I’m spending my morning monitoring the photo lab and reading about attachment theory, homology, and imprinting, as a backbone for this semester’s work. A lot of the readings I’ve been exploring (before today as well as today’s offerings) address the kind of relationship between companion animals (dogs) and their humans as dependent on dominance. The theory seems to be that level of dominance in the dog owner’s personality proportionally affects the level of affection shared between human and canine; more dominant human, the more the relationship takes the form of disciplinarian and trainee, whereas humans that do not seek dominance have a warmer and more affectionate bond with their pets. Animal personality also plays a role in the relationship, and personality seems to be linked to breed/type and also some other as-yet-undetermined factor. Much of the debate seems to go back to the classic nature v. nurture.
The breed of my dogs makes an interesting case study for this: Cocker Spaniels, as a breed, are thought to possess these qualities: intelligence, restraint, sociability, trainability, and a sweet disposition. They are people-pleasers who do not enjoy being alone, like regular exercise, and have a tendency to get nervous with unfamiliar noises or rough handling. Of course, this is what books and kennel clubs say about the breed; owners tend to talk more about the mischievous quality of Cockers, and their pathological need for attention. There’s even a phenomenon referred to as the Cocker Cough or Cocker Limp that refers to the breed feigning illness and injury in order to receive attention.
In actuality, my dogs possess measures of all these qualities, but expressed in very different ways. I tease about being the “Mother Ship” because the dogs don’t enjoy leaving my side. Even when we are in a wide open field at the dog park, they maintain a close distance and constantly check over their shoulders to see if I am around. They are sociable with people, but rarely other dogs, and they both adore the company of outdoor (barn) cats. Theo, who I have had since a puppy, is timid, demanding, and does not enjoying playing with his toys unless a human is involved in the game; he likes to cuddle, has a strong instinct to be in a den (usually under a chair or the bed), and he uses his intelligence to manipulate people and animals. In fact, he often scratches at the door to be let out, only to walk back inside after Bruce runs out and grab a toy, asking to play with me and me only. He also likes to be laughed at, as he’s learned to equate this with good humor, affection, and treats (in the forms of belly rubs and rawhide). Bruce, on the other hand, is a rescue dog with a history of abuse. He is fiercely protective of me and extremely loyal (whereas Theo sells his affection for treats and petting), is very possessive of toys (he hoards them in piles and then lays on them), and is not timid about forcibly shoving Theo out of the way (and sometimes off the bed or couch) when he wants affection. Bruce isn’t as manipulative, but he is definitely crafty; it took me months to figure out how he was able to get fruit out of the bowl on the high counter without breaking the bowl, especially since he isn’t tall enough to see over the counter when he stands on hind legs. These definitely seem like unique personalities, and not all bred-in qualities to me.