I do wish thou wert a dog that I might love thee something

I’ve had a dog for most of my life, and because they always become friends, I tend to accept their idiosyncrasies on faith. Their habits grow on me, so after a while, their actions become part of their identities, and unless dangerous or impolite, elicit no more than a shrug, or an embarrassed grin if I am caught tolerating their behaviour. I mean, after a while their eccentricities become who they are as much as I am the unfashionable clothes I wear when I walk them. People come to know what to expect with us, I imagine.

Anyway, I violate no laws if strangers are around: I keep the dog on the leash in case the people don’t want the dog to sniff them in places they’d rather not advertise; I carry a biodegradable bathroom bag ostentatiously displayed and tied on the leash to validate my credentials, and I’m pretty good at acknowledging it’s there even when I’m deep in the woods with no critical eyes that might rush to unfair judgements. I’m a pillar of propriety when I’m being watched, but on a trail with only trees looking, I have to confess I often unshackle my ward. Freedom is as precious to a dog, as it is to me: it’s his hope for the freedom of a walk that excites him as he lies, tail wagging, and eyes begging on the carpet by the door; similarly, it’s my hope for the same thing that responds in kind -although with fewer excitable appendages to advertise my eagerness.

It’s clearly our shared passion for adventure, that unites us; it’s the different manifestations thereof that distinguish us. I, for one, do not share the excitement of smells as deeply as my companion. If I hesitate at a tree to gaze with rapture as I follow it’s trunk heavenwards, my dog seems more fixated with its earthbound manifestations. But that’s fine, of course -no part of the tree is wasted for us.

I think I interpret sounds differently as well: I seldom go crashing through the bushes in hot pursuit of a noise. No matter how seductive it might seem to the dog, I usually puzzle over the quarry he seeks. In fact, I rarely hear anything but the occasional squawk of a raven that seems mildly annoyed by the frantic rustle of leaves below its aerie that has interrupted its preening. I seldom preen, even in the privacy of a forest.

Dogs, too, have a different Umwelt. Apart from the few special body areas they prioritize, they seem to have a different idea of cleanliness -different ways of advertising their passing- and are surprised when the non-cognoscente voyeurs judge them to be, well, inappropriate in their lifestyles. But, when you think about it, how could those critics ever explain their vagaries to foreigners when they do not even deign to visit their Kingdoms? When they are unable -or unwilling– to view the world through other than their own prejudices?

And anyway, different physiologies demand different habits. Disparate Weltanschauungen demand disparate manners. I have never understood cats, either, but I would not presume to condemn them for their behavior -except when they feel the need to sharpen their claws on the furniture, or bring in mice to play with on the carpet. A cat is a cat, and a dog is a dog, eh? And after all, we often see others through a glass darkly, even our own kind, don’t we? For sure we are all imprisoned in our own Magisteria, and until recently were only rarely able to peek through the bars that separated us from the rest of Nature -or, rather, joined us with it. But we have to be willing to wonder at what we see.

Dogs do a lot of things we think are… animally, to coin a phrase. But, in fairness, they live in a world of smells, of pheromones, and of aliens (us), so it’s a wonder they’ve learned to adapt as well as they have. The weakness of one species is the other’s trump (sorry), and hence their manners, their foibles, and their reactions, are only liminally proximate. Sometimes they are ‘other’ (It’s only a dog, eh?) and at times ‘cute’ (Oh that’s so adorable: sitting down when you reach for a treat in your pocket.). But sometimes, we sell their behaviour short; see it merely as a conditioned Pavlovian response -or worse, manipulative.

For example, I have had several border collies over the years and was always been intrigued when I noticed that they often tilted their heads when I spoke. I mean, if it were a human, the tilt would have suggested not only that they were listening, but that they were also trying to figure out just what I’d said. ‘How ridiculous,’ you might respond, ‘They’re just listening to the sounds you make… Nothing more.’ But, with long familiarity with the dog in question, I often thought I could detect something more. And there’s evidence of that from data suggesting a probable link between the dog’s memory, and whether what was said was familiar to them -like the command to do something special they had been taught.[i] In other words, trying to remember just what the word used in the command expected of them, or for that matter, whether they could pick out a word, when it seem to be addressing them, that might give them a clue as to what was wanted. This came from a study published in Animal Cognition in Hungary.[ii]

Okay, I will admit that I find this exciting, but not particularly surprising. Every dog owner knows on some level that their pet seems to understand them, and to watch border collies in action on farms in New Zealand, or the UK it’s hard to wonder how this could ever have been in question. My collies could even read my facial expressions as commands, which puts them several levels above many of the people I’ve lived with over the years.

Well, alright, that’s not fair I suppose; even if she didn’t tilt her head, my mother was an expert at understanding my expression when she told me to clean up my room, for example, or what I actually meant when I insisted that I already had. Her reaction was always predictable, as was that of Boots, my dog, and with a little tilt of his head, he would welcome me into his house out in the yard until things had settled down.

My mother would just shrug though; she would think she’d won, I’ll bet -but really, it was the dog who’d won. They usually do, I think…

[i] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-do-dogs-tilt-their-heads-new-study-offers-clues-180978980/

[ii] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-021-01571-8

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