Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Friendship of Dogs, by Diana Earth

“We’re not dog people,” a friend of a friend told me on the weekend.
“We don’t let dogs into our house. Not our kids’ dogs, our friends’ dogs, any dogs.”

Numerous thoughts went through my head. She’d called to ask me if I thought a mutual friend would be unhappy if her new dog wasn’t invited to accompany them when she came to their home for dinner. The invitee was traveling, and the dog was with her. The little dog would have to stay outside on the porch or in the car while the human friends were visiting together. 

“Love me, love my dog”, came to mind. I understand it as an expression of the angst between friends when one is a ‘dog person’ and the other is not.  We dog people can’t demand that others feel the way we do, and though it’s often the fault of their humans, I myself do not enjoy ill-mannered dogs.

I see the old ‘…love my dog’ phrase as a plea to recognise what can be an important relationship. My husband and I haven’t kept dogs to lock up or leave for days at a time in the yard alone. I have a dog so that my life is graced by his companionship and his ‘otherness.’

Dogs have been an important part of my life since I was ten years old. According to US author Temple Grandin, it was the dogs who first sought out people, thousands of years ago.

Among the intriguing things Grandin brings up in her book Animals in Translation are the changes that have been detected in the brains of both human beings and canines since they started hanging out with one another. After we’d all been together for a couple of thousand years, sections of the brains of both people and dogs became smaller. Humans lost a good portion of the brain that works with smell, and dogs shrank down part of the brain that organizes hunting.

The theory is that dogs no longer had to be so self-sufficient and organized, since humans were willing to share some of their food. Humans didn’t need to have a keen sense of smell because their dog friends had such great noses, and they’d learned to read the body language of the dogs to detect much of what was going on around them.

When observed carefully, dogs of all breeds relay information to their humans every moment they are outside together.  If the human is tuned in to the behaviours of the dog, there’s a wealth of information available.

We regularly read of dogs finding bodies, tracking criminals, helping to find people in need of rescue and assisting human hunting activities. Dogs can find drugs in a suitcase and disease in a human. Dogs can tell when someone is about to have a seizure, or fall into a diabetic coma.  Canine ears are many times keener than our own, but it’s the dog’s nose that truly monitors the surrounding environment. Through its nose, a dog can tell you about things that happened on the trail not only today, but often yesterday and beyond last week.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that meeting the needs of our dogs often results in meeting needs of my own...

After a busier than usual week, I was bone tired on Sunday evening. It was tempting to sit on our comfortable sofa and watch some TV, but the dog had been left behind several times over the past days so I was moved to take him out.

Like all dogs, Solo was delighted to get out the door and turn on his senses. As he cast his nose down, I raised my eyes and saw thousands of stars. As we walked up the street, I was again treated to a celestial display I’d have missed had I stayed inside. The cool night air kissed my skin. My sluggish body gradually shifted gears from a stiff walk to a smoother gait. I’d had both dessert and wine; this walk would help dispose of a few calories.

Dog walkers are out under the stars, in the morning light, out in the rain and snow. We see things others miss, because our canine friends show them to us. We discover a hidden trail through snow or overgrown foliage to get the safest footing. We breath fresh air and exercise regularly because another being who cares about us is close.

The friendship between human beings and canines isn’t always smooth sailing, but I feel as a species, we were blessed when dogs first approached our fires.

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