Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Canis Lupus Fidelis

This post is inspired by a recent photo taken by She as part of her Mute Monday theme, All About Me. In that post, she includes a marvelous photo of her dog, Trout, that elicited in Moi a host of responses – not only an appreciation for the evocative power of art and its own particular "language," but also an appreciation for all that canines have come to mean to us humans.

If I haven't already made it clear here, I'm a dog nut. I spend part of my life working with them, studying their behavior, and talking to other dog nuts about that behavior. As a result of this experience, I have come to form certain conclusions that have led me to shy away from anthropomorphizing our canine friends except when it serves as a kind of short hand to get a point across. As in, yeah, lady, your pit bull is eating your sofa because he's basically at the level of an 18 year old frat boy. Give him something to DO. But, by and large, I agree with the great dog trainer/behaviorist Jean Donaldson (read her, not Cesar Milan) who believes that today's Disney-ification of canines does them no damn good.

But that doesn't mean I don't recognize that something special does exist between humans and canines, something that transcends the working relationships we have with other domesticated animals. A kind of fidelity that is difficult to explain, but which has existed between man and dog throughout history. For instance, the ancient Greeks write of the value of domesticated dogs as aides in physical and mental therapy. And the Chippewa Indians are one of several native tribes who include them in their Creation Myth - when given a chance to remain in paradise or stay on earth with man, the dog chose to stay with us. As Max Depree says: "We are alone, absolutely alone, on this chance planet; and amid all the forms of life that surround us, not one, excepting the dog, has made an alliance with us."

I'd like to hear about your relationship with your dog(s). Not about how much you love them or how cute they are but a brief illustration of your own experience of this alliance.


h said...

Brilliant piece, Moi. Couldn't agree more on the folly of anthro... anthromoppho...

That BIG word that means don't confuse dog drives with human emotion and analysis.

My story that I hope fits the bill is:

When their Collie died I advised my parents NOT to get an Akita. I named 12 breeds that were better suited by nature for their purpose. A combination of companion AND a reliable protector.

One thing in particular that I've learned from experience is that even a carefully-trained Akita WILL run away from it's Humans if there are dogs to fight, donkeys to annoy, or rabbits to chase.

And, I knew my parents were:

1) Less careful than I in keeping doors closed and leashes on.

2) Not capable of chasing fleeing dog.

But, they fell in love with one of my pups and I gave in.

That dog (now 3) today, with considerably LESS training than any of mine, will:

1) NEVER and I mean NEVER run away from my parents.

2) Ignore doors carelessly left ajar.

3) Get BETWEEN my parents and any stranger they encounter each and every time.

I really do think my Akitas have always recognized me as the Alpha Male of the pack who can be left to fend himself.

As pups, they learned I was physically capable of chasing them down and ANGRY when I caught them. But they remained content to trade the downside of an Angry Alpha for the upside of giving in to their nature by chasing rabbits, fighting other dogs, and annoying donkeys whenever the opportunity to do so presented itself.

Theirs learned that Dad was NOT physically capable of chasing them down. And was saddened and exhausted from the effort. And not a young Alpha Male who can be left to fend for himself.

So, she willingly subverted her Natural Instinct to fight, to chase, to annoy, in order to play the role more consistently of protector.

Anthromporphistizers might call that "love". Moi would probably say it's the "pack drive" subverting the "hunt drive".

Either way, it's pretty remarkable and perhaps a microcosm of the whole Human/Dog relationship. They do and always have subverted some part of their instincts to be useful to us.

Obviously training is designed to do precisely that. But a part of it is VOLUNTARY too.

As I said, my Parent's Akita has receieved NO SPECIAL TRAINING to make her act more like a German Shepard than an Akita. To act in ways that are counter to the natural instincts of the breed.

sparringK9 said...

agreed. assigning human attributes to K9's is a put down! dogs are far better people than we. their fidelity even to total losers should that be their pack fate defines honor. a dogs compassion for hurting physically or emotionally is unrivaled. yet how much have we spent reading the signs of their state of being?

yesterday, i had the video camera out and was filming the chicks when their was a very stressful dogfight next door...with sounds of real distress coming from one dog. trout reacted with a bark i had never hear...a roar of "are you okay?' she paced she roared and she whined and cried. and while i am getting this all on film like a heartless voyeur i realize my pet, my sweetheart, is in real distress. you can see on the video i realize it and start to calm her and eventually turn the video off -it being so wrong and opportunistic. as i held her she trembled....trout is a rescur dog, a dog we struggled to hold onto because she didnt fully trust for so long and wouldnt stay home or come occurred to me those sounds triggered a possible terrible memory. i was pretty disgusted with myself.

trout came to us because she is exactly what we needed in order to be better people. i'll never give up on a dog i take in. never. and i will spoil trout until i cant anymore.


great post!!!!

Gnomeself Be True said...

Great picture. Looks like a She painting, but I haven't seen it before.

Me and my dog...hmmm.
I've never been a dog person. I always had cats before I married L. Cats are easier. Perfect for appartments and single people who want to leave for a weekend with no worries.

Penny, our chessie, is completely my dog. Hey, I feed her, pet her and excercise her...that's all the affinity she needs to latch on to me as her leader.
She does well because I realize I have to fit in to her concept of a group structure, not the other way around.
She's not one of my children, or a member of my family. I'm the leader of her pack and the others that I consider my family are other members of her pack.
I train my kids in their relationship with Penny as pack members. I don't try to train Penny how to treat the kids, because I know she will simply assume her position in the pack we all create.

Jenny said...

Stella came to me when I was 40 and taught me more about loyalty and devotion than I can describe. When I have her at my feet, guarding me, I am spiritually comforted by her presence. My dogs have taught me to live in the moment. They have taught me patience. They have taught me that if I am consistent, they will be what I need. I have taken all of these things I've learned from my pack and apply to my life.

And like SHE, I will continue to spoil and comfort and love them until they (AHGHGH) leave me. I do this because they are already doing it for me.

P.S. My dogs are dogs and do not need the following: clothes, human food or perfumed baths. I like 'em smelly and natural.

ThursdayNext said...

I am with She - they are beings onto their own. My doggie was a Rottie Pooch, Cleo. I miss her so much. In my eyes I saw her as a baby, which is ironic I suppose, but dogs have a large sense of innocence to them that reminds me of children.

Meghan said...

Wonderful post, Moi.

It's funny (not haha funny, but though-provoking funny), I read an article just the other day in a somewhat hip parents' magazine called WonderTime. It was talking about the benefits of children growing up with dogs (they were preaching to the choir, of course). It also said something that caught me off guard, and it went something like this, "Before we become moms, our dogs are our babies. After we become moms, our babies are our babies and our dogs are just our dogs." I thought, "no". I mean, my first baby, Miki (dach/chi/terrier mix), doesn't get the undivided attention he did before Xan came along... but Xan will be in Miki's shoes as soon as River arrives!

What I'm trying to say is, Miki is still just as big a part of the pack as ever. That's how I think of my dogs - as part of our pack. They don't go about things the way we do, and thank goodness for that, but they are an important and irreplaceable part of our family unit. Both Miki and Kona are highly empathetic... sensing and reacting to things no human would be keen enough to respond to. They are always there to lick our wounds and never judge us - even when we totally deserve to be judged. They are also our tireless protectors, and completely selfless in their drive to make sure nothing brings us harm.

My mother owns and trains therapy dogs, and takes her dogs to work with children who have reading disabilities. I am consistently fascinated by the comfort, love and acceptance the therapy dogs provide... a comfort, love and acceptance that is, well... uberhuman. That is to say - canine.

moi said...

Troll: Good to know that on the one hand my suspicion has now been confirmed: Outside of Sharpei, Akitas are the most Talk to the Hand breeds I've ever met. On the other, how wonderful to hear that story. Remarkable all the way around.

She: Oh, poor Trout. I've heard that kind of vocalization in response to another dog's stress quite a few times and it can be heartbreaking. And I can imagine just how you felt, moving from scientist/voyeur to "oh shit! this dog's really upset!" Dogs can be such perfect knocks upside the head.

iamnot That's one of Cajun artist George Rodrigue's "Blue Dog" paintings. Google him. The story is great. So are Chessies. What does she do for water in the desert?

AB,: Oh, you too? I LOVE the smell of dog. Wet dog, dry dog, all dog except skunked dog. That I can do without.

Thursday Sorry to hear you two are no longer together. I miss all my gone dogs, every one from childhood to present day. I have a special missing spot in my heart just for that purpose.

Meghan: I've seen therapy dogs at work. It's an awesome thing to behold. And your photos of Miki and Kona speak volumes of your love and regard.

ALL: I will keep each of these stories - thanks so much for sharing.

Wicked Thistle said...

All right, I will no longer anthropomorphize my dog (since I don't have one), but seriously, I can NOT make the same promise regarding my rabbit. Please don't force the issue--things will only get ugly. Thank you.

moi said...

That Wabbit ain't right. But I wuv him anyway.

Melissaria said...

Well, my dog is quite dumb, but not dumb enough to forget which side his bread is buttered on, so he does a very show of being loyal and affectionate, just before slapping his soggy, chewed, half eaten 'manky sheep's head' toy in my lap.

In our case the fidelity works the other way as well. He frequently craps on the kitchen floor overnight, despite no food after after 5pm and frequent trips outside during the evening. But we still let him live with us, regardless...

moi said...

Melissaria: Ha! Yes, regardless of actual brain power, all dogs seem to know how to play that "loyal companion" bit to the hilt, don't they.

Joanna Cake said...

My mum loved the dog more than me and Little Sis - well she was there before us. If we got too familiar, she would run her teeth up our arms - never breaking the skin but enough to register a firm warning... and she never got into trouble.

moi said...

Cake: That's pretty good bite inhibition. Some dogs never learn it. The cleverest do. Thankfully, as you're still here to tell about it!

Anonymous said...

Hoo-whee, this heah is a good jaw, Moi. Folks is not neutral on the topic is they?

Well, now lemme see how it be wif' Aunty and canines.

Won't surprise ya'll none that I agree--we'uns need to let pups be pups. 'Member that black lab in my
MM "All About Me" theme? Yep, he's a handsome fella, an' he doan wear folks clothes or eat human food or any of that--but golly he ain't figgered out that he is *not* human.

I mean he EXPECTS you to put down a bone fer him when ya serve up the vittles, and he EXPECTS he is goin' wif ya whenever ya turn the key in the buggy...

The big thang wif that fine fella is that he will NOT put up wif NO fussin' among his kin folks.

Iffin' Uncle's voice gits testy, why that black dawg will literally raise his eyebrow. Iffin' Uncle gets agitated in his chair, and says anythang wif' tone, that dawg "grrrs" in his throat.

But iffin' Uncle stands up to make an emphatic point to me or other family folk, that dawg rares up and puts his front paws on Uncle's shoulders and looks Uncle the eye--then licks him until Uncle laughs and the tone of voice goes back' I really truly ain't kiddin.'

An'iffin' youse a stranger and ya ain't polite to Aunty, that dawg warns wif' a growl that sounds exactly like "Friend-o."

Growin' up, Daddy brought home a hideous standard size poodle that would not let ya swim--it would rescue any chile' who got in the water. It were a good dawg, an' it weren't it's fault it were a dang poodle.

Then Mama one-upped him, an got herself a Irish Wolfhound. Ever heered one them thangs howl? It'll curdle yore blood, Sugar Pie.

An' like Miss Cake--Mama loves dawgs better'n us kids, seems like...well, mebbe. An' we ain't
THAT bad a bunch of young'uns.

Aunty, (far from whar' she oughta be.)

Anonymous said...

Here's what I want to know, since I'se seein' it regluar:
Is that Having My Cake's real derriere or does she cut and paste?

moi said...

Aunty: Another great story! People make fun of standard poodle haircuts, but they actually serve a function. Before they became famous with the lounge-around set, they were working water rescue dogs - which is why none of you youngsters could swim! Good dog. And I don't have enough time here to tell you just how much I adore Irish Wolfhounds.

As for Ms Cake's bottom, yes I believe that is hers and hers only. It does seem to be the Bloggie Gold Standard of Bottoms doesn't it :o)?

Aunty Belle said...

Well, mah apologies to folks wif yorkies and such, but iffin' youse gonna have a dawg, get one big enough to mean bidness--

AS fer Cake, well, thanks fer the clarification. I meant it sweetly--it coulda been all fondant and pastiche.(her bein' "Cake" , ya know?)

Gnomeself Be True said...

I've nominated you for president.
See my blog.

Karen said...

I have two Maltese Shi-tzus who definitely think they are human. I am currently in the grip of an MS episode and they seem to sense that all is not well with their Mum. My hands in particular are very numb and tingly and every chance they get they lick them as if trying to make them better. This is not something they normally do.

One of them (Millie) also "talks" when you come home as if telling you all about her day. If you mimic her and do it back she carries on the conversation all the while changing the tone and length of the "words". It's absolutely fascinating and I have always wished I spoke "dog". I sometimes think she is trying to tell me something important.