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Training Toby is moving to Terra Toby. Come and visit!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Musings on Being Toby's "Mom"

This post is dedicated to the memory of my friend and colleague Liz Everett, who passed away on Friday, May 11. Liz was the proud mama of feline children whose photos graced her room. I miss you already Liz. 

On Mother's Day, I woke as usual to a soft whine and a lick on my bare foot sticking out of the covers. Toby is as regular as clockwork. By 7 AM he wants to get downstairs and get his greenie treat. Then he's willing to relax while Ted and I read the paper and try to wake up with our coffee.

While the dog whisperer says a dog needs a pack leader, I agree with other animal behaviorists that what dogs actually require are parents. Dogs are in many ways juvenile wolves with unique adaptations to living with humans that have developed over - some experts say - the last 15,000 years. The reason our dogs incite our instinctive baby talk is that they basically remain stuck in puppyhood physically - the droopy ears, short nose, and short jaw for starters. Recent studies have also shown that when a human pets a dog, their blood levels of oxytocin rise. Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for labor and delivery, parent-child bonding, and bonding between lovers. Oxytocin reduces aggression and triggers feelings of warmth, cooperation, and affection.

The dogs experience increased oxytocin levels too. And uniquely among our fellow mammals, dogs will maintain eye contact with humans. Isn't this remarkable given that in dog-dog interactions, eye contact signals aggression? Somehow our dogs recognize - or translate - our emotional subtext.

So while I resist being called Toby's "Mom" (I mean I do have lovely human kids) the truth is that Toby probably does love me and depend on me as he would a mother. He loves unconditionally and all the time. He is never too busy or too cool to take a walk or give a "kiss" on the cheek. His love is so uncomplicated. There are no misunderstandings with pheromones, body language, and tone of voice.

Toby, it's true that you get too many treats, but at least they're the healthy kind (no ice cream anyway). It's true that you are spoiled because I've learned over the past 54 years how few chances we get to show our love to those we treasure, and dogs have such short lives. It's also true that you know a lot more about what I'm feeling than I know about you. But I'll keep taking you to classes and working on our teamwork.

Come here for a belly rub, you big baby!

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