Puppy Superstitions

Sunday Letter | #329

Outdoors. Matisse leashed, looking back at the camera.
A very good, patiently-distancing boy.

Matisse has, over the three-and-a-half years since I adopted him, developed some peculiar habits. Sometimes when Julia and I are eating, and we aren’t throwing him scraps of human food, he will – if after staring at us longingly and resting his chin on our laps he still doesn’t get any – go and take a few bites of his own food to show that he’s a good boy. Then he’ll come back, expecting a reward.

I often imagine that for him, this feels like a superstition. Maybe at some point, he got a treat for finishing his food, and he thinks that if we haven’t given him any of ours, it must be because he hasn’t completed all the necessary steps. A better example might be when we’re about to go on a walk, and I tell him to sit so I can put on his collar. We’re already by the door, usually, but what does he do? He leaps onto the sofa and sits there. Sometimes he’ll even run all the way upstairs, and I’ll find him on our bed, tail wagging, neck outstretched. I can almost hear his logic: To go on a walk, I have to have my collar. To get my collar on, I have to sit on a raised surface.

We could try to train this out of him, but we find it adorable and charming (just like the chin-on-lap thing) so we end up reinforcing it.

Maybe this is a kind of human supremacy – my ascribing superstition to a species our culture thinks of as lesser. Instead of superstition, it could very well be cunning on his part, or a desire to be pampered and catered to. I also think of different superstitions I’ve personally held and still hold: that I can’t write in the morning unless I have my tea, meditate, and journal; that I can’t fall asleep unless I take my magnesium supplement and read until I’m bleary. Or, more recently, that I have to write and send out Sunday letters from bed in the evenings, or I won’t finish them on time.

There are moments when I wish I didn’t feel the need to go through all those steps – that I didn’t have to run upstairs when the door is right in front of me. Maybe I think about routines so much because I feel so beholden to old ones. What is a superstition, after all, but the ghost of an old routine? If only I could train myself to write anywhere, under any circumstances … is something I’ve thought more than a few times.

What I’m learning from Matisse is that these creative superstitions, as silly as they seem, are worthy of reinforcement, if for no reason other than their charm. So what if it takes a few extra steps? The outcome is the same. The collar goes on. The book is written. The letter is sent. We head out, eventually, on our walk, and we may even get a laugh out of how we started.