I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream when I came home the other day and found this. Rosie had torn open a bag of plastic bags that was headed for recycling. They were everywhere.
Rosie first crouched down as if waiting for the blow that never came. I did express my dismay — not to her, but to the world in general. Not yelling, just my patented (hah!) technique of dramatically expressing woe at normal speaking volume, said woe not directed at any perpetrator.
I’ve very good at sounding like one of Terry Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegles: “Waily waily! Bags on the floor! Waily waily!”
But the perp always knows who’s really guilty. Rosie would not look at me nor, after she sat up again, would she look at the mess. She gazed fixedly out the door, as if no bags were there. Or maybe as if she was simply bearing witness to someone else’s crime. Perhaps she expected I’d believe one of the cats did it. Or maybe some other dog.
No, none of those things. I think it was a test she had devised for me, to see what I would do.
The good news is that Rosie was seeing if she was a bad dog. On purpose. Yes, that’s good news! Tearing up a bag of plastic is such a normal (if unwanted) thing for a dog to do. It makes me happy that Rosie feels comfortable enough to risk exploring what the rules are in this house. Even I, dense human that I am, know that she can’t ask me in any other way other than by doing.
That’s the trick, isn’t it? I can’t just tape a list to the refrigerator door. I can’t expect her to try to learn if I punish her for exploring the boundaries, either. I do expect her to notice my reactions and to remember them, though. I expect her to not repeat the actions that elicited my reactions, and then — eventually — to understand the rule that governs that set of circumstances. That sounds pretty complicated but dogs are good at figuring the rules out, as long as the human is consistent with respect to the actions governed by those rules.
Think of it as an inter-species game of charades.
One day Rosie picked up a slipper and marched across the room with it while I was sitting at the computer. I removed it from her mouth and put it back. She has not done exactly that again. Instead, she next gathered all my shoes that were not in the closet and brought them to her bed by the door while I was out of the house. When I returned and discovered the pile of shoes there I picked them up and put them back.
She did not chew on the shoes. She just moved the shoes. She hasn’t touched any shoes since. So could she assume that the rule is don’t touch Lif’s shoes?
Maybe. How could she be sure without testing? So next was the plastic bags. While there were some bits and pieces of plastic scattered around, I don’t think she was purposefully tearing them up as much as accidentally doing so as she pulled them out of the containing bag and separated them from each other. And again, she did this right by her dog bed near the kitchen door — not by her other bed next to my own, but where I would see the crime the moment I came entered the house. Again I expressed woe as I picked up the bags and then put them out of reach.
To me this was about Rosie asking questions and not about Rosie being a bad dog. The questions aren’t like we would ask. They’re more like hot and cold (a form of charades). If I do this, how will Lif respond? If I do more of this, what will she do? What if I do this other thing, which is kind of like those first things but different?
Because I’m not punishing her when I discover these things, Rosie is free to ask the questions in a way that makes sense to her. I don’t mind people or critters asking questions. Picking up a few shoes or plastic bags is not a hardship for me. It’s a small thing in the bigger picture. Rosie has only been here a few weeks and she’s trying to learn a whole bunch of rules all at once. Not only rules like going outside to pee and poop, or not messing with the cats.
Rosie is learning that Lif’s stuff is Lif’s stuff, not Rosie’s. Also, she’s learning that Lif is a safe human being to be around. Maybe even a fun human, someone a dog relax around. And I think most important of all, Rosie is learning to feel that this is her home — and as a resident she can ask questions without fear.
I say, ask away.