Grieving now both for Oka’s death in April and Darcy’s recent re-homing, I am also more keenly recognizing the gifts my dogs have given me—all of them, not just the last two, although Oka and Darcy were the catalysts for changing what I’d learned from intuition to conscious awareness.
Among my favorite tropes growing up were talking-to-animals and telepathy. Now, as anyone who has worked vocationally with dogs and horses knows, those are not fantasies. I can say this from my own experience, both from within and without.
However—and this is the tragedy of the dog—these gifts are only for those who accept Dog as Dog. As any decent dog trainer will tell you, such humans are rarer than they should be. As a result, the dog, arguably the most domesticated of all animals, plays a number of different pet roles in human households in the West: child companion, yard vegetable, furry baby, semi-feral “guard dog,” fashion accessory, and many more. (Working dogs are a different matter; I’m not discussing them here.)
A Canine Beatitude
Blessed are those who grow up with a companion dog, for they will learn telepathy. Fortunately, this talent can be acquired at any age if one recognizes that it requires what Jane Austen might have called “a fine condescension.” As the more complex sentient in the relationship, it is incumbent on human dog owners to make an effort to reach “down” to their dog, to understand it on its own terms. If one can do so, one can find oneself looking up as well.
I think dogs have already come farther towards a meeting of the minds than humans generally do. They easily “imprint” on human beings, and can do so sequentially. Their real-time communications are largely visual and somatic, making them adept at reading body language, and they appear to be especially adept at reading human body language. (I think only a sociopath can lie to a dog.) Only the dog, of all other animals, understands pointing. It looks at the moon.
Despite their largely somatic communication style, dogs easily learn the foreign language of verbal commands preferred by their primate overlords, given consistent and appropriate reinforcement. Without the latter, it’s just barking to them, with little or no semantic content, and they default to reading body language again. (Shouting a command, or worse, the dog’s name, over and over again is therefore counter-productive.)
The Aliens Among Us
One of the gifts of Dog to me is a better understanding the aliens I encounter or create in science fiction. I sometimes wonder if there is a higher percentage of good dog owners among SF fandom and writers than among the general population. After all, we’re used to thinking about communicating with aliens, and in many respects, dogs more than qualify for that role.
It’s a commonplace to note the dog’s greater scent detection and discrimination capabilities, or its bi-chromatic rather than trichromatic vision, but I don’t think most people take the next step and try to imagine how different a dog’s ideation is as a result. To get started, let’s take a bit of a detour, into the philosophy of metaphors, as discussed in Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, by Lakoff and Johnson. (Yes, that Lakoff.)
At almost 700 pages, no brief summary can do the book justice; I’ll just say starting off that it is for me an essential tool for designing aliens. The two authors investigate the impact on philosophy of three basic lessons from cognitive science:
- The mind is inherently embodied.
- Thought is mostly unconscious.
- Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.
The basic takeaway is that virtually all human thought is metaphorical (for SF writers, read “sophont” instead of “human”), based on a fairly limited set of direct sensory experiences. For instance, “warm and fuzzy” feelings likely have their metaphorical foundation in the experience of being held close as an infant by a parent or other caregiver. These building blocks are extended and combined to support the dizzying range of human thought, including, of course, philosophy itself.
The important thing for understanding aliens is that the nature of a creature’s sensorium determines its metaphors. For instance, in Exordium, the trilaterally-symmetrical Kelly would never describe a personal betrayal as “going behind [my] back.” They have 360-degree vision, and therefore no “back.”
The Real Smell-o-Vision
Dogs have almost as alien a viewpoint. Scent is primary, as noted, and in many dog breeds (e.g., the German Shepherd Dog) near-sightedness is common. If dogs were to talk about God, She would not be invisible but eternally downwind. (Fuzzy vision is not much of an evolutionary handicap for dogs, given the specialized motion and direction-sensitive neurons in the visual system characteristic of all predators, which make discerning fine details less important.)
Even more important is that scent, unlike vision, has a temporal aspect due to evaporation and chemical decomposition. (Yes, vision is temporal for astronomers, but let’s be less Sirius for a moment.) Every tree, every corner, yes, every fireplug is a olfactory BBS, with each dog’s contribution easily distinguishable, and each with a time stamp on it.
In addition, the dog not only has orders of magnitude more chemosensors than humans, but it has two levels of scent: nasal and vomeronasal. The latter is non-existent or vestigial in humans, and is thought to be largely for pheromone detection and the resulting modification of sexual and social behavior based on these particular scent molecules.
The Dyson Nose
Watch your dog closely the next time he or she finds an interesting scent. You’ll see lots of sniffing, often starting shallow and getting deeper. The dog may “reset” its nose by snorting, which not only clears out the nasal and vomeronasal areas in preparation for “re-scenting,” but also, in most dogs, creates a vortex around the nostrils that actually pulls scents deeper into the nose. If the dog detects a pheromone, you may see the canine equivalent of the flehmen response called tonguing, which helps extract more information from the scent, often preceded by licking the object with the scent on it.
When your dog is finished (or when you get impatient and haul him away), he knows who’s been there (including new, strange dogs), when they were there, their sexual status, and much more, all while you were trying to figure out if he was about to uncover and eat some shit. They can even bluff: dogs may judge the size of other dogs by how high they pee; they’ll get it wrong if it was a male Jack Russell, which like to pee standing on their forelegs and aiming up. There’s also evidence that the urine scent of non-canines conveys some information as well.
(I’ve often noted that if humans were dogs, we’d exchange business cards by first wiping them on our butts and then sniffing them. Political summits would be particularly interesting. And perfumers would rule the world.)
The Kingdom of the Blind
So imagine if sight were like that for us. It would be a Daliesque world where even the sharpest-edged objects would droop and melt after a time, but the order of visual events could be known long after they occur. (I imagine also that a lot of the tsuris over sex, gender, and orientation would not have developed, since scent would publish much of that information far and wide. And our medicine would be far more advanced.)
That’s alien enough. When you add in those aforementioned specialized visual neurons, which “automate” much predatory and other behavior (frisbee catching, anyone?) and therefore act to “short-circuit” thought; much more sensitive hearing; and a settled tendency to neophobia once mature, and you get a being who really, really does not live in the same world as primates.
So imagine how frustrating it must be to go on a walk with a nose-blind primate in a world lit up by scents on the ground and drifting in the wind, some of them messages from con-specifics, some revealing prey or carrion, all of them needing sorting and decisions…but noooo, the leash pulls and you have to move on. (Like going to a visual arts museum with a nearly blind person as your guide?)
And then, oh joy! He throws the ball for you but then barks at you when it takes you awhile to find it, oblivious to the fact that a red ball is invisible to you on a green lawn (your color axes are yellow and purple) and you’re really finding the ball by scent once it stops moving. And the idiot races towards scary things, instead of checking them out from a distance! And barks all the time. The reader can probably fill in others.
To See the Other as Ourselves
I have a game I often play when driving in these mountains. I try to see the road and its environs as though for the first time again, setting aside somehow the 15+ years I’ve lived up here. Sometimes, just for a moment, I get it, that anticipation, freshness, ignorance even.
So, too, my life with Dog. At its best, walking a dog can be a fruitful form of meditation, if one is open to what the dog is saying with every movement; they hold nothing back. Sometimes, just for a moment, I’m graced with a vision of the the dog’s world. I imagine diaphanous, drifting skeins of color, like pastel chalk, winding in sinuous grace among the trees and bushes , some pale and etiolated with age, others vivid and fresh. Here, on a telephone pole, something like a movie flickering through multiple sub-plots, but far richer and emotional, more like a set of perfume commercials than of video messages. A flash of motion, a squirrel, and I feel the near-instantaneous bunching and readying of muscles as the visual motion neurons align the dog’s attention.
And so, too, with my fellow primates. There’s a reason the followers of Antisthenes called themselves “cynics,” for kynos is the name of Dog in classical Greek. They believed in living a life “in virtue, in agreement with nature.” In other words, they tried to see the world as a dog would, and act accordingly, or, to put it even more succinctly, accept no bullshit.
I noted early on with Oka, my first working dog, that the people I encountered while training him tended to a bluff honesty and an impatience with bullshit. It was quite a contrast with the intense politics and house-of-mirrors feeling of the Silicon Valley start-up I was working for at the time. It may even be that Dog called me to be a Friend (Quaker), among whom the Testimonies of Simplicity and Integrity seem to me to echo a dog’s relationship to the world.
In any case, one of the greatest gifts of Dog to the people of Dog can be that of greater empathy, the ability to step out of oneself into another and experience, if only for a moment, how they are experiencing the world in that moment. If you can do that with a dog, experienced truly as a dog, it becomes much easier with another human, especially if one sets aside speech and just listens, watches, learns. From there comes greater presence in the world without cant or pretense, and from that authenticity grows true authority: not imposed but recognized, what Quakers call “weightiness.” And that is the “lever long enough” of a humane life, and the only true power in this world.
All from the love of a dog. How wonderful to have an alien teach one how to be more human!
This is the last of the regular Saturday Darcy Chronicles; I’ll now be writing on whatever suits my fancy, which will certainly include dogs. As for Darcy, he’s been living for two weeks now with a family of rodeo ropers on a ranch in the Tehachapi Mountains north of LA. His handler had been working with “an average dog” and she wanted something better. Boy, did she get it! I hope to hear from her someday soon, and will share the details as appropriate.