I don’t remember when I first came across the saying, “Be the person your dog already thinks you are.” My wife says it might have been on a bumper sticker on a car in our old neighborhood in the States. Regardless of when I first became aware of it, the statement generated a gestalt. I’d never really considered my dog’s opinion of me; I’m not even sure I felt he had one. I did know, though, what I thought of him and that I would love to be the person he would be if he were a person.
For one thing, Kulfi—he’s named after the Indian dessert—is patient. In the dim early morning light, as I fumble for the key to the front gate, he stands quietly behind me, does nothing to make me nervous or to feel that I need to hurry up. Many mornings, a feral cat who hangs out in our neighborhood will be sitting outside the gate. When it sees Kulfi, it comes running up to him, head lowered, and bumps him gently in the chest. It reminds me a bit of how sumo matches begin. Although he is much larger than the cat, Kulfi doesn’t bark or respond aggressively. He appears to welcome this morning greeting from another animal.
Kulfi lives in the moment. When we walk, he doesn’t try to hurry and get it over with, even when it’s raining. Instead, he stops to smell the flowers on our route, along with a bunch of other things that I’m not sure what they are. When a light breeze is blowing, he will stop and face into it, enjoying the many scents it carries.
He likes to give and receive affection. He looks at every human, especially little ones, to see if they would like to give him a head rub, or a chin scratch, or speak to him. Recently, a mother took her young child out of its stroller and stood him next to Kulfi. The child placed both hands into Kulfi’s thick coat and held on, grinning all the time. It reminded me of a story my wife told me about how she learned to walk hanging on to the collar of a long-haired collie.
He’s playful. Periodically, as we are walking, he will take his head and bump it against my leg, often while jumping up and down. Then he will stand crosswise in front of me, blocking my ability to move forward. Perhaps it’s some genetic memory of his ancestors’ shepherding sheep in Scotland. Or, maybe, he simply wants to play. There is an incredible story that Darwin tells about shepherd-dogs in The Voyage of the Beagle. He’s staying at a large estancia (ranch) in Uruguay. It’s November 1833.
While staying at this estancia, I was amused with what I saw and heard of the shepherd-dogs of the country. When riding, it is a common thing to meet a large flock of sheep guarded by one or two dogs, at the distance of some miles from any house or man. I often wondered how so firm a friendship had been established. The method of education consists in separating the puppy, while very young, from the bitch, and in accustoming it to its future companions. An ewe is held three or four times a day for the little thing to suck, and a nest of wool is made for it in the sheep-pen; at no time is it allowed to associate with other dogs, or with the children of the family. The puppy is, moreover, generally castrated; so that, when grown up, it can scarcely have any feelings in common with the rest of its kind. From this education it has no wish to leave the flock, and just as another dog will defend its master, man, so will these the sheep. It is amusing to observe, when approaching a flock, how the dog immediately advances barking, and the sheep all close in his rear, as if round the oldest ram. These dogs are also easily taught to bring home the flock at a certain hour in the evening. Their most troublesome fault, when young, is their desire of playing with the sheep; for in their sport they sometimes gallop their poor subjects most unmercifully.
The shepherd-dog comes to the house every day for some meat, and as soon as it is given him, he skulks away as if ashamed of himself. On these occasions the house-dogs are very tyrannical, and the least of them will attack and pursue the stranger. The minute, however, the latter has reached the flock, he turns round and begins to bark, and then all the house-dogs take very quickly to their heels. In a similar manner a whole pack of the hungry wild dogs will scarcely ever (and I was told by some never) venture to attack a flock guarded by even one of these faithful shepherds. The whole account appears to me a curious instance of the pliability of the affections in the dog; and yet, whether wild or however educated, he has a feeling of respect or fear for those that are fulfilling their instinct of association. For we can understand on no principle the wild dogs being driven away by the single one with its flock, except that they consider, from some confused notion, that the one thus associated gains power, as if in company with its own kind. F. Cuvier has observed that all animals that readily enter into domestication consider man as a member of their own society, and thus fulfil their instinct of association. In the above case the shepherd-dog ranks the sheep as its fellow-brethren, and thus gains confidence; and the wild dogs, though knowing that the individual sheep are not dogs, but are good to eat, yet partly consent to this view when seeing them in a flock with a shepherd-dog at their head.Darwin, Charles. The Voyage Of The Beagle (Illustrated) (pp. 87-88).
“A curious instance of the pliability of the affections in the dog.” Indeed!
We share this world with a host of marvelous creatures. What are we to think of them; how are we to treat them? In Genesis 1:26, we find God saying: “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. W. W. Norton & Company.)
I’m not sure we humans have fully worked out the meaning of “to hold sway.” However, it seems to me to exclude shooting buffalo from a moving train for “sport.”
Nor, to use a more recent example, do I think it would include putting a pig in a bungee harness and pushing it off a platform as a stunt to open an amusement park. Henry Beston wrote one of the most moving statements I’ve ever read about how to think about animals in his book, The Outermost House.
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.Beston, Henry. The Outermost House. Pushkin Press.
Fellow prisoners? Well, maybe. I prefer to think of them, however, as traveling companions, living alongside us, and experiencing with us the “splendour and travail of the earth.”
Here’s a beautiful slow-motion video of a long-haired sable collie named Hopsinka performing in an agility competition. Thanks to Veronika Kučeriková for permission to share this video.
All the best,