I had a dog once that played music. Really. Any time my friend Gil and I got out our guitars, Ricky grabbed a squeaky toy, planted himself between us and started making noise. He had no sense of time or rhythm — it was pure, skronking jazz — but this Belgian Tervuren was into the music. We have many audio tapes, but alas, no video of him wailing. He would be a viral sensation today.
It’s been more than 20 years since Ricky moved on, but I think of him a lot, just like I think often about all the dogs that have graced my life. No other canine has shown any degree of musical aptitude. But each one has been a good friend, and each has taught me something about myself. I couldn’t live without a dog. They are my companions, friends and teachers.
Humans, especially Americans, are animal crazy. In 2017, Statista found that 60% of US households had a dog (that’s 80-90 million dogs, give or take a few million) and 47 million had a cat. Many have both, and that doesn’t count the multitude of fish, rabbits, ferrets, iguanas, snakes, birds, guinea pigs, mice, hamsters and other animals we keep.
Maybe we’re not all Leona Helmsley, the hotelier who left most of her inheritance to Trouble, her Maltese, who lived in luxury until she died at age 12, yet we managed to spend more than $80 billion dollars on our companion animals last year, half of that on food and treats, and we are on target to spend more this year.
I was afraid of dogs as a child. And I grew up with the general belief that non-human animals — we are all animals, after all — acted solely by instinct. The difference between humans and other animals, we were told, is that we humans are sentient, conscious, emotional beings and other animals aren’t. Animals belong to us, the reasoning went. Not being around them, I didn’t give it much thought until I got my first dog at age 27. I’ve never been without one since.
A big part of the disconnect about whether animals are conscious beings is that they can’t tell us what, or how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking, in a language that, as smart as we are, we can understand.
Their “intelligence,” such as it is, might not resemble ours, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s not hard to find YouTube videos that show ravens and crows making complex decisions to get food.
Some border collies have been trained to distinguish between hundreds of words. Watching the famous video of Robin Williams and Koko the ape interacting, it’s hard not to suggest they are showing genuine empathy for each other while rubbing each other’s bellies and laughing.
We can put Go-Pros on their heads to see the world from their point of view, and The New York Times reported that a canine researcher is performing MRIs on willing dogs to actually try to see inside their brains, but there is still no way we can experience life as animals do. That’s a secret they still keep to themselves, and it drives us crazy. When I once suggested to a researcher in Yellowstone how cool it would be to be inside a coyote’s brain for five minutes, he replied that he would give anything for just one second inside there.
Dominion vs. Domination
The way we look at animals has changed a lot, especially over the last 50 years, and we are finally coming to terms with animal sentience, or at least the concept that animals have feelings, too.
The Biblical injunction comes early, in its first chapter. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” Genesis 1:26 reads, “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
That one word in there — dominion — has proven problematic. What does dominion really mean? That we humans must exert control over all other creatures or be their caretakers? Dr. Marc Bekoff is an ethologist (someone who studies the science of animal behavior) and researcher who has been working with animals his entire life. He writes a column, Animal Emotions, for Psychology Today. His book with Jessica Pierce, “A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans,” will be published by Princeton University Press later this year.
“A lot of this is driven from the view that as humans we are a superior species, and we are allowed to do what we want,” he told The News Station a while back. “But dominion doesn’t mean domination.”
Religion has played its role, he explains, in passages like the one above and claims that only humans have souls. “Another reason is that if you distance yourself from other animals,” Bekoff said, “it allows you to do what you want.”
This kind of detachment allows us to control animals, whether that means shooting them for trophies, keeping them in zoos or producing them for research purposes.
“In terms of industry, you can understand where people come from,” Bekoff said. Allowing that animals have feelings changes that dynamic considerably, and begs even more questions.
That humans are unique was accepted dogma for most of human history. The late bear biologist Charles Jonkel grew up poor but learned to trap and hunt at an early age as part of a subsistence family. When he went to school in the 1950s, bear biology was a relatively new field.
Jonkel already knew a thing or two about animal behavior, but he also knew to keep his opinions about animal intelligence and sensitivity to himself because, as he explained it at a retreat years ago, that wasn’t something that would help get you a degree. In those days, you didn’t talk about that kind of stuff out loud, and it wasn’t until he graduated that he was able to pursue his real studies.
Bekoff has worked with and written books with Jane Goodall, perhaps the best-known ethologist for her work with apes. When they started writing about animal sentience, they ran into the same kind of resistance for questioning established beliefs.
“For a long time, Jane and I were kinda sideshows,” Bekoff admitted. “We got heavily criticized for talking about the emotional lives of animals. But I basically really believed in what I was doing and kept doing it.”
Bekoff’s view of dominion has more to do with stewardship than domination, based around the concept that humans, the dominant species, are charged with taking care of what we have. And though humans might consider themselves more intelligent than animals, we really have to try and see it from the animal’s perspective.
“It’s not how smart an individual animal is, it’s what they feel,” Bekoff said. “We’re all smart in some ways, but there are different types of intelligence. Rats are really smart. Maybe not as smart as humans, but they have emotional lives just the same.”
So what does this have to do with the way we interact with our dogs? I scoffed originally when the city of Boulder, Colo., almost two decades ago, changed the word “owner” to “guardian” in its ordinances. It’s nothing more than a symbolic gesture, one of those “only in Boulder” things, I told myself, agreeing with a city attorney who at the time called it “social engineering.”
I have since come to appreciate the distinction. Ownership, as noted above, suggests that you can do whatever the hell you want, and, at its worst leads to behavior that obliterates all distinctions and leads to atrocities like dog- or cock-fighting. Thinking of yourself as a guardian instead of an owner suggests a different way to approach your responsibility toward your animal companions.
One of the best places to learn about dog behavior is dog parks, the fastest growing segment of city parks these days. Most major US cities have at least one, and they have become a kind of a cultural phenomenon. In his book, “Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do,” Bekoff says that dog parks are like rich, petri dishes of dog culture, working classrooms for human/canine understanding and citizen science on the subject.
“They’re gold mines for learning about both dogs and people,” he writes. “Visits can serve as myth breakers or icebreakers. For hours on end, the interactions never stop: dogs are watching dogs, people are watching dogs, dogs are watching people and people are watching one another as they care for, play with, and try to manage their dogs.”
I’ve spent a lot of time in dog parks in the last few years, and “Canine Confidential,” which is written in a casual, conversational style, reinforces the things I’m learning as well and pushes me to learn even more.
“Life is very vivid to animals. In many cases they know who they are,” Carl Safina, whose “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” is a scientific and observational study of elephant, wolf and whale interaction and societies, said. “They know who their friends are and who their rivals are. They have ambitions for higher status. They compete. Their lives follow the arc of a career, like ours do.”
Thinking about animals in that context provides a much better way to look at my dog. Rather than drag her away when she wants to spend a lot of time sniffing at a certain spot, or chastising her every time she gets into a scuffle, I try harder to see it from her point of view.
It took me a long time to realize that, if we just allow them, dogs can be our teachers, and more than just our pets. We can learn a lot from them, if we just allow it.
I have had an exceptionally difficult time with my dogs’ deaths. But I have also come to realize that, hard as they are, their passing is a reminder that life is precious, and that grieving is a part of it, too.
It’s their final lesson for us, and it’s a big one.
Though I’m still looking for another dog that can make music like Ricky, I’ve learned that all dogs are unique and special in their own way — that they all have something to teach us. We have come a long way toward understanding them, but we still have a long way to go.
“The bottom line,” Bekoff said, “is that if we’re going to make change, we need to recognize sentience right now.”