“Sitting with a dog on my lap, considering what we know about dogs’ abilities, experiences, and perception, I feel partway to full dogness myself. Also, right now, I am covered with dog hair.”
When I tell people about my imminent relocation—the news is generally met with a mixture of enthusiasm (Chicago!) and skepticism (December?). And the verbal exchange often entails a cute remark about buying my dog, Miles, a parka. Surely L. L. Bean is selling some sort of product—in tartan, no doubt—for this very occasion. But as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz would point out, these human thoughts exemplify our own “anthropomorphic tendencies” in understanding dogs. And in her evidentiary and endearing book, Inside of a Dog, she explores the dog’s viewpoint via his “umwelt”—his “subjective or ‘self-world.’”
It is important to remember that “their history begins with wolves. Wolves are dogs before the accoutrements.” This knowledge helps to reorient intentions—and to better know our furry counterparts. For example, when Miles gives me “kisses” on my face after I return home, this is more likely an expression of the wolf within him than a loving gesture. Or maybe it’s both. Biologically speaking, mouth licks signal a mother to regurgitate food she may have consumed while away. On some primal level, he’s really just interested in the peanut butter and honey sandwich I had for lunch. And while humans take in the world primarily through our eyes, dogs rely on their nose. “The sniffing method of dogs enables them to avoid habituation to the olfactory topography of the world: they are continually refreshing the scent in their nose, as though shifting their gaze to get another look.” We look; they smell. And apparently humans are naturally very smelly.
As Horowitz would surely agree, Miles doesn’t need a parka. In fact, his descendents hail from Newfoundland, Canada—not the warmest of climates. Furthermore, Labradors were bred specifically to retrieve game from frigid water. So, while I’ll be wrapped in seven sweaters with a leaky nose, he’ll be just fine. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to assign human qualities to our beloved sidekicks. Why is this so? Horowitz attributes it to one notably compelling feature: unlike any other animal, dogs make eye contact with humans. Dogs gaze at us. “A large component of our attachment to dogs is our enjoyment of being seen by them. They have impressions of us; they see us in their eyes, they smell us. They know about us, and are poignantly and indelibly attached to us.” Eye contact is critical to social cognition. A dog’s domesticated ability to gaze fosters a symbiotic relationship between human and canine that is truly binding. Dare I say, humanlike. So while I have limited attachment to the orchid that I water weekly, Miles has wholeheartedly become my family.
I, in turn, am his family. A dog’s entire sense of safety and wellbeing is wrapped up in his owner. As Inside of a Dog explains, dogs smell our emotions and observe our movements in order to create a sense of the world. And with this information, they respond accordingly. Despite the laminated diploma from puppy kindergarten (so proud! so useless!), Miles’ umwelt has been largely established by observing my unwitting behavior. Like most dogs, he holds deep affection (anthropomorphism?) for socks and shoes. Unfortunately for houseguests, I’ve never had the constitution to scold sock-stealing behavior. I find it difficult to be mad watching him sneakily steal a stray sock only to snuggle with it on the couch or his bed. As Horowitz attests, dogs encourage tidiness. Who’s training whom?
Upon reflection of her own dog, Pumpernickel, Horowitz shares this: “It was our way of interacting together that made her who she was, that make dogs that most people want to live with: interested in our goings and comings, attentive to us, not overly intrusive, playful at just the right times. She interpreted the world through acting on it, by seeing others act, by being shown, and by acting with me on the world—promoted into being a good member of the family. And the more time we spent together, the more she became who she was, and the more we were intertwined.”
When it comes to dog ownership, “intertwined” is the absolute perfect word. Miles and I really do live together. Despite the fact that, at times, I find him to be a royal pain (who isn’t?), I cannot imagine my life without this creature. And I suspect, if his own mind allows him to imagine in such a way, he cannot envision his life without me. It’s mutual devotion. But, still, I’ll save the parka-buying for myself.
Citation: Horowitz, Alexandra. Inside of a Dog. New York, Scribner, 2010. Print.