Sharon and I are Old Dog Haven fosters. I can’t begin to explain how great the ODH organization is, or how rewarding it is being a final refuge foster home for ODH dogs. If you read this blog you already know some of my feelings on dog rescue. What you may not know is how significant it is for me personally.
I’m not one of those people who was born loving dogs. Growing up in rural Tennessee we always had a few of them around. My brother was always focused on animals. He was born with it. I had to learn the hard way. If you read my blog, you have heard of Henry, a yellow lab of undeniable presence. He was my turning point. Henry was a dog of monumental stature, endless patience, determination, and mission. Even in the last days of his life, when he was no longer capable of fulfilling his primary mission of keeping my dad from killing himself with a tractor, he found sublime satisfaction in brightening the days of everyone he encountered, especially the children. It’s as if he wanted to brighten the entire world, even though he could no longer get up to relieve himself with dignity. Henry was how I began to understand the depth of human-dog relationships.
It took me decades to master, if mastery is even possible. These days, I live in a small house with six rescue dogs, one of which is an ODH dog named Hagar, and three rescue cats, all of which inexplicably regard me as worthy of mild worship. I spend my days alternately trying to swim upstream through a river of all-too-interested critters and finding those moments of connection with them. It’s a good trade that makes it all worthwhile.
Fifty years of dogs and cats, and here is the bottom line. We matter to them. There are those who would argue that we are simply food sources that our pets struggle to understand for their own advantage. I can actually see this argument. It’s practical. It makes sense if we are to dismiss them as simple creatures with no emotion. The problem is that they do have emotion. Dogs smile, dogs feel bliss, dogs feel embarrassment and pride, and they live with a mission, whether we teach them one or not. Cats seek their own connection. The overall impression is that they are far more self-serving than dogs, but that is not to say that they don’t value their relationship with people. Even if I am nothing more than a live-in masseuse for cats, they actually care whether I am there, and show their appreciation when I give them attention. What does it mean to them? Doesn’t matter. What does it mean to you? I dare you to spend time and attention on a pet without the relationship becoming meaningful to you.
My most cynical analysis of this reality is that we have bred them into it. If you accept nothing more than the fact that our partnership has been bred into our pets for thousands of years, then accept the responsibility for it. If you have no interest in the relationship between us and any kind of domestic critter, then at least accept that we have bred them and trained them to need us, and do your part to meet their needs. If that’s all you do, then you have my respect, but respectfully, you are still missing the point.
Never in your life will you find a human being more consistently focused on pleasing you than your dog. Never will you find anyone more reliably excited to see you than your dog. Never will you feel more satisfaction than your dog broadcasts when you give him one minute of your attention (as opposed to teenagers who will eventually regard you as something to be avoided). Never will you feel more pride than when your dog fetches anything and brings it right back to your feet. Part of this is our expectations for a limited creature such as dog (as opposed to what we expect from our children), and part of it is the sheer joy that a dog feels when serving the purpose you set out for it. Never will a dog decide that you suck at throwing a ball. Never will a dog play with you and think that he should be doing something else. The fact is that dogs are amazingly capable in ways that we may never fully understand, but they are also amazingly limited in ways that only we can help them fulfill. They are always like children, but they are mature in purpose. They are remarkably sensitive to our moods, and yet they only live in a striving for happiness, which is a lesson we have lost. As long as we treat them reasonably well, they approach us with pure confidence. (Mistreated dogs are heartbreaking in their split between desire for connection with us and fear of us.) Given the slightest reason, they trust us without any regard for our own internal struggles and obvious failings. They celebrate our existence.
How did they get so good at it? Well, depending on your source, we have been training them for our advantage for a minimum of three thousand years. There are people who would argue that human civilization would have never started without our canine friends. Granted, a dog that could watch your sheep would be invaluable a few thousand years back, but is that the backbone of civilization? To quote my father, “Every little bit helps.” A dog that could save you a few minutes of worry each day gives you a few minutes to consider a broader system for the world. This leads to risky experiments in a time that regarded failure as simply starvation during the winter. Do I consider this as proof for dogs as the foundation for western civilization? No. But it’s plausible that they played a role.
As for cats, it seems likely that we simply used our budding agricultural talents to concentrate mice. Mice equal easy prey for cats. Eventually, cats equated us with access to easy prey, and started sucking up. If I regard that as the start and finish of a very calculated relationship with cats, I could write them off as a side effect of human civilization. With a certain point of view, I could regard them as an invasive exotic species, destroying the ecosystem. Eventually, the knowledge of the human advantage seeped into the very instinctual nature of cats. After that, cats began to grasp that the sheer understanding of their two-legged benefactors was a survival advantage. Today, they know that most human attention works in their favor. Does that make their pleasure in our company any less real? Are they thinking, “This human will feed me if I respond correctly?” The answer from my experience with cats is that they always keep the equation in mind. They are indeed self serving. So are we. Does that make our connection with cats any less real?
In our house, my wife is at least three times more likely to give the cats food when they start campaigning for it. They start the campaign when the bowl is about halfway to the bottom of the last feeding. It’s like they way we start hearing about the 2020 election on TV about 38 seconds after the 2016 election ended. I respond to both factors the same way. I ignore pseudo-hungry cats and ill-timed news equally for the most part. Yet, when we both sit in a room with the cats, they almost always surround me like a purring allergenic honor guard. I take this as evidence that our connection to cats is not a simple food equation. People always say that cats gravitate to those who like them least, or to those who are most allergic to them, as if cats are innately ornery and play fun games with the contrarian nature of the universe. Even if that were the case, it points to a deeper connection than us giving them food. My first real cat connection would have been a perfect illustration of what people say. I didn’t want a cat. I didn’t like cats at any level that overcame the downsides of owning a cat. The twists of life dropped a cat almost literally in my lap. He’s 13 now. He still thinks I’m awesome, and I still think he makes my nose itch, but I know that we have a friendship that goes both ways.
I could plod through 13 years of observation and anecdotes to support my assertion. I could throw in our other two cats to fatten my personal data set. I could fill this page with cute photos of cats looking pleased with themselves to avoid making the point at all. I think it comes down to this: If you hate cats, or are indifferent to cats, there is no way I could convince you to believe in any kind of actual connected relationship with a fricken cat. I know because 13.5 years ago, I could not be convinced either. If, on the other hand, you have spent any real time in the presence of a cat, then I’m just preaching to the choir. At a minimum, cats are nutty little clowns that keep us entertained on the internet. At a maximum, they are companion guardians that plaster themselves to us every chance they get. They use your black pants as a de-shedding tool, roll around as you pet them to make sure you get to all their favorite spots, and gaze deeply into your eyes as if they are trying to communicate some profound truth that we are too dumb to catch. It’s more than a food equation, I think.
Dogs are a much easier case. They just give us more to work with. The first argument is that they are more intelligent than cats. I don’t think we can determine that with any authority. Dogs have sophisticated intentions, plans, behaviors, and reactions. So do cats. I think we can say, subjectively, that dogs’ intelligence is more compatible to ours. It’s a matter of how they map the world, how they map us, and how they communicate with us in a way that is less inscrutable. But we are fortunate enough to be able to adapt to any of it if we are willing to make the effort. We have a little extra mental horsepower to apply to our critter of choice. I’m focused on dogs and cats here, simply because that’s what I know, but I’m sure the same mapping process applies to horses, chinchillas, cattle, chickens, wild animal rescue, and up to a point, circus animals. I’m sure that the same depth of relationship can be achieved with all kinds of species. The real question is not, “Can we do it?” The real question is, “Is it all in our minds?”
I haven’t asked, but I’d be willing to bet that I could go to any boarding stable and find twenty random people who believe that their horse truly cares about them. Clearly, I believe it. I know for a fact that I can go to any Old Dog Haven event and find people who know the meaning of every tiny noise and expression their dog makes. When it comes to mapping canine behavior, these people are pros. I was relieved to discover that I am not the only adult human being who speaks for his dogs in cartoon voices. Not even close. As we all talk for our dogs, looking like idiots to the non-dog-loving population, are we speaking for our dogs with some level of accuracy, or are we simply conjuring a human mirror to practice speaking?
I’d start with consistency. Go to a dog event and meet as many dogs as you can. You’ll find a very consistent set of reactions. Some dogs are shy and will look to their person for cover when encountering a new person. Some dogs are total extroverts and treat the world as if they are doing everyone a favor by saying hello. And everything in between… Watch the dogs encounter each other. You’ll find that some dogs are content to say hi, some are afraid, and some are on a mission to control the space around them. And everything along that continuum…
Now go to a human event and you’ll see that we do the exact same things. If we can observe that dogs follow an almost identical social dance to our own, can we turn around and lop off the rest of their emotional behavior as being something lesser than our own. Sure, I’d say they do it with far more speed and far less subtlety. Where we show up with a carload of baggage, they bring a single duffle bag. Where we change language over time like fashion trends, dogs bark, growl, wag, and roll over. They quiver in fear and excitement, and they manage to convey happiness in every muscle in their bodies. Where we hesitate from any number of imagined future responses, dogs just go with it. Yet, dogs can borrow the future from us. It’s called training, and it basically adds up to a dog imagining his person’s future response. As agreeable sorts, dogs learn to predict our responses to make us as agreeable as they are. Frankly, they do it much better than we do.
My capstone on the whole idea of how we connect to animals is embarrassment. Think about what goes into embarrassment. It’s not a simple response. It involves knowing a whole range of standards for behavior. It requires the understanding of all the possible negative reactions to a failure to meet those standards. It’s a predictive response to a mistake that may or may not have anything to do with any real response around us. That’s why we can be embarrassed in a room by ourselves. That’s why we can feel embarrassment for a fictional character on a TV show. Embarrassment is a very sophisticated internal construct.
If you happen to see a dog slip and fall, what happens?
If you see a cat fall off a piece of furniture, what happens?
In both cases, they regain their footing as quickly as possible. This reduces the chance that anyone notices their mistake. The first instant they correct the mistake, they look around to see if anyone saw them fall. Whether they were seen or not, they are embarrassed. On a dog, you can see the actual facial expression. It will look very familiar. On a cat, it happens in a body language collection of their dignity as they gracefully leave the room. Again, you’ve seen the exact same response in people.
If our animal friends can manage embarrassment, then it’s no surprise to me that they have the emotional depth to regard us with the love and trust we believe we see in their faces. It’s no self-reflecting mirror. It’s friendship. It’s love.