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Like Father, Like Dog

My dog and I become more alike with each passing year

Our recent Yuletide family gathering ended with a dog fight.

My wife and I had brought our dog Maggie to my parents’ house. My younger brother and his family had their dog Luna accompanying them. That evening I had dozed off after a heavy meal only to be awakened by a cacophony of snarling and screaming. I rushed into the next room to find my brother holding each animal by the scruff and my wife with a bite on her arm, the mark of her attempt at mediating a battle of the bitches. It was like Christmas at Michael Vick’s house.

This is our life with Maggie as she enters her golden years. Once playful and curious, she at best tolerates other canines and mostly detests them. When we host family gatherings, she retreats to a corner or hides in our bedroom as the other dogs roughhouse. On walks through the park, I can’t predict which pooch she’ll ignore and which she’ll suddenly lunge toward like Alec Baldwin on a paparazzo.

How did the sociable, peppy pup we adopted nine years ago become a floppy-eared explosive? Rattled by the Christmas day battle, I decided to get some answers about her demeanor with some online research. And I found a study that prompted me to reflect on our life together.

Maggie is 10 years old, which equates roughly to the human age of 60, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. By that measure, she’s just a couple of years older than me. And I discovered that our personalities may be dovetailing as we age together. In a recent study published in Journal of Research in Personality, a research team at Michigan State University surveyed owners of more than 1,600 dogs of various breeds and ages. The survey had owners evaluate their dogs’ temperaments and answer questions about their behavior over time. And the participants also answered questions about their own personalities (e.g., extroverted, agreeable.)

They found that, at least according to the owners, the dogs personalities had changed over time. And they also identified a link between the dogs’ temperament and their owners’. Extroverted owners rated their dogs as more excitable and active, while owners high in negative emotions rated their dogs as more fearful and aggressive.

I stopped to consider Maggie’s life and the behavior changes I’ve noticed in recent years. She’s been bullied by other dogs, which could explain why she’s perpetually on red alert. Unpleasant kennel stays in her youth have resulted in anxiety when she’s in any new building, which she copes with by taking an immediate dump on the floor. Veterinary exams that once triggered a couple of whimpers now spark whining that can shatter glass. And our walks are now a tug-of-war, with me yanking on her leash as she digs her claws into solid pavement to sniff stray candy wrappers and squirrel carcasses.

I compare that to my own experiences over the last decade, and how they’ve changed me:

— Years of intense job stress have turned my amygdala into a cerebral landmine.

— I’ve felt crushed by the decaying political environment. The racism and xenophobia. The rise of autocracy. Kanye.

— The voices of family and friends that once greeted me when I accepted a call are replaced by robots selling me a low mortgage rate or alerting me that my credit card was used to purchase uranium in Kazakhstan.

— I’m witnessing climate change spawn weather catastrophes that proliferate faster than the hair growing out of my ears.

No wonder Maggie and I both eschew drinks at the dog cafe and opt for a night curled up in front of a roaring “Game of Thrones” episode — even one from the final season.

I knew Maggie would slow down as she aged, but naively thought her overall temperament would stay intact. It didn’t. Neither did mine. I’ve changed in ways I could never have predicted when tweeting was something only birds did, and when fake news was limited to satire and not a White House press briefing.

I can’t pretend to grasp Maggie’s emotions and behavior, any more than she can understand mine. I no more fathom why skateboarders scare her than she can understand why I groan when I hear Creed on the radio. But intrinsically, I get her because we’re fundamentally alike. We both, for example, react viscerally to certain clothing cues— she to uniforms and bike helmets, me to MAGA hats and Crocs.

I’m admittedly using a single study to draw connections between Maggie’s evolution and my own. And I can’t ignore genetic coincidence as a factor in our similarities. Who knows what traits are lurking in Maggie’s DNA mutt mash-up that echo my German-Scottish heritage?

All I know is that we sync. We complete each other. She looks to me for discipline, safety, and food. I rely on her for her affection and her ominous barking when Jehovah Witnesses knock on the door. She’s my one and only pooch — and not only because she’d attack any other pet we’d bring into the house.

I write about the science of the human mind and behavior, with a sprinkle of humor.

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