Back home I have two dogs, Harley, the mischievous beagle, and JD, the 70-lb tough guy who is actually the biggest scaredy-cat ever. Harley is five years old and permanently attached to my mother's side, as we got him when he was only a few weeks old and he now has some sort of separation anxiety whenever she leaves the room. JD was meant to be my older brother's dog, but now lives in my mom's house instead. I've never owned two dogs at once, and it's quite a different experience than the previous pet-owner dynamic I was used to. Living with them is a constant fluctuation between complete chaos and calm companionship. One minute they'll be growling and chasing each other around the house, and the next they'll be laying side by side on my bed snoring in unison. Sometimes it's hard for me to not play favorites, as Harley tends to bother JD (and by extension me) incessantly, and underneath my desk has become JD's safe haven to get away from the “older brother” torment.
When I'm away at school I miss being able to have their company. My first year at UCSB was difficult—despite making great friends and being kept busy with schoolwork, I struggled with homesickness. I missed my parents and the comforts of my hometown. I missed being able to cuddle with Harley or play fetch with JD. Now that I'm a little older I've become more independent, and I don't go home nearly as often as I used to. But that means I'm missing out on being part of Harley and JD's lives. It's sad to think about, but neither of them will probably live too long. Harley has health problems and epileptic seizures, and like most big dogs, JD won't have a long life expectancy. I hate the thought of being away from them and not being able to get the full joy of being their owner.
This week I wanted to try to reconnect with them utilizing the technology I already had on hand. When I was a freshman I Skyped with my mom nearly every day, even if to just say hello, in an attempt to ease my stress. Since then we've stopped talking as often, and it's hard to find time to fit those chats in. My mom brings Harley and JD with her to work every day, and when we Skype they're usually misbehaving somewhere in the background. Instead of Skyping with my mom only, I wanted to include them in the conversation. For multiple days this week I had my mom point her computer camera toward the dogs as I talked to them. To my surprise they recognized my voice, and immediately perked up in confusion when they couldn't tell where it was coming from.
JD is the smarter of the two, and soon realized I was somehow coming through the computer. As I talked he jumped up on my mom's chair, pushing her out of the screen. For a few minutes he stared at the computer, cocking his head back and forth to the inflections of my voice. Whenever I said his name he would wag his tail and get excited, and his behavior seemed to change depending on what I was telling him. Harley stayed in the background, occasionally glancing in my direction, but not interested enough to get out of his bed.
Skyping with my dogs may sound strange, but it gave me some ideas for potential projects. I'd like to explore this connection between an owner's voice and an animal's reaction/recognition of that familiar sound. I think it'd be an interesting audio project to record myself saying certain phrases or speaking in a particular tone and video taping my pet's responses. This would be much like Nollman's work, but it would be done as sort of a long distance collaboration with the help of my family who actually can be near Harley and JD. I'm still working out the artistic execution, but I'd like to continue using technology to connect with my pets in a new way.
Attached are some photos of our Skype “conversation”.