Saturday, April 16, 2011

What do dogs know?

Shauna with her Squeaky Ball

My favorite dog books ever: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein; Good Dog, Stay, by Anna Quindlen; and Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, by Ted Kerasote.

I like Kerasote's non-fiction book because he freely interprets what his dog Merle is thinking and would say if only he could talk; he even expresses those thoughts on behalf of Merle. And he describes the wonderful life they have lived together in a log home with a dog door (hence, Merle's door) in rural Wyoming. I like Quindlen's book for different reasons: her family's life with Beau, a black lab getting up in years, and Bea, a younger yellow lab,  is memorialized with a wonderful combination of happiness and sadness (the twins familiar to all dog owners), wonderfully interwoven with humor. (If only I could write like Quindlen!) And in Garth Stein's book a fictional story is told completely from the point of view of a dog who has come to understand that in life as in racing, it isn't about speed alone. He believes that he will be resurrected as a human, as dogs are said to be in Mongolia when they are ready, and that the wisdom he has developed from his observations of the challenges and final success of his owner's life has prepared him for that transformation.

I am not the kind of person who thinks dogs are really just little people. My dog is a dog, not a daughter. I talk to my dog, but I do not confide in her. The talk is meaningful to the dog only because it expresses my state of mind to her and lets her know how she's doing. So she knows, with only quiet talk and a look, that I know she's taking advantage and not doing as she knows she must do, or that she's doing great and I'm happy. It all registers with her.

Most people don't (or would not) believe me when I say that a dog can understand a whole lot more than you might think. I tell of a time shortly after I adopted her.  At my small manufacturing business, I always left the heavy glass door to the anteroom open and closed the accordion-like security gate, to keep Shauna in and at the same time allow a local feral cat that I had befriended and socialized to slip through to eat and drink. The first day at work after adopting Shauna, she discovered the cat's food bowl, and started to gobble it down. Yum! What dog wouldn't like cat food? High in protein, but too much for a dog. So I just spoke to her and told her "No Shauna, you cannot eat the cat's food." She looked at me, and never again took a bite of the cat's food. I could trust her even when I was out of the office for hours. But when she licked up the crumbs left on the floor by the cat, I didn't say a word. From then on, she understood that crumbs on the floor were ok, but the bowl was off-limits. I think that nobody except my wife believes me.

My wife believes me because we had a similar experience at home. Since our own cat (Pumpkin) was very afraid of Shauna (despite never having been chased or threatened by her), she (cat) slept all day in her bed in our bedroom. The first time Shauna started to enter our bedroom, we told her, "No Shauna-- you can't come in here." After that, she never had to be told again. We can trust her even when we are gone. We never close the bedroom door. At night, after we go to bed, Shauna always lies down to snooze for a few hours just outside the bedroom doorway, in plain sight of Pumpkin (who now loves to watch Shauna from her protected enclave) before moving to "her" living room chair or the sunroom. She will never do anything behind our backs that she would not do in our presence. (In the human realm, we would call this "character.") We can also trust her with a plate of chicken left for a few minutes on the coffee table while we are busy in the kitchen. She will stay at least two feet away, and never make a move to steal our food, though I'm sure she would like to. We didn't even have to tell her this. She knew that food on a table was not hers.  

But like people, every dog is unique, and the trick is to come to understand the dog. Many years ago, someone asked me how you train a dog. I was not and am not an expert, but I said that first you have to know the dog as an individual, and then adapt your training techniques to that individual. With some dogs, a look is all that is necessary for a correction. Others are more hard-headed.

How do I suppose that a dog can understand at least some of what we say? I've come to think it's like when  you have some understanding of a foreign language, without being really fluent. From the context of a situation, together with what words you can understand, a lightbulb suddenly lights up, and you know exactly what has just been said. It's a Gestalt experience, not an analysis of syntax or idiomatic phrases.

Nighttime in the sunroom

Dozing during a backpacking trip to the mountains

1 comment:

  1. Just found your blog, although I'm sure Shauna would claim it for her own were she aware she gets top billing. She is beautiful! Looking forward to reading more of your insightful adventures.