Max likes games, but since I never really took the time to teach him how to play, he doesn’t know how any typical dog games are supposed to go.
Or maybe he does know and he just insists on playing by his own rules.
Every now and then I get the urge to try to play fetch with him. It usually goes something like this: I walk out into the yard wherever he last left the ball. He gets really excited because I’m doing something he could potentially be involved in. (It’s important to note that this is the same level of excitement he shows when I sit on the couch -not something he can really be involved in-, or when I start making dinner -again, not something he can be involved in. So, his level of excitement is not a good indicator of actual involvement…)
After I pick up the ball, he focuses solely on it. I think, “Cool, we are doing this.” And I throw the ball. Max runs after it, but instead of bringing it back to me as a RETRIEVER probably should, he takes it away to a different part of the yard and lays down with it.
Max clearly does not understand how the game fetch works and how fun it is to keep up the cycle of chasing and retrieving. What I’ve begun to suspect Max does understand is how fun keep away is.
Either Max is really clueless (and I might answer that differently depending on the day) or Max thinks that fetch is “keep away.”
I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Max is legitimately playing a different game than I am.
And it is not just in fetch/keep away. Every now and then I get the urge to play tug of war with Max. It usually goes something like this. I see a toy where Max has left it on the living room floor. I pick it up. Max gets really excited because I’m doing something he could potentially be involved in…
After I pick up the toy, he focuses on it and I think, “Cool, let’s do this.” I extend the toy to him, he latches on and we do start tugging for a while. It is clear that Max knows he is not supposed to let go. Things are going a little better than fetch at this point.
Max is pretty rough with the toy, and I’ve noticed that he usually readjusts his grip to catch the weakest part. It’s a weird strategy.
Then, if I let go (to make him think he has a chance, of course), he runs off with the toy and starts chewing on it to try to rip it to shreds. That is not tug of war.
Max clearly does not understand how the game tug of war works and how fun it is to have whole, not chewed up toys, to play it with.
I’ve begun to suspect that Max thinks that tug of war is actually “tear stuff up.” And he legitimately likes to play the game tear stuff up with me – allowing me to hold in place what he wants to tear up.
Max and I are simply not playing the same games.
Now this could be a nice lesson in which I learn how valuable it is to take someone else’s point of view and see how the world is fundamentally different for them than it is for me. I would otherwise have no clue why Max is such a weirdo when it comes to normal dog games. But in stepping into his paws for a second, I can begin to see this other possibility.
But I’m just competitive enough, that the first lesson I actually learned from all this is that playing different games means that we each think the other person is losing really badly. Max is owning me in keep away because I just keep throwing the ball away, and I think he stinks at fetch. Max is destroying it in tear stuff up (literally), and I’m just frustrated that he has ripped up another toy. If we are not playing by the same rules, no one really wins…if winning is even really the point of such interactions.
I have found this to be an important lesson. And I can’t help but think that different segments of society understand each other less and less because we don’t even agree on the rules of the game. Of course, the issues that lead to the division we see are by no means games, but still it is easy to think we are winning if we are investing in values fundamentally different from each other.
I’m going to be more direct than normal here. I think President Trump is losing when he fundamentally misunderstands a peaceful protest about real racial injustice in our country or when he tramples on the civil rights of lgbtq persons, etc. And I have come to understand that he and many of his supporters think me and others who hold similar opinions are losing when we don’t support what he apparently sees as American values.
Now, Max has not taught me a solution to this divisiveness…at least not yet. I think it goes beyond merely trying to understand one another, because this stuff isn’t a game. And even if we agree on the rules, I don’t see how competing to win will help those among us who really need help.
I look forward to that lesson with the solution, hopefully sooner than later. But for now, Max has taught me why he and I seem so disconnected sometimes. And he has taught me that both of us will always lose if we aren’t playing by the same rules.
So, thank you Max for teaching me that sometimes you really are playing by different rules of the game. Thank you for helping me understand some elements of the disconnect I see around me, and I hope that you will soon teach me how to address that division.