix" was: 1. a bad guess, 2. clever marketing, or 3. an outright lie--our theory, regularly adjusted according to our feelings about humanity in general, and our feelings about the dog at the moment. Sophie, who is horribly averse to water and has no desire at all to retrieve things, is more likely a pit-bull mixed with some sort of hound (she's pretty long-coupled, and howls at sirens). Pits are in the process of being re-branded as pibbles, in an effort to make them once again more appealing to the general public. They require this image makeover not because they are inherently bad dogs, but because some of the breeding and training practices applied to them have been truly horrifying .

Sophie believes that shoes exist only for her entertainment. She doesn't destroy them anymore, but pairs of shoes are almost never paired in our house; rather, they are arranged throughout according to some larger plan of hers. She barely acknowledges that she's been fed--she'll ignore a full bowl of food until she's good and ready, sometimes hours later. She considers a game of fetch to be complete when she catches up to the tennis ball and kills it, leaving it there, satisfied that she's taught it a lesson. Actually, she will often decline to chase the ball at all, giving you instead a "well, what'd you do that for?" look. She knows she's not to be on the furniture, and therefore only does it when we're not looking. She also knows to appear sorry when caught. She is a two-time graduate of obedience school who knows full-well how to be obedient, and just chooses not to.

Why am I telling you all of this? Isn't this a blog allegedly about about slacking, and school? I'm telling you this because, as I've said here, I believe that dogs who don't know they're adopted shelter dogs have a different attitude than the other kind. I also believe that these traits can be clearly identifiable in people, and that looking for them can be instructive in dealing with teachers, administrators, and pretty much everyone else. Sophie, like many people you'll encounter, sees things as she does because she's never had a bad day in her life.

In our house we have come to use the word "Sophie" as a modifier applied anyone or any behavior that  seems to stem from Sophie's particular world view. Her perspective is rooted in the fact that she feels that she had a pretty good life before we came along--she lived in a big house with her mom and litter mates; she could eat when she wanted; pee freely throughout the house--often choosing her foster mom's elderly father's slippers; she had a nice yard and not a whole lot of responsibilities. She fully believes that if we hadn't come along, someone else would have been won over by her big brown eyes and widow's peak.

This unwavering belief in one's own value and place in the world can be a little annoying in your dog, but can be tremendously advantageous for people. Consider college and scholarship applications, for example. We spend twelve years of school telling kids what they need to do to become better. Then we suddenly expect them to spend their senior year writing essays about how great they are.

When you're getting on toward middle age, as I am, it's easy to assume that this whole thing is tied to a person's age. However, while an older teacher is more likely to have been at some point along the way in a fight for his/her life with a parent, administrator, school board member, or all three at once <shudder>, it is possible to get thirty-some-odd years into your career and remain pretty damned "Sophie."

For example, we once had a district office administrator (hint: he had an office with really big desk, a closet roughly the size of the cafeteria, and a back door so that he could slip out unnoticed when necessary) who would walk into the teacher work room and tell a filthy joke before checking to see  who was there. He was thought to have taken a nap most afternoons, and spent much of the rest of his day on what we called the Pretty Girl Tour. If you were an attractive woman and didn't know about the tour, you were on the tour--sorry, but no one in the district office cares that much about issues faced by the school nurse. Down the hall was another administrator (also gone to another school--we call it "pass the trash") who would spend the last hour of her work day at yoga class, even if she was supposed to be at a meeting of a comittee she was chariring. Whatever obstacles these people faced their careers, nothing caused either to believe that any of this was a bad idea.

Like many other things, it's the fine gradations of so "Sophie" that can be so important, and what you choose to do with these qualities that matters most. Besides, the opposite end of this spectrum can be just as problematic. In dogs, it's the damaged-, twitchy-, biting-type. While dogs who know they've been rescued, like Roxie, will usually have a quirk or two--one of hers was that she had a pathological response to people in uniform (it's great when your dog becomes a snarling, foaming, teeth-gnashing mess whenever she encounters a cop)--but their most dominant trait tends to be gratitude, coupled with some insecurity. In its more extreme forms, however, the dog is so deeply damaged that the slightest provocation will make it lose control of its bodily functions.

Dealing with the human equivalent of these dogs can be especially tricky, because you begin with the assumption that you're dealing with a fairly normal level of resilience, when suddenly you wander onto an emotional landmine. That's probably what's happened when you call your kid's teacher to find out what homework they missed, and end up hearing a sobbing recount of a messy divorce. 

It's not easy to deal with the damaged-, twitchy-, biting type, but you often get a heads-up once someone has discovered one. This isn't so much the case with never-had-a-bad-day types--in fact, very often they end up being the boss of the whole place, just because no one ever told them they shouldn't be. Their qualities are the very ones we're all trying to develop: confidence, charm, stability...height... I'm not suggesting any of this is bad, but it is worth noticing. Pit bulls are widely thought to have a locking mechanism in their jaws that makes it impossible to let go once they've bitten into something. This is a myth. What they do have is a locking mechanism in their brains that make it nearly impossible to change their minds once they've got something stuck in there. When "so Sophie" people are in charge, they can take an organization in bold and exciting directions very quickly and decisively. This makes it especially important to choose carefully where you're standing when they do. 

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