OK, I guess the first thing to admit is that I’m totally in love with our dog, Sadie. So, my perceptions are incredibly biased. But in the account that follows, I will try to separate observation from interpretation in at least once instance.
From Sadie’s first puppy days with us, Sadie and I have played a lot of ball, most often with a tennis ball. (Sadie completely destains Pickle balls, by the way). We have evolved many different games and variations. Perhaps at some future time, I might trace out the ontological tree of indoor and outdoor tennis games, played, at least for the most part, without a racquet by either of us.
For a time, we got in the habit of throwing a ball off the back deck early in the morning. Initially, the game was for Sadie to catch the ball while still in motion. She would begin dashing down the stairs of the deck in order to hit stride on the grass make a sharp right turn into the driveway and catch the ball, if possible, in the air. Eventually, the garden had a baker’s dozen of balls in various places along the edge of the driveway. This led Sadie to invent a new game. (Yes, Sadie. It felt to both Wendy and me that this was her initiative.)
Rather than dashing down the stairs so swiftly she see whatever ball was most recently thrown because it was still moving, she now would wait until the ball was either barely rolling or had already come to a rest. Then, she would dash to the far end of the driveway and determine by smell which ball had just be thrown. Having watched the ball, the human observer on the deck could see which was the most recently thrown ball. Sadie would trot up to a group of balls in roughly the same spot and sniff till she found the correct one and then come racing back with it.
A few weeks ago, our Doggie School teacher brought out a “squeaky ball” — a tennis ball, but one that squeaks. It isn’t as bouncy as a “real” tennis ball, but it has the same shape, weight, texture as a “real” tennis ball—and because neither one of them is manufactured by General Motors, they are both the same shade of the green that everyone else inexplicably calls “yellow.” (I strongly suspect that the vast majority of people are anomalous trichromats without knowing it. This would explain why my judgement is so often at odds with that of others).
Sadie has taken a couple of the “squeaky balls” outside. In the last week, she’s started a new behavior. She digs a hole in the dirt with her squeaky ball beside her; then she rolls the squeaky ball around in the dirt; don’t rinse; repeat; again; again. I found myself thinking she was making it harder to see and grosser. But of course, that’s only from my perspective. What she’s actually doing is making the ball easier to distinguish visually from the others, especially at a distance. More importantly, she’s making the ball more findable by smell alone and she’s making the ball more interesting and more personalized.
Sadie-ized squeaky ball above. “Real” tennis ball below.
A person can train a dog (or other animal) to do amazing things. It takes patience and discipline. I’m not very good at either. But I’m also interested to see what emerges from a cross-species interaction where there is no pre-conceived “right way” or “end goal” that is envisioned and then imposed on the other. Don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly okay with insisting she do her business outside and that she not eat the cats. But to me, it’s much more interesting to play ball with Sadie and see what emerges rather than “teach” her to play ball “my way.”
When I was a kid, we played “baseball” but it was rare we played on a regulation field and almost unheard of that we played with nine on a side. Typically, there were only somewhere between two and fourteen total. We invented all sorts of work-arounds. Sometimes, a team would have one of their own do the pitching and/or catching for the batting team. Sometimes, we would have to use “imaginary runners.” I get a base hit. The next batter walks. The next batter walks. Now, the bases are loaded! Yay!
The only problem: there are only three people on our team. Solution: The player on second would go to third to take my place and I would go bat. Now, if I got another hit and the real player who started on first made it all the way home, for instance, we could infer that the “imaginary runner” who started on second had made it as well.
We tend to think of the phrase “Play Ball!” As a unitary phrase. But it does have two components. Sometimes, I think it possible that we’ve become so competitive that when the umpire yells: “Play Ball!” We immediately think: Win! Go Team! I’ve got five bucks on this game!” And, in the context of professional baseball where it’s a multi-billion dollar business, that makes some sense. But in the context of kids (regardless of age) with dogs, or kids with kids, maybe we should hear: