Squirrels and Dogs and Horses, Oh My! (#279)

Over the past week, it has become apparent: Charlie is once again afraid of dogs. On a walk last Friday we ran into his afterschool babysitter, who was walking her dog Angel before taking her to the vet. Charlie froze ten feet away and edgily neared me (because I was standing close to the dog) and demanded "Up, Mommy!" Today we took the train to Hoboken and the same freezing-grabbing-mom-or-dad and requesting "Up!" desperately occurred when we walked out of a restaurant and caught sight of a young couple eating outside, pink-leashed dog under the table.
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When he was 2 1/2, Charlie was terrified of squirrels. We were living in St. Paul a few blocks from a college and often took a walk on the campus grounds. At the site of a squirrel scurrying across the grass or skittering up a tree, Charlie (not yet talking) cried out and clung to our legs, eyes wide open like a character in a Manga comic book. Jim and I hypothesized that it was the squirrel’s sudden, darting, unpredictable movements that terrified Charlie, and I think this is one reason for Charlie’s new dog-fear which is amplified by the larger size of even the smallest dogs (well, maybe not the chihuahuas in the park today) and their tendency to approach us rather than, like the squirrels, to flit away.

Charlie eventually got over his fear of squirrels and, at the age of four, became highly interested in chasing them and staring up the trunk of a tree the squirrel had just ascended. Indeed, he was so fascinated with squirrels for a while that we searched high and low for a squirrel stuffed animal (we had to settle for a puppet). But something about squirrel stayed in Charlie’s mind and indeed gave me two important clues for his understanding of the world.

First was a clue about Charlie’s selective viewing of the visual world. We had a set of modeling clay tools that included a stencil with a sideways S-shaped squiggle. The first time I took this out Charlie’s eyes opened huge and he ran squealing away.

Over an S?
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I looked carefully at the stencil and saw what Charlie must be seeing: The sideways S resembled nothing so much as a squirrel with its long tail. Charlie was nonetheless fascinated by the squirrel-stencil and would press it into some Model Magic and then run away, howling. When his squirrel-fear subsided, he made several "squirrels," labeled them, and smooshed them out before moving onto his favorite horse and car molds.

I started to realize then how selective–how streamlined–might be Charlie’s visual perception of the world, such that squirrels themselves looked like sideways S’s to him. That was why, when he was not yet two years old, Charlie only chose red socks to wear and could always find our green car in the huge parking lot at Cub Foods: The red socks, the green stationwagon, were all he was looking to see in the landscape.

The second squirrel-clue was about how Charlie hears language and other sounds.

When he was five Charlie was learning "man" vs. "woman" and "boy" vs. "girl." We would practise with flashcards and by pointing to pictures in catalogues and magazines. One day I showed him a "girl" flashcard and he went ballastic and ran off, only to return and look closely at the card.

"Squgirl! Squgirl!" And off he ran again, and I was left to think (with apologies to Squaregirl), Charlie hears the sounds inside of words, and often not the first and last consonants. So could "girl" remind him of "squirrel," as both have that internal irl sound.
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And, by the process of metonymy by which two things can be equated simply because they happened one after the other, Charlie briefly associated girls and squirrels. More long-standing metonymies for Charlie are those between pet dogs and their owners, between Uncle Rocco’s Portia and Tara‘s Lou.

Charlie has never met Lou (he lives in Minnesota) but he saw Portia regularly a few years ago and, thanks to his uncle’s kindly helping Charlie feed her dog treats, Charlie developed a real liking for her. (This did extend to trying to sit on Portia’s back and ride her, and Portia is a Lady (as in Lady and the Tramp) kind of dog.) And Charlie’s good memories with Portia, and with the therapy dog, Melody, at our opthamologist, all made dogs much more appealing creatures.

So I’m not sure why dog-fear has suddenly re-erupted in Charlie. He has never been chased for two blocks by a German shepherd as I was walking home from 2nd grade one day or been bitten on the posterior as an aunt was by a Weimaraner named Shadow or fallen on his face and ripped up his leg while being pursued by a mutt named Freckles as Jim was (and still bears the scar to prove it). And I don’t think it might be the barking, as most of the dogs we’ve encountered with Charlie have been pretty quiet.

I was terrified of dogs as a child because, like Charlie, I sensed their unpredictability, that wildness, and was immediately taken aback when, for every step I took in reverse, the four-legged animal advanced. In Oakland and in Kirkwood, Missouri, I was out jogging when a dog came after me and kept running and licking and barking (and the one in Missouri was taller than me when he leapt up on his hind paws). I still have my reservations about dogs but, with Charlie cowering behind me, I’ve had to smile, shut down any scent of fear, and let the dog come and lick and nudge and nip at me.

"Charlie, she’s just being friendly!"

"Bye bye!" says Charlie. "All done doggy." I smile at the dog’s owner and Charlie and I walk away, with him casting one more nervous glance at the dog.

The other dog that Charlie has warmed up to belongs to my Uncle Bingson who lives in California. Callie is a big, friendly, gentle golden retriever whom Charlie immediately took to (1) because my uncle’s wife was fascinated by his being fascinated and held the dog while coaxing Charlie to pet and stroke her and (2) Callie looks like a toy dog Charlie has (and now calls "doggy Callie") and whom he used to use while re-scripting a scene from a Teletubbies video, Favorite Things.
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In the video (it’s one of the segments of real kids projected via the Teletubbies’ TV stomachs), four British children are at the beach with a white Scotch terrier, Jesso, and a beach ball. The ball gets lost in the wind and sand and is found by Jesso. "Jesss-oh, Wesss-oh, Jess-oh’s got da ball!" Charlie used to call out as he rolled his beach ball on the deck of our rental house at the Jersey shore. He had another toy dog then, a mechanical one, who he used as a stand-in for Jesso—and, in re-scripting that Teletubbies script a few years ago, Charlie put his toy dog too close to the ocean and the dog was washed out into the Atlantic.

"Poetic justice," I said to Jim.

A former student who has cerebral palsy and used to train horses has been encouraging me to get Charlie to start riding. She told me of how it felt for her, as a disabled child, to be up on a horse: "I was taller than everyone. I felt so powerful."

Today I heard a few dogs bark as Charlie and Jim rode off on their bikes this morning. I saw no faltering in Charlie’s pedaling up high on his two wheeler, beside his dear ol’ dad.

Pure poetry.

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Comments
6 Responses to “Squirrels and Dogs and Horses, Oh My! (#279)”
  1. I am always in awe of your (and Jim’s!) observational and analytical prowess when it comes to deciphering Charlie’s ways.

    I am sorry I’m not close enough to come over with Jennie (another large, loving Golden Retriever) — they could even swim together.

    That said, a fear of dogs is not altoghter a bad thing. It is better than the child who runs up to strange dogs.

  2. mom-nos says:

    I was so relieved to read your last paragraph. My first thought on learning of Charlie’s new fear of dogs was “Oh no – what will that mean for the beloved bike ride?”

  3. Liz, we’d love to meet Jennie though Charlie would require a big of a warm-up!

    Mom-NOS (and I think we cross-commented on our blogs), Jim would NEVER let that happen, but I’m waiting now for the two of them to return with a “guess what happened to us!” tale.

  4. Mommyguilt says:

    I agree…being afraid of dogs is not, altogether, a bad thing. My Girl had a similar experience with a chipmunk when she was only 3 or 4 and, because we love her so, we have never let her forget! Oh, and somehow, I don’t see Charlie EVER tiring of his bike!

  5. zilari says:

    How is Charlie doing with his reading / letter-word decoding? This is just a guess, but I wonder if he will perhaps understand speech more clearly when his reading skills develop further.

    I’m saying this as someone who has trouble understanding speech, and who utilizes the visual images associated with letters, words, and parts of words to help unscramble the vocalizations I hear. I literally cannot repeat or understand a word I hear unless I read it…it all sounds like noises running together otherwise.

    I first realized this when I came upon a song (in Japanese) that I wanted to be able to sing along to. No matter how many times I played the song, I couldn’t sing a single line. But then I found a Romanized translation of the song (Japanese words spelled out phoenetically using English characters) and I highlighted each syllable of each word.

    After studying the syllables for a while, I was able to hear the song and repeat lines from it — having a visual image (a syllable) associated with a sound made the sounds jump out in all their discrete glory. Even now, when people talk, I tend to “see” flashes of text when I hear words, and this helps me put structure to speech.

    I know everyone is different and that I could just be wildly speculating here, but I figured it was worth mentioning, since I can completely understand how one would get “squirrel” from “girl”. They do sound alike, but the words don’t look much alike when written.

  6. squaregirl says:

    No apologies necessary 🙂

    I work with a little guy who has a similar reaction to owls that Charlie did to squirrels. He often opens pages of books where he knows there’s a picture of an owl, then runs away, and then sneaks another peek before running away…it’s a fascination/fear. We haven’t yet figured out what it is about owls, but I’m working on it.

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