Like a dog
that’s how a painter
must see, the eye
fixed & almost
W.G. Sebald: Rembrandt
Why do humans anthropomorphize other species? Despite our complex language skills and storytelling abilities, we struggle to truly describe the uniqueness of other species. It’s as if the skills that ‘set us apart’ from other animals, in terms of intelligence, also set us apart in terms of understanding.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with dogs. I’ve been observing dogs for a long time now, as an enthusiastic amateur and dog trainer. Despite that fact that dogs and humans have interacted with each other in the most geographically widespread and historical ways, most humans are still at a loss when it comes to understanding them. Alexandra Horowitz, dog behaviourist and author of Inside of a Dog, for instance, was told by her academic colleagues that ‘there is nothing to be learned from studying dogs’ ¹ and was encouraged to study primates instead.
Yet dogs are the animals that we interact with the most. They make extraordinary attempts to understand us: watch a dog with its owner for a while for an insight into how much they study our movements! We, however, litter our dog interactions with myths and false metaphors, many of them lazy reflections of human behaviour: alpha dogs, top dogs, embarrassed dogs, happy dogs, sad dogs, guilty dogs. We thoughtlessly guess at their emotions and so often get it wrong. Often these mistaken behaviors are, as I like to say, made ‘in our own likeness.’ It’s as if humans find it particularly hard to see beyond our own feelings and experiences.
A New Way of Seeing ‘Dog Being’
Animals (particularly in the western world and economically ‘developed’ nations) are usually separate from us, or something to be studied in cages, eaten as food or used for medicine or sport, or at the other extreme, taken in as members of our families. It’s rare that we merely exist alongside another animal, noticing but not intentionally interfering with them. (Birds and insects are a notable exception, although that’s perhaps because most people barely notice them). Dogs have been interfered with on an enormous scale, of course, and in a way that places them right into the heart of our lives. Perhaps there is a way that we can learn what being a dog is like. Perhaps we can find the time and space to observe ‘dog being:’ a dog being a dog, and not an image of ourselves.
I used to watch my dog, Blue, sit motionless. He’d plant his front paws firmly out along the grass in front of him, belly on the ground and stare ahead for twenty minutes at a time.
I assumed he was bored, or just thinking. I never really analysed his behaviour at the time. He was being quiet, and like many dog owners, I tended not to notice him unless he was whining, or barking or trying to get my attention. Now I wish I’d paid more attention.
Alexandra Horowitz says that when a dog is quiet but awake, pay attention to its nose. Far from ‘doing nothing,’ this is like dog television. Smellevision, perhaps. His nose is probably very active. In Inside of a Dog Horowitz takes the reader on an exploration of the world through the senses of a dog. It’s a book full of love and meticulous observation, from a behaviourist who admits that the dry observations of science aren’t quite enough to capture what we ‘feel’ for our dogs.
The more I’ve delved into dog communication, the more I’ve realised that so much of what we assume dogs are doing or thinking is, in fact, nothing more than our own behaviour projected back onto dogs. We see this when scrolling dog pictures on our phones. Dog shaming is a classic example—fun pictures of dogs looking ‘guilty,’ (we assume) or looking disinterested (more likely nervously avoiding eye contact). Usually, the body language means something else entirely, but we can’t help attributing recognisable human facial expressions onto the dogs. Books like Inside of a Dog, help us move away from this ingrained thinking.
Alpha Dogs and Dominance Myths—Where Did They Come From?
Ian Dunbar explains how projecting our own human feelings and assumptions onto dogs, messed up how researchers interpreted dog behaviour, and helped lead us to the mistaken ‘dominance’ and ‘alpha dog’ theories. He credits the anthropologist, Thelma Rawell with noticing that the infamous ‘dominance theory’ stuck around because, she says, the researchers were all men and they were too important and busy to spend enough time properly observing animals. They saw themselves in dogs and wolves. Or as Ian Dunbar explains, in this paraphrasing: ‘it’s like if you go into a busy pub, at 9 pm – what do you notice? You notice the adolescents. The loud young people. They’re fighting and shouting and jostling. You don’t notice the quiet man in the corner, sat with his wife, talking.’² This is what so many researchers saw in the animal groups they observed. They noticed the growling, chest beating, playful, boisterous young ones, at the expense of other useful behaviour observations. This, and the (now debunked) research that mistakenly assumed the behaviour of captive wolves was a useful indicator of dog behaviour has led to one of the most unhelpful theories about domestic dogs. We see its pernicious influence everywhere. ³
Dogs Urinating: Colonial Flag or Facebook?
Alexandra Horowitz noticed a similar aspect to the research on dog’s urination. The early-twentieth-century ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, she says, assumed that a ‘dog’s urine was his colonial flag, planted where one claims ownership.’⁴ This hypothesis, while very much reflecting a certain historical attitude, failed the test of time as new analysis of dog behaviour materialised. Research on pariah dogs in India, for example, shows urination to be a much more social affair; more of a communication method for courting, and showing off. Perhaps we should think of it as the dog version of Tinder and Facebook! Or as Horowitz says ‘a local bulletin board for dogs to signpost what they’re up to.’⁵
Of course, that means we have to be wary of the terms we use now. I’ve used modern social media analogies to illustrate dog behaviour. It may be no surprise that in our current human technological phase we notice the social and networking behaviour of dogs. Our own ideologies, and technological and social surroundings will influence how we observe the natural world around us, and maybe even enable us to notice new behaviours in other species that we couldn’t see before.
Do We Even have the Language to Describe all the Complexities of Dog Behavior?
There’s a video of pariah dogs in India (above) that I’ve observed a few times. It’s fascinating to watch. It shows a group of four feral dogs mating, mooching around, sitting and lying down, scratching and yawning. I came across it amongst the thousands of dog videos whilst researching feral dogs. The behaviours in this short clip are so complex, and so much more than ‘mating’ as we understand it. At the same time I was reading The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People for dog behaviour tips. There’s a paragraph in chapter eight that describes pariah dog mating rituals as consisting of “monogamy, polygyny, promiscuity, polyandry, opportunity and ‘rape.’” ⁶ It occured to me that we just don’t have the language to describe so much of dogs’ behaviour.
I’m nitpicking here. I realise that we have to do the best we can with the language we have to describe the things we don’t completely understand. And we have much more robust and less biased methods of observation these days, using many observers who watch each animal in a group to record the minute by minute activities and interactions, building a more accurate record of behaviour. This kind of data has shown much more variable behaviours in dogs. The fact that we can also now observe dogs in the wild—dogs whose ancestors went through the full domestication process and then ‘rewilded,’ is so useful to our greater understanding of our own dogs and their needs and behaviour. They are now observable as a distinct, species, like the pariah dogs in semi-rural India, or dingos in Australia. However, it’s worth noting that John Bradshaw and Nicola Rooney, in the same chapter of The Domestic Dog, warn that most feral dogs are ‘so disrupted by human interference that their true social capabilities may only rarely emerge.’ ⁷
Nonetheless, we know more than we did, and we can continue to build our skills in dog communication. So now when you see your dog doing a thing you don’t quite understand, or ‘being a dog’—sniffing, urinating, looking guilty—a closer look might tell something less obvious. We might discover a deeper, more unique way of ‘dog being.’ Now I think that when my dog Blue was ‘doing nothing,’ he was actually experiencing the most interesting and active part of his day. Or maybe, as described in this poem, he was detecting:
The brilliant smell of water
the brave smell of stone
the smell of dew and thunder
the old bones buried under.
CK Chesterton: The Song of Quoodle
² Dunbar, I. quoted during his online Udemy course. 2016 Retrieved from: https://www.udemy.com/simple-solutions-for-common-dog-behavior-training-problems/learn/v4/content
³ Taylor, H. (2015) Retrieved from: http://www.helentaylordorset.co.uk/Dominance/
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