You’ve got to hand it to dogs –they have us pretty well where they want us. When they first attempted to domesticate us 30,000 or whatever years ago, I doubt that they ever dreamed of what they’d be able to accomplish with slaves. Fortunately for us, they have proven to be compassionate and empathetic masters by and large. A major impediment to their total domination, has been that of language, however. Despite their overweening patience, they have been unable to teach us their language, and so have contented themselves with tolerating baby sounds from the soppier members of their dominion, and well-meaning gruff, bark-like grunts from the rest. You’d have thought that after all this time, there’d be more progress. I sometimes wonder how they put up with us.
I used to think I was making progress. When I was a child, I was sure I was able to communicate satisfactorily with Boots, my sort-of cocker spaniel. It wasn’t a word-thing, although he would wag and lick my face to make me think they were working. No, in retrospect I’m sure it was body language, the lingua franca –or should I say lingua corporis? – we both agreed we understood. He would make faces at me, and I, in turn, would reciprocate. It was a crude system to be sure, but like all facial pidgins, it sufficed. It wasn’t like I was depending on him to do my homework, or anything.
Unfortunately, the life span of a dog is no match for our own, so I found myself being trained by a succession of dogs through the years, each insisting I learn its own vocabulary and each waiting with baited tongue as it coached me through the hurdles of dialect and nuance. Some placed inordinate emphasis on eye contact, while others seemed to require various facial modifications before they consented to participate in telling me things. Growing up was fraught with tensions like that.
But as I aged, and assimilated the hubris of my own kind, I have to admit that I began to notice accretions of speciesism clinging to my attitudes about the non-Homo genera. I began to view the sapiens part through a more critical lens –and being human, invested more credibility in our rightful dominance. I relished in the King James translation of 1 Corinthians 13:11 –When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. How could I have ever believed in a communion of genera? A synod of Mammalia?
And yet, it’s not that easy to unravel a Weltanschauung, and I have to say that, despite maturity, I have remained a closet canid searching for validation. Yearning for absolution, I worried that my transgressions would be visible to passing dogs, even if invisible to their leashed humans. Had I, in the once-upon-a-time clothes of childhood actually been able to understand my dogs? Commune with them? A still-small voice insisted I had; an adult equivalent attempted disavowal.
I am still a child somewhere deep inside, but in this day and age, one has to be careful about disclosure -eccentricity, has a different definition after retirement. A different outcome, at any rate. And so, much like gender discrepancies used to be hidden, I hid my lingua canis from any but close friends who promised they wouldn’t tell on me.
And then, like the appearance of the virgin Mary on that Tim Hortons wall in St. Catharines, or wherever, I saw a vindication in the Smithsonian Magazine, reporting on some articles in Nature: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/our-dogs-use-facial-expressions-bond-us-180965333/ – dlAerqrFZor0KbY9.03 I knew it!
‘Primates have been the only non-human animals known to use different facial expressions in response to who’s looking at them, reports Emma Young of Nature. Just like in people those expressions are likely intended to communicate a variety of emotions, feelings and reactions. But this latest study suggests that dogs also have quite a range of nonverbal expressions.’ A key stimulus to the production of these expressions seems to be mutual eye contact. Makes sense –an expression is wasted if the other creature isn’t paying attention, eh?
The more I delved into the studies, the more convinced I became that I hadn’t actually wasted my youth. That I had been understood… And so had my dog. Of course, I would think that, wouldn’t I?
Sometimes, though, I find a need to legitimize my feelings ex cubile -things which seem sensible in church often mutate on the street. I decided, as I often do with a similarly contentious rubric, to consult with Brien. He is not what would commonly be considered an oracle by those hurrying past his house with eyes firmly averted, but they might do well to reconsider -one does see the world differently from a porch. And whatever the weather, he’s always sitting there, sometimes blanketed, sometimes parkaed, but reliable no matter the meteorological exigencies. He also keeps a seat waiting for me.
Brien is not without idiosyncrasies, I suppose, but let him who is without foibles cast the first stone. In fact, it is one of those eccentricities that made me think he would be the perfect sounding board. The ideal confessor… Not that I have any need of forgiveness, you understand.
His… peculiarity, is similar, perhaps –although not quite as mainstream as my own. I mean, it’s one thing to lavish attention and body language on a dog, but on a tree? And on a tree you’ve actually named? And not taxonomically, either. I have always felt it was incumbent upon me to point this out, and as a way of segueing into my newly credentialed dog information, I did just that.
“And did you name any of your dogs, Canis, or even Lupus?” He glanced at me with a Brien twinkle, his face mischievous as he handed me a beer. “Probably Rex, or…” He thought about it for a moment. “Trigger -something equally non descriptive.”
“Trigger was a horse, Brien.” Sometimes he makes me feel really defensive. But when he continued to stare at me expectantly, I blushed and confessed. “I called one of them Boots –he was my favourite, anyway.”
He smiled and blinked his eyes, shaking his head slowly. “And I call my tree Sheda. Why is that so different?”
“We name dogs because they…” I had to stop and consider it. Why do we name pets? “They interact with us,” I finally decided, and returned his smile, but smugly. Triumphantly.
He nodded patiently, like a teacher trying not to discourage a slow pupil, and pointed at Sheda, the huge, old cedar on the far edge of his lot. It was a windy day, and the branches seemed like arms waving, the needles beckoned like fingers, and the trunk swayed like an old man listening to music.
“I know what you’re trying to point out, Brien, but that’s not interaction…”
His eyes made an exploratory flight over my face before they finally settled on my cheeks. “Why’s that?”
“Well…” For some reason I began to feel I was being led. “No matter how I feel, it doesn’t react to me like my dog.” I stared at the tree again. “I can’t communicate with it.”
Brien shrugged. “You can’t communicate with the conductor of an orchestra either –no matter how much you love the music. But does that really matter?”
I stared at him for a second, wondering if he was just teasing, but he was already opening another beer for himself. Sometimes I think Brien is deeper than he pretends. I remembered Kahlil Gibran: Say not “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”
I didn’t argue.