Something I learned from my dog and didn't understand until years later: don't punish a social animal by throwing them out of the pack
For people that new me in Reno and Syracuse, you probably remember Bodega. This post explains something that I learned from her that I didn't accept until years later.
I had an exchange today with a friend who had a similar situation to me in the sense of suddenly losing a job and source of identity. It reminded me how much an action that indicated "I care about you. I hope you are OK" meant to me.
It is amazing to me how much the few of my colleagues and acquaintances in Greensboro who reached out mattered. A different colleague went through a similar situation here several months after me. I didn't know that person well, but I called and texted that person when I learned the news, because I promised myself I would never stay silent again in such situations. I left a message about how sorry I was, hoping that person was OK, and offering support. The person didn't call me back for maybe a month. But, when the person did, they told me I was the only one (or 1 of just a few) university administrative colleagues that did that and how much it meant to them (and then that person teared up-- and this is one tough person). In response to my first posting of this blog, another former colleague told a similar tale. I guess as social organisms, our emotions are very tied to feeling part of a pack.
Being thrown out of pack is an extraordinarily painful experience. When I was an assistant professor I rescued a mix-breed dog. She was a fantastic dog. Early in our relationship, I thought she had pooped in the house (in retrospect I think it was just vomit). And, I decided I was going to punish her by throwing her out of the pack, which meant not letting her near me, not petting her etc, making her lay in the corner, not using my "talking to a pet" voice. Within a day, she went nuts with anxiety-- she ended up peeing several times in the house. She was so anxious and discombobulated. And, my punishment caused the exact opposite behavior from what I had hoped for.
So, I realized that throwing her out of the pack was a dumb idea. We were walking out of the front door, and I did some gesture to let her know she was back in the pack. I think I got down on one knee, called her, and petted her. She went crazy again.. this time with happiness (it was kind of sad). She couldn't stop licking me and she was the happiest I ever saw her. It was kind of pathetic in a way and I felt so terrible for putting her through two days of angst. We became best friends forever (with a few hiccups caused by my travel) from that day forward. I learned something that day, though it took my own being thrown out of the pack many years later to understand what I learned.
The evolution of sociality, I think, makes us all fundamentally want to be a part of a pack. And, when we are thrown out by the alpha, and all of the other pack members accept our fate and act as if they no longer know us, it is simply disconcerting and painful. And, it matters way more than I could have ever imagined before that morning with my dog, for members of the pack to simply demonstrate they care with a simple message- "I care about you. I hope you are OK."
I am so perplexed how often being thrown out of the pack occurs in academe, even though every university I ever worked for tried to create a narrative of a caring community. One thing I have learned over my career is that you cannot create a caring environment in the workplace, in the classroom, on in the campus culture, unless you and/or your "alphas" truly care. The louder the narrative, the less caring is the community.
Try to remember this post if being thrown out of pack happens to one of your colleagues or friends.
On a funny note, the dog's name was Bodega. I named her after my favorite place in the world back then-- Bodega Bay, California. I lived in Syracuse when I adopted Bodega, and was an Assistant Professor at Syracuse U. Bodega was inseparable from me-- she came to work every day and was kind of like the department dog. She was a collie/golden retriever mix, who shed about 20 pounds of hair per hour, covering my favorite green fleece pullover (a gift from students) with dog hair. I loved that dog (as I do everyone of my life's canine companions).
No one in Syracuse ever commented on her name.
I did a one-year rotation as a program officer at NSF in 1995-1996 and moved to Arlington, VA with Bodega. I would break the law sometimes and walk here without a leash. She was a good dog, but every once in while she would get too far away from me when we were walking.
One afternoon on my street, there was a LatinX women walking on the other side of the street as I was calling "Bodega!" to my dog to return to me. The woman broke out hysterically laughing when I called "Bodega!" and then screamed over to me-- "Do you know you named your dog grocery store?"
I actually did know that small grocery stores are familiarly called bodegas. I also looked up the dictionary definition back then when I named Bodega, and I think it translated to warehouse (in retrospect I thought both were kind of apropos for her, especially for a dog that could smell pizza 1/4 mile away and would dash to the house to get pizza crust- i.e., a food warehouse). And, Bodega Bay remains one of my favorite places in the country- I never doubted the name. But, I am glad I gave that woman a chance to laugh like that, and feed her image of a dumb gringo...
Writing about Bodega put a smile on my face, and sadness in my heart. If you read this far, thank you.
The pic is not Bodega. I don't have one that is digitized. But, this is a very good representation of her- just add more hair..