Friday, December 9, 2011

Words, Words, Words about Animals and People

"Many people believe they know what goes on in the head of an animal, but I believe I almost never do. I close my eyes, clear my head, and listen, and I hear sounds and feel emotions that are strange to me, and not describable. I love the mystical connection of animals and people. If I listen, only if I listen, and clear my head of the arrogant human idea that I know." Jon Katz

Katz usually has intelligent insights into the human-animal bond, and he captured my feelings exactly in this passage from his blog. George and I have always anthropomorphized our pets by carrying on ventriloquist conversations with them. One of us will pretend to speak for the dog, while the other talks to the dog. But we've always recognized the process of anthropomorphizing is just a guess, a projection of our imagination on a creature whose own thoughts remain largely alien and inaccessible to us.

Dogs eat poop. How in the world do you explain that?

For us, I think that alien-ness makes dogs more appealing. Well, not the poop-eating, of course. But they clearly need us and respond to us and enjoy being with us, without being able to understand us. How could Daisy understand television? She largely ignores it, perhaps because there is no smell, and we do know dogs relate to their world much more through smell than sight. But what does that mean, to have so many smell receptors that we would be able to distinguish a fish sandwich being eaten five miles away?

And if their smell receptors are so sensitive, how can they eat poop?

We see their reactions and attribute human feelings and thoughts to them, but George and I suspect that most of the time, they are thinking, "What?" Their brains are capable of fear, pleasure, and anger...primitive emotions regulated by primitive parts of their brains that largely resemble the primitive parts of our brains. Beyond that, our understanding of their responses becomes guesswork.

Still, we do manage to co-exist rather nicely, despite our big frontal lobes and their tiny ones. Dogs and people have evolved to be together, to need each other and to serve each other's needs. They tolerate us and our foibles and our neediness, without understanding us very well at all.

The least we can do is return the favor.


  1. LOL, HOW can they eat poop? My ex-husband and I had a Golden and she did eat poop as a toddler. She finally grew out of it. One of my funniest memories of her was watching her run across the frozen yard with a big brown cigar in her mouth. Yuck

    My new husband's 13 year Lhasa Ahpso occasionally eats poop. I wish I knew why. We've tried Dr's Foster and Smiths, Distaste treats. Sometimes they seem to work and sometimes they don't. My husband keeps reminding me that he is forever a two year old.

    He makes me laugh sometimes because he "talks" to us when we get home from work. There are days he really bitches us out. We both laugh and talk for him. "Where the H have you been?" "Do you realize what time it is?" I enjoy having a dog; but sometimes I feel like they are more work than kids!

  2. Indeed. Our beloved fur babies don't judge us. They are ever forgiving and loyal and certainly would not question any odd behaviours that we could possibly have. Not that we have any, of course ;)

  3. I would like to be a forgiving as my dogs have always been.

  4. Very interesting column, Susan. I live with two English cocker spaniels, one of which totally ignores the TV, while the other frequently watches it. He gets even more interested if there is an animal on it (and even if the sound is turned off, he recognizes the image of an animal) - it's fascinating as I've never had a dog who does this before. He will sit very still and watch a whole nature show. Occasionally if the animal looks threatening, he will bark at it. He's unusual in many ways - my niece who works with children with autism says that if dogs can be autistic, then he is as he doesn't understand the signals of dog interaction or the normal boundaries of interacting with other dogs or people. He's been the most challenging dog I've ever owned, but also the sweetest - not a mean bone in his body, never a growl or snarl. And he's never shown any interest in eating poop!

  5. We have a rat that watches tv and two that listen actively to music. Their body language is very different whe music on on. They love Christmas music, and one partcularly likes Brahms!


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