Friday, November 2, 2012

Dogs That Know ... A Lot More Than Mine

April Cushing is the Adult Services Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin November 2, 2012.

While browsing through my bookshelves recently I came across “Dogs That Know When Their Masters are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals” by Rupert Sheldrake. Seriously? It sounds like a canine version of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.” I was, I admit, more than a little skeptical.

I love all my kids, of course, but if I relied on them for daily demonstrations of devotion I might be barking up the wrong tree. That’s where Duffy, my true and constant companion for the past 13 years, comes in. I own an embarrassingly large assortment of Dandie Dinmont Terrier collectibles: artwork, figurines, kitchenware, coasters, jewelry, pottery, return address labels. Can you say “obsessive?” Duffy, for his part, showers me with love--and way too much saliva. I’m pretty sure I’ll be more devastated when Duffy enters doggie heaven than when certain blood relations go to the great beyond.

Dr. Sheldrake, who studied natural sciences at Cambridge and philosophy at Harvard, has done extensive research on the perceptiveness of pets with the help of over 2000 animal owners and trainers. He discovered that many dogs not only trot dutifully to the door moments before their master arrive home, but some take up their post when their loved one starts getting ready to go home, or merely contemplates it. Crazy, right? But Sheldrake and his associates have conducted numerous experiments videotaping both the dog at home and the master miles away to confirm this uncanny phenomenon.

I decided to try a little experiment with my own four-footed friend. Besides being able to tell who’s on the other end of the phone, many pets, apparently, can intuit when their master get injured, sometimes fatally. I drew the line at putting that theory to the test.

I like to think my dog is at least as smart as the average bear. When Duffy grew too arthritic to scamper upstairs, he eventually figured out how to ascend sideways, one step at a time. He also knows when I’m getting ready to drive away and plants himself squarely by my car door. OK, so the keys are jingling in my hand and I’m heading straight for the driveway, but still. To test the strength of our bond and to see for myself if Sheldrake’s findings were for real, I recruited a volunteer to observe and record Duffy’s behavior leading up to my homecoming.

After several days of scrutiny the empirical evidence was conclusive. Without exception, my decision to begin the process of returning to the Duffster, including my actual arrival on the doorstep, elicited no reaction whatsoever. Had I totally overestimated his I.Q? When I recall my puppy’s first reunion with his aloof, beribboned birth mother at the Boston Dog Show, his inappropriate display of affection may have been an early sign that he wasn’t the rocket scientist of Rovers.

Duffy’s limited grasp of boundaries aside, I knew he was no dummy. He probably realized that rousing himself from a comfy nap, only to rush to the door and wait, wasn’t going to make Mom or his next meal materialize any sooner. But it got me wondering, what exactly goes on in that cute little cranium of his?

The 637.7 section of the Morrill Memorial Library contains a myriad of books exploring the latest thinking on canine thinking and the extent to which dogs experience emotions. As a rather emotional creature myself, I was curious to see what the experts had to say.

I started with Jeffrey Masson’s very readable “Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs.” Controversial psychoanalyst and bestselling author of “When Elephants Weep,” Masson focuses on his own three dogs whose often mysterious behaviors prompted him to explore emotions like gratitude, compassion, loneliness and disappointment, including speculation on what dogs dream about and how they perceive humans. In that same vein, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz explains how dogs see their world, each other, and us in “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know.” She considers such questions as “what is it like to be able to smell not only every bit of open food in the house but also sadness in humans, and why must a person on a bicycle be chased?”

In “You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness,” Julie Klam recounts the engaging and amusing story of how her search for that special someone turned up a flat-faced, neutered and irresistible Boston Terrier. Two other good choices are “For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotions in You and Your Best Friend” by Patricia B McConnell, and Stanley Coren’s “Why Does My Dog Act That Way?: A Complete Guide to Your Dog’s Personality.”

After perusing these and other excellent sources of dogology, I admit that a dog’s ability to anticipate his owner’s arrival is, undeniably, impressive. But personally, I’m just happy that my little hound seems glad when I do get home. Contrary to conventional wisdom, in our case it’s the destination rather than the journey that counts.