You and Sophie share a lot of mannerisms.” I cock my head. “We do?” My friend nods. She looks around the table at my other two friends. They also nod. It’s Spring Break of our senior year at university. I’d convinced three of my midwestern friends to road trip from our snowy Michigan college town to my warm, sunny coastal home. We spend our afternoons on the beach, and our evenings sharing drinks around my parents’ dining room table. “What mannerisms?” I ask. My friend swirls her Margarita.
“It’s hard to explain,” she says. “You move your head the same way,”the second friend adds. “It’s your demeanour,” says the third. “You two act alike.” “You make the same expressions.” I cock my head again. “Right there!” The friend who first brought up the subject points at me. “That is such a Sophie thing to do.” I look beneath the table. Sophie is stretched out, so that her body touches everyone’s foot. Having heard her name, and sensing me looking at her, she wags her tail.
We’ve all heard that owners tend to look like their pets. People with ferrets can have small, pointy faces; those with bulldogs can look surly; cat owners look stately. Whenever I meet someone’s furry or scaly sidekick I search for the resemblance. More often than not I find it, but whether that’s because it is actually there or I just want it to be there is another story. When it comes to my own pets, I’ve never noticed a physical resemblance. But a resemblance in everything else? That I do see.
As an only child, I grew up as a military brat/agnostic in the Deep South (AKA the Bible Belt)—the perfect recipe for having loads of alone time. Both of my parents worked so my playmates were our pets: dogs, cats, and the occasional hamster or rabbit. Although I included the hamsters and rabbits in my moments of make believe, it was the dogs who played the most active role. The first dog I mimicked was a grey mutt named Susie. Dad and I adopted Susie when we lived in Cuba. I called her a dingo because she looked wild. We explored our neighbourhood together, often with Susie pulling me along on my rollerblades.
She lay patiently when I surrounded her with stuffed toys. In my dad’s truck, we duelled like siblings over who got to sit next to my father. I picked fleas off her belly while she lay on her back. When Dad and I moved from Cuba to grey, dreary Germany, to a town where few of our neighbours spoke English, Susie and I whiled away our time stomping on crab apples in the walled-in backyard. My mimicry of Susie started small. First, I copied her habit of shaking her head after a sneeze. Then I gnawed at my arm to scratch at an itch, just like Susie did to her legs. Susie sniffed her food before she ate it; so did I. We both lay on our backs with our feet sticking straight up in the air.
I even adopted her personality quirks, like how she snorted when she was mad. I started snorting loudly whenever I didn’t want to listen to my dad. When my mother flew from the States to visit, she listened incredulously as Dad scolded both Susie and me: “Don’t you snort your nose at me.” When Dad and I moved back to the States, I had the added influence of my parents’ other dog Shadow, a British golden retriever who looked more like a Great Pyrenees.
I continued to pick up traits and mould my behaviour after both dogs. It seemed like only a matter of time before I asked someone to throw a ball for me (perhaps that’s the reason the only sport I like playing is baseball?). Thankfully, I wasn’t a total dogchild freak. I picked up traits from my parents, too. I scrunched my face when trying to make a decision, just like my mum. I sometimes hummed to a tuneless song in my head, just like my dad. According to friends, the way I spoke sounded like my mother, while my demeanour mirrored my father.
The problem was that these traits didn’t stand out as much as what I had gleaned from the dogs. Sure, I laughed like my father, but that was nothingcompared to feeling calmed by belly rubs, referring to my water bottle as my water bowl, or bringing Ziploc bags of Milkbones to school.
If I acted like Sophie, which I was sure I did, then that was okay. As far as family resemblances went, taking after loving, loyal dogs wasn’t so bad.
It wasn’t until college that I realised acting like my dogs could be seen as unusual. More and more friends pointed out my habit of sniffing food and drinks before consuming them. I joked that I was basically Mowgli from The Jungle Book, having been raised by dogs. The thing was – I was serious. I didn’t see my dogs as having parented me, but rather I saw them as having raised me like an older sibling to a younger one. We played together, spent our free time together, hid from loud thunder and lightning together, and, as noted earlier, we fought together. I felt loved and protected when I was with them, which I assumed people felt with their siblings, too.
Just like people can look like their pets, we also tend to mimic the environment around us. Kids take after their parents. Siblings mimic siblings. When you live in a new place, your accent may change slightly and you might pick up habits that aren’t from your original home. When you date someone, you might pick up some of their sayings and perhaps a quirk or two. Because I travelled and moved so much as a kid, my environment consisted primarily of my parents and my pets. Wasn’t it only natural that I started to resemble them?
I look under the dining room table. Sophie’s hard tail thumps loud against the tiled floor. As a puppy, she’d belonged to one of my neighbours, but repeatedly dug her way out of the backyard to trot down to my house to wait until I arrived home from school. When my neighbour decided to move in with her boyfriend, whose apartment building didn’t allow pets, she gave Sophie to me. She said, “I think she’s chosen you.” Since then, Sophie and I had been inseparable.
Although I couldn’t totally see the resemblance between Sophie and me (the way I had with Susie and Shadow), I hoped my friends were right. Sophie was calm and loving, always quick to sit beside me when I had a bad day. When two stray cats had kittens in our garage, Sophie lay with the kittens and cleaned them whenever the mothers needed a break. She was never mean or vicious, and she could just as easily lay around the house all day or run in and out of the waves on the beach.