Sophie's world: The Beginning

By Gene Titus© 1993

Reprinted here by permission of the author.
We have 2 dogs.

Sabrina is a three-year-old pound puppy. She's 80% Saluki and 20% Golden Retriever. Saluki's are gazelle hunting desert dogs. They're sleek, swift, agile and graceful. Sabrina has all the qualities plus the Golden's addiction for chasing tennis balls.

Sophie is a 5-month-old Great Pyrenees puppy. She might be considered sleek. Swift, agile and graceful have never been used in the same sentence with Sophie --until now.

Sophie and Sabrina have become the best of doggie friends and play together constantly. Their play is truly a study in contrasts. Nowhere are the contrasts more apparent than in the simple act of chasing a tennis ball.

Let's start with the tennis ball throw.

Sabrina can get up and start running in one swift motion, her eyes never breaking contact with the ball. She races to catch up with the ball. As her mouth closes around the ball, she stops on a dime, turns around and trots back to where she started. Very practiced and efficient.

Sophie tries to follow Sabrina's lead. First the attempt to stand quickly. This seems to require actual eye contact with all four paws to cause the correct signals to fire to untangle her feet and get them all pointed in the right direction. After the challenge of becoming vertical is complete, another mental command is fired to start forward motion. Her four paws, at first working independent of one another, slowly get in step and Sophie is now moving. Now her eyes are free to see if she's really going in the right direction.

Once moving, Sophie is a formidable force. She starts gaining on Sabrina.

About the time Sophie reaches Sabrina, Sabrina has caught the ball and is executing her instant reversal of direction. It takes Sophie a step or two before the realization of being the only one still traveling this direction sets in. Then the mental command to "slam on the brakes" fires. Her four paws, having just perfected the art of working together, find themselves independent appendages once again.

Her head, being so much closer to her brain than her feet, has already gotten the signal to turn around and is now facing where it thinks the body should be going. Then the front feet get the news and attempt to get the front half of her body stopped.

Somewhere between the front half and the back half of a Great Pyrenees puppy is a customs check point. All brain signals must have their passports checked, their luggage searched and their reason for visiting the back half validated. This process causes a considerable delay before the back end finds out the flight has been canceled. The effect being the front feet stop and the back feet keep going. Nature, through millennia of favorable genetic mutations, has provided the Great Pyrenees physique an instinctual, reflexive action for just this kind of situation. Its called the somersault! Sophie now executes this ageless, graceless, seemingly painless move.

Nature has also provided a face-saving recovery for the somersault. At the moment when all movement ceases, the brain is instructed to forget everything that just happened, backup one memory (in this case, get the ball) and resume normal operation. Sophie now executes the original get up and get moving set of commands as if nothing has happened. There's no evidence of embarrassment or frustration. It's as if the tumble never happened.

The return trip rarely results in the somersault as the stopping point is known well in advance. By this time, Sabrina has returned and is lying on the ground chewing on the tennis ball. Sophie, back up to top speed, sees her chance. Both the ball and Sabrina are motionless. Sophie homes in on the unsuspecting pair. You might think Sabrina a little daft to just lie there and wait for Sophie, but she's been in this situation before and knows exactly what to do. She doesn't move.

When the time is right, Sophie's brain, in preparation for ending up with her mouth around the tennis ball, engages the stopping sequence. As before, the time lag between the front and back starts to cause problems. Nature again comes to the rescue.

Imagine if you will, the great-great ancestor of the modern Pyrenees puppy. Imagine if you will the great-great ancestor of the modern tennis ball. Now imagine this primordial tennis ball sitting in front of a very large, very solid, tree. Now imagine our proto-Pyr puppy running at top speed, heading for the tennis ball. There was a segment of the prehistoric Pyr puppy population that attempted this stunt and subsequently smashed their prehistoric heads into the trees. The result being a whole bunch of young Pyrs who couldn't remember who they were or what they were supposed to do. These Pyrs rarely propagated. Sort of a precursor to the modern practice of neutering those Pyrs not quite the show dog.

The other segment of the prehistoric Pyr puppy population tended to miss these trees altogether. Some believe the misses were due to poor eyesight. I tend to go with the one leg was a bit shorter theory. For whatever reason, those Pyrs grew up to be active, promiscuous adults, passing on their tree-missing traits.

Sabrina knows that Sophie's lineage comes from the second group. As predicted, that part of Sophie's primordial brain recognizes the impending collision and takes the appropriate action. Sophie runs right past Sabrina and into a lawn chair. The natural selection process of the modern pyr puppy is still being perfected.

Sophie untangles herself from the lawn chair and ambles over to me. I agree with her that it was all the lawn chairs fault and give her a couple of reassuring pats. She then sits down and waits for the process to start all over again.

Goooood Sophie!

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