I know there is more than enough literature about cats versus dogs out there. Tons. Megatons. Enough to fill the lost Library of Alexandria.
And that is not going to stop me from adding to it.
Because as a pet owner who has had both cats and dogs over the course of my life, and who has been very closely attached to a cat and now a dog, I like to think about the differences in these two quite different animals.
Or maybe it would be more appropriate to say I like to reflect on those differences when a behavior Charlie exhibits is so vastly opposite the behavior my beloved Figaro used to evince.
Oh, Figaro. My first (pet) love. We rescued him when I was 14 and it was obvious within a few weeks whom he had chosen as his companion… he liked my dad, and would fall back on my dad when I wasn’t around. He was terrified of both my mom and sister and never went near them. But me? We were best buds. Inseparable. Figaro kept me sane and centered through the worst years of every person’s life (high school), and he went with me on that terrifying-and-exciting journey of college. He moved with me to California and stayed with me through first jobs, first kisses, new dreams, failed ventures, and lost loves. Through years of loneliness, depression, hopelessness, and anxiety, Figaro snuggled beside me, with a soft and gentle purr waiting to soothe.
Not surprisingly, I was crushed when my cherished cat started showing signs of a serious illness. And a part of me died – I’m not ashamed to say – when I had Figaro put to sleep on a dark day in July 2004.
I still miss him every day. And no other pet who comes into my life will take Figaro’s place.
But the heart really has no limits. Because Charlie has come to be a central force in my life too. And I love this dog in the way I loved Figaro, although I hold them in separate chambers – similar but still distinct.
Which is why I think Charlie’s behaviors always remind me of Figaro. Charlie is a completely different animal, but the times he makes me laugh or smile call to mind the times Figaro did. And I often laugh even harder when I see the differences in the circumstances and behavior.
Like this past Wednesday. I returned home from a conference in Atlanta after being gone for 5 days. This was the first time Charlie and I had been separated for more than a day since we adopted him last June, so this was the first Big Return.
Pet owners understand the Big Return. But allow me to elaborate for those who may have never experienced this particular aspect of pet ownership. When you jet off on any kind of trip, and leave Fluffy or Fido behind, it is obviously quite traumatic on the pet. It’s bad enough when you’re gone all day, but to be gone overnight too?? For several days and nights in a row??? Even Fluffy doesn’t like it, if for no other reason than she’s concerned the litter box won’t get cleaned.
And then you come home. You walk in your front door, suitcase in hand, hair sticking up in every direction since I swear airplanes infuse their seats with static, and there is Fluffy or Fido. That moment when your adored companions recognize you as the person at the door is the Big Return.
Fluffy and Fido thought they were never going to see you again. And now you’re home.
There are any number of reactions Fluffy and Fido can display during the Big Return. Excitement, obviously. Happiness. Boundless happiness even. Or, the opposite. Disdain. Flippancy. Suspicion.
Figaro was the latter. Any time I came home after several days away, he gave me a shoulder cold enough to freeze salt water (which is 28 degrees Fahrenheit, in case you were wondering) for the first full day I was back. Nothing I did shattered that ice. He was mad at me for leaving him, and he was going to make sure I knew it.
But once bedtime rolled around, he thawed. He always slept in my bed with me, on his own pillow even, and when I went to bed, he always tagged along. Since his pillow was next to mine, he also tended to curl up as close to my face as he could get… and then purred like a chainsaw. Best cure for insomnia, that is.
Charlie, on the other hand, started the Big Return by barking at me. Not an auspicious beginning, but considering I had managed to get my key stuck in the door lock, I’m not totally surprised. He could hear someone outside; he didn’t know who it was. Once I managed to make it in, however, I experienced a tidal wave of dog emotions.
First, boundless excitement. Jumping up and down, yipping and whining in that happy way dogs do, trying to give me Charlie kisses even though my face is a full 5 and ½ feet away from his when I’m standing up.
After approximately 30 seconds of this, however, Charlie seemed to realize… hey! You haven’t been here since forever!! I’m really mad at you for leaving me. For making me worry. So, jumping ceases. Whining stops. No more attempts to reach my face through 6 feet jumps. Now it’s full-fledged suspicion.
But you’re home!! And I was so worried you had gone away forever! I’m so happy to have you home! You’re home!!
Suspicion ends and excitement renews. Jumping resumes. Whining and yipping recommence.
Until it stops again.
And we go through this cycle of excitement – suspicion – excitement – suspicion for several minutes after my arrival. I keep trying to pet and snuggle with Charlie, but by the time I kneel down to the floor to reach him, he’s turned on the suspicion again. I stand up, and he goes back to excitement. I got a lot of exercise when I got home on Wednesday evening.
Ultimately though, Charlie was happy to see me. He was a little distant that first night (because, yes, he sleeps in the bed with J and I, and he tends to snuggle with me), but the next morning, we resumed our routine of morning walk followed by breakfast (for Charlie), and we were best pals again.
And will be… until the next time I go out of town.