An Opinion Piece
Winter is approaching. Depending on where you live this might mean that instead of a tee shirt and shorts you put on a pair of long-legged pants and maybe tie a thin sweater around your waist for later use – just in case.
Or… you’re already feeling the politically correct version of “Experienced Person Winter” trying to freeze your gonads in their various locations despite the twelve layers of fabric you painstakingly placed over yourself in an attempt to ward off their annoyingly gender neutral embrace.
Your pup has a built in fur coat, in most cases, that has them covered for a wide variety of conditions. He or she does not care about time and seasons beyond what is happening outside the window. They just look up and say in whatever language you share with them, “Go out now?” with a happy little – sometimes excited and sometimes tentative – butt wiggle.
You can see that sparkling hope in their eyes, their brows (if they are distinct) moving up and down as their facial expressions reveal what emotions are lying under the surface. There’s a lot of thought that our Pups put into understanding us. They read our body language and are pretty good at working out what we are feeling in any moment.
Its a considerable leap – there are a lot of people who would rather assume there is no spark of intellect or shine of recognition beyond the moment behind those longing gazes and minor movements. That there’s no complex thought or ideals going on back there other than the pressure to go to the bathroom or the desire to fill a stomach. For some people the dog is a machine devoid of anything remotely connected to our human experience.
That is not the dog I see when I look at our pup.
You might think: “Oh great – another one of those idiots that anthropomorphize their pet.” But it is not that. There’s plenty of proof that dogs and humans have a connection that goes far beyond what we have with most other animals. A dog and a human have something rather unique that only a few other animals can ever achieve: the ability to communicate.
Dogs can understand human language. And more importantly, they can remember that language. This can be used to give them instructions to do work, or used to allow us to convey what we want them to do. “Go get your cup!” for example means we’re going to share some of our food. Or, “Where’s your ball” means we want to play. We say this in whatever language our brains think in. The dogs learn this and work it out on their own.
But the dogs also speak to us. They tell us with body language what they’re feeling. Dogs do not communicate primarily by sound – they communicate by body language and expression. It is subtle and instinctual. And it is why dogs can often understand us before we can even understand ourselves. We telegraph our emotions in our body language – and people who can read body language have an advantage in that they can practically read our minds if we do not understand how our bodies convey information. Since body language is a dogs primary method of communication – they’re all experts.
Its hard to say why more people do not understand this about our furry companions. That they do not always understand why Dogs choose to be around us. But that is found in our antiquity. Dogs approached us because we were the first animals on earth willing to share. They had not encountered this outside their own species before. There is a cost to hunting, and a cost to constantly needing to defend yourself against everything in the world. The first human-dog partnerships were beneficial for both species. They continue to be beneficial to both of us to this very day.
But that benefit requires that we understand our canine companions. Because our canine companions also wish to understand us. So when you see that hopeful butt wiggle and the plaintive cry at the door, you know your pup wants outside. Most likely to relieve itself – as they share that desire with us to not do your business where you sleep So you shrug on your jacket and head outside. Maybe you think nothing of it – dog needs to go out and you’re just doing something the dog needs. But there’s an appreciation there, if you look at the body language. You’re sharing a moment with your pup. That’s the dog’s time with you. And the dog sprints out ahead of you – at least as far as the leash will reach or the yard will permit. But they always stop a distance ahead. Far enough that you’d have to hurry to keep up, but not so far that you couldn’t catch them. They turn and make sure you’re following.
And they do this not only to satisfy themselves that you are there, but also to open the line of communications. They need to know if you’re okay with them doing their own thing – if only so they know how best to expend their energy and what kind of time frame they have to do their business of sniffing, marking, and relieving.
If you whip out a toy? That’s just fine for them, or even better than fine! They’re social animals and they want to know that you’re thinking about their needs. Maybe they’ll catch a few, do their business quick, then catch a few more. Or maybe you’ll play chase. Chase is fun. Either chase them or they chase you. That works too. Some business while chasing, some sniffing to break up the sessions, a bit of marking. You know the drill right?
But sooner than later its time to go back in. Maybe its a bit too cold outside for the pup – and they go back to the door and are wondering why you’re so slow to get back. Or maybe they don’t want to go back in just yet and they run around a bit more to see if they can entice you into another round. Or maybe a squirrel or rabbit left something interesting in the northwest quadrant of their local world. You can see in their eyes and posture they’re not quite ready to go back in, but eventually they listen and its back to the door.
In the house there is usually a routine after these events. You head back to your comfy spot and the dog follows. If you have a piece of furniture set aside that they are permitted on they leap up and keep you company. If you share that furniture, they snuggle into your side or relax in their own position a short distance away. If the furniture is off limits, they get as close as they can to you sometimes, and others they find their own spot away from you but not too far.
Dogs are familial animals. There’s a hierarchy that goes from great-grandparent to grandparent to parent to siblings to children and grandchildren. There is love and care, spats and fights, the occasional argument but for the most part it is several generations living under the same sky and in the same general area. You are the elder in their lives, the parent. Your children? Could be their siblings or their own pups to care for if they are young enough. But normally the pup comes into the family after the kids are old enough to know certain things, which means they’re looked at *at least* as a sibling if not an elder in most cases.
There are rules built into the dog. For play, for learning, for fighting. I can speak to the Collie for I was taught the rules of the Collie by an exemplar of the breed.
There was cuddling. That was a given. The Collie loves when their children cuddle. But not too hard! That will get a nip if you cuddle incorrectly. Nips also come when you’re being mean or doing things you shouldn’t do.
Also, the Collie knows hands. They take hands in the mouth. When the Collie wants you to go somewhere with them they will take your hand into their mouth – and if you pull away you can get caught on the teeth because the collie wants to hold your hand and go where he does.
The Collie protects – nobody can come close to you without the Collie’s permission. Yeah, you’re family after all. If they think anyone will harm you, they will have to go through the collie to get to you. And that could be a bad thing for them if they think they’re trying to help.
The Collie licks: big slimy wet licks on the face and the head. Usually right after licking their own parts. You might have food after all, and if you don’t then you always need to be a little “cleaner”. Play is a serious thing to the Collie. They are fast, agile, and you will not outrun one unless they want you to.
The Collie will speak to you. Quietly if they are within sight. Loudly if they are far away with great barks to get your attention. They will clearly tell you what they intend to do, and look to you for guidance on what to do next.
I love the Collie breed for these reasons and more. But I also love all dogs, big and small. I’ve learned how to read them mostly – each breed, each dog family has their own ever changing dialect. They aren’t us, that much is certain. But do not underestimate how much like us they are. We formed a bond with them centuries ago, after all.
But what dogs can also teach us is that communication is important. How we speak to them is as important to how they speak to us. If they couldn’t speak with us, we would have never formed a bond as we have. Communication is the most important tool both species possess. This has enabled us to form communities and civilizations. Our civilization is as much a construct of the dog as it is of humanity. Point to the city or the community that does not have dogs. That is a challenge to find one, and I’ll wager that such a community looks vastly different from what we understand as a human settlement.
We would not have been a tenth as successful as a species without them. And we would not have companions that comfort us and challenge us to be better people.
This is what makes me sad about our relationship with these companions. That people will willfully refuse to accept them as being partners in our civilization. And that they refuse to understand what these animals have taught us about communication. One day, the contributions will be understood. Until then, make sure you treat your pup with all the kindness and joy that relationship deserves.
And as winter closes around us – don’t be too jealous of their built in fur coat. Its a pain in the butt during the summer anyway. 🙂