Life With Curious Dogs

This is unorganized. This is free writing. Albeit, with a topic in mind. Still this will be meandering. So, no promises, as to where I’m taking you if and when you plod on reading. And I realize, that where writers in ancient times did their libations to the muses and the gods, the modern plebeian writer (in other words, the nonprofessional, the blogger) has replaced it with the disclaimer. My, how far democratizing the power to print has gone.

Anyway. Yes, anyway, dogs.

I have been living some of my life with cats but even far longer with dogs. To illustrate, I am no longer living with cats and dealing with the attendant fur ball, their miyawring, and their sharply pungent poo. But I am still living with dogs. Five of them to be exact, though they were recently six. And a long time ago, I lived with nine, but, before my family succeeded in our scramble for adoptive families, there were really thirteen if I counted the litter of puppies. So I have lived a long time with dogs. For over two decades in fact. Yet dogs continue to surprise me. Here are two things about our household dogs that are taken from recent observations:

Dogs are practitioners of folk medicine. When one of our canines is ailing due to some illness or other they don’t ask to be taken to the vet. What they do is amble to our backyard’s abundant disarray of weeds and wild shrubs. Then carefully, with their wet noses on the hunt, they sniff out the inconspicuous blade or leaf and start chewing the magic remedy once found. A few days later, they are perky as before, like nothing happened. I promise myself someday I will act more like a naturalist and bring camera, pen and paper with me to jot down notes on the vegetation they seek out. It might benefit all of humankind.

Analysis is not the sole province of the human mind. Dogs analyze just like we do. Just this evening, while going about the business of feeding dogs (my favorite household task), I observed how intelligent dogs can be. But first, let me tell you about how I feed dogs.

I place the alpha’s bowl heaped with food just right outside the kitchen door. The kitchen is off limits to him and he knows it though sometimes he will push his luck by lying down across the threshold. But a look is enough to deter him from entering. The rest of the pack, a pair of females and males, I feed inside the kitchen. This prevents the alpha from coercing any of them from giving up their meal for his sake. It’s a pretty efficient and effective feeding set up. There is never any bickering and meals conclude in peace.

But tonight, lady luck granted one of the beta males, Wolfie, with her favor. Wolfie got the food bowl with a sizable pork bone joint in it. As is his habit, he picked up the bone with his sharp canine teeth and padded on his way out of the kitchen, likely headed for the backyard where he intended to gnaw at the bone at his leisure. As he was about to cross the threshold out of the kitchen, the alpha who was gobbling down his share just right outside the door caught on and blocked Wolfie’s path. He began to employ the intimidation tactics all alphas know by heart: making that low growl which signified a warning, leaned close to Wolfie, and glared at him eye to eye. I merely observed, curious what would happen next.

Rather than try his luck against the alpha, Wolfie wisely backed off, brought his prize bone back to his spot in the kitchen and stood before his dog bowl. He looked like he was weighing his options. So, I told him to put the bone down and finish his abandoned meal. This way, he could wait out the alpha who was guarding the door. As I suggested, Wolfie dropped the bone from the grip of his jaws and continued eating the food in his bowl. A few minutes later, he finally gave up on resisting the bony temptation, plopped himself down on the floor and began gnawing.

All the while, I was observing this behavior and marveling at how his actions displayed intelligence. He clearly demonstrated the ability to formulate intent when he moved to bring the bone outside. I can almost hear him think I will bring this wonderful bone and enjoy it outside. Then, when he was met with an obstacle in the form of the alpha dog, he didn’t instantly turn back. He stood on the threshold for a bit before he retreated. He seemed to me testing or assessing whether he could push through with his original intent. When it became clear that the alpha would overpower him, he chose the next best alternative, a retreat. This would entail knowing that I, the benevolent dog master, held greater power and influence over the kitchen. This also required knowing that I would protect him against acts of bullying while inside. When he had gone back to his spot, he once again made a choice between gnawing on the bone and resuming his interrupted meal. His actions, overall, show the ability to carry out intentions, recognize alternatives, analyze risks and benefits of these alternatives, and carefully arrive at a decision.

Is this just me projecting human behavior on a dog by interpreting his actions as I would a human? I think not. Our pets as well as the animals in the wild are capable of so much more than we give them credit. If we only stay curious and employ the naturalist’s patience for observation without judgment, we are bound to find something remarkable, not only about other creatures, but more so, about ourselves through the clarifying and magnifying lens of comparison and contrast.

*photos of Wolfie to be posted soon

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