This evening as I was getting ready to take Slobberdog out for a walk, he was standing by me with his mouth half open, tongue sticking out, and tail wagging. I thought to myself, "Aw, baby's smiling because he's happy that we're going outside." And then I thought, "Hmmm... is he really happy, in the human sense, or is he just excited (in the animal sense) because he knows he won't have to hold his pee in for much longer?"
We all have this tendency towards anthropomorphizing animals and objects. It's probably because doing so makes it easier for us to relate to the things around us. Ships are referred to as "she". Countries become fatherlands and motherlands. Unreliable cars become "temperamental babies", and giant SUVs become macho, menacing hulks. Then there are noble steeds, The Lion King, black widows, and Curious George.
I'm pretty sure, though, that it is our pets that we humanize most of all. And so dogs start to smile, or feel happy, or become our babies, or get dressed up (by the Paris Hiltons of the world) in ridiculously expensive Christian Dior outfits, or are considered loving or bratty. And cats become aloof, or haughty, or flirty.
It's easy to understand. Pets provide companionship, entertainment, interaction, and a chance for us to exercise our nurturing instincts. Dogs are probably the most interactive of all pets, because they hold the distinction of being the first animals ever to be domesticated. So we baby them, give them toys, play with them, and provide them with every creature comfort we can afford. And in return they play with us, curl up next to us on the couch, walk and run with us, greet us when we come home from work, and rub up against us when we're blue. Makes perfect sense, right?
Then there's this other school of thought, which states that we are doing a grave disservice to our pets when we humanize them. Cesar Millan, better known as the National Geographic Channel's Dog Whisperer, is probably the most famous student of this school. I like watching his TV show. Recently, Bill gave me a copy of his book, Cesar's Way, in which he discussed his background and how his life experiences with dogs helped him develop his philosophy. It is this philosophy that he applies to the dogs that appear on his show and get treated at his Dog Psychology Center.
Cesar believes that virtually all behavioral problems seen in dogs stem from the fact that we humans lose sight of the fact that dogs are, first and foremost, animals. He says that most of us who own dogs fall into the easy trap of seeing them as humans in furry coats. Consequently, we interact with them and attempt to train them using human psychology. And far too often, this leads to behavioral problems in our pets, which can range from amusing, through annoying, to dangerous.
The book is an entertaining and interesting read. It gave me new insight on the human-dog dynamic, and I think I picked up on a few things that will help make Devon a better pet (not that he isn't nearly perfect already...lol). One of the things that Cesar keeps hammering home is the concept of pack leadership. He says that dogs' lives revolve around packs, and that it is imperative for the pet owners to establish the fact that they are the pack leaders. He lists example after concrete example of the many ways we inadvertently signal to the dogs that they are the pack leaders, and says that problems stem from when dogs get this wrong idea.
Cesar says, correctly, that most pet owners will find this psychological adjustment difficult, and that some will think that it's borderline cruel to have such a rigid, heirarchical view when dealing with their beloved pooches.
Intellectually, I think that Cesar is probably right. In dealing with Devon, I think I unconsciously behave as the pack leader most of the time, anyway. I'm the human, you're the pet, and you will follow my lead. But I'm not consistent. Because part of me has that soft spot for dogs, that wants to pamper Snorty McDoggelsson and spoil him rotten.
So which school of thought is correct? Personally, I think that it's somewhere in the middle, a happy medium in between the two extremes. I believe that dogs can and do feel happy, or sad, or disappointed, or loving. It's just a different kind from what we humans feel. So dog happiness is analogous to, but not the same as, human happiness. And canine love is similar to but not the same as human love. One thing that Cesar says that I agree with completely is that it is a mistake to intellectualize or rationalize dog behavior vis-a-vis ours. That it is useless and ineffective for us to try to reason with dogs, or expect them to behave the way we want them to because "they should know all that we do for them and be grateful."
Sometimes I wonder what goes on inside Devon's mind. I wish that I could read his thoughts. Does he get annoyed when I make him sit before I let him eat? Does he get impatient if it takes me a while to get out of bed in the morning? What does he think about when he's alone at home and I'm at work? It would be really cool to be able to read a dog's mind, but in the end I bet that even if we could do a Vulcan mind-meld with them, all we would probably get is gibberish.
It doesn't matter, though. What matters is that our relationships with our pets - especially dogs and cats - are symbiotic. Each party gets something out of the bond.
And that's the beauty of it.