More than puppy love
News & Record
Have you ever felt that your dog was the only one who really understands you? It turns out you might be right. A new study confirms what any dog owner could already tell you: Dogs are experts at reading human behavior. They know a lot about what we're thinking and feeling, and that whole "best friend" thing is supported by the scientific data.
Research conducted by Harvard anthropologist Brian Hare and reported in the journal Science indicates that domesticated canines are better able to pick up on human social cues such as facial expressions than are our close relatives, the chimpanzees, not to mention, perhaps, some of the close relatives with whom you just shared a family Thanksgiving.
Dogs have exploited this talent over the millennia to make humans cater to their every need. The canny evolutionary strategy, which scientists say was first employed 15,000 years ago by some adaptable wolves at an Asian campfire, now has me standing outside every morning, rain or shine, begging a puppy to poop so I can go back inside to drink my coffee.
They say dogs have masters and cats have slaves, but how I am the master in this relationship is not quite clear to me. Any objective observer would assume that our puppy, Luna, is running the show at our house. I feed her and walk her and follow her around with a plastic bag in my hand, and I'm happy to do it. People mutter, "It's a dog's life," like that's a bad thing, but you don't need a Harvard study to recognize it as a pretty sweet deal.
My wife, seeing me sprawled on the floor murmuring gibberish to the puppy -- tone of voice being another signal thoroughly decoded by dogs -- suggested that I think Luna is a person. Never would I make that mistake. I love her so much precisely because she is a dog: to anthropomorphize her would be to waste an opportunity. You get to know a lot of people in your life, but close relationships with another species are harder to come by.
(I really don't mind people at all, and I'm not one of those dogs vs. cats chauvinists who would make fun of cats for being semi-feral and having brains the size of a grape. I don't even mind cat owners. If you want to believe that the songbird-eating Mr. Fribbles really is your little angel and that nobody can smell the litter box, that is your problem.)
Dogs are so consistent that even when they let you down they do it in predictable ways. Your dog may ruin a rug or eat the roast beef you left on the counter, but he will never, say, hold up a liquor store or charge things to your credit card after watching an infomercial or hype a lousy stock in order to get his children into a fancy private school. You want loyalty? Anyone who wags her tail just because I come back into a room after being gone two minutes is all right with me.
Luna gets me to do activities I didn't even know I missed doing, like taking long walks in the rain and under the stars. On the days she accompanies me to work, she waits patiently outside South Elm Street's two excellent quick-lunch spots, Le Petit Market and Thiggy's Pizza, and allows me to spend more quality time downtown. And she is admirably ecumenical in her tastes: When I get takeout from Osaka's on High Point Road, she wags her tail politely at the sushi chef and demurely accepts the bit of shumai I give her back in my office.
Fittingly enough for an animal with such excellent people skills, Luna teaches me a lot about humans. People react to the puppy in different ways, ways that may be instructive in other contexts. Some smile and keep walking - that's what Mayor Keith Holliday did recently when he saw Luna on North Elm, just days after a knowledgeable insider told me that our affable mayor doesn't communicate closely enough with City Council members. Coincidence? Perhaps not.
Others will bend over to tousle an ear. Milton Kern, for example, the developer who has done as much for downtown revitalization as anyone, never fails to speak to the dog. And then there are those people who drop immediately to dog level to commune with the beast. Say what you will about John Hammer's brand of journalism, the man is a kneeler, and you have to respect that. (There are also people who do not react to puppies in any way, but the less said about them the better.)
It's easy to love a puppy, but I have promised Luna that I'll care for her still when she is old and walks funny and emanates even more bad smells than she does now. Of course I will. What are best friends for?Edward Cone (www.edcone.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.