More often than I’d like to admit, I’d answer affirmatively to this question, no matter how foolish that might be. But the other night, my answer would have been an emphatic “no.” I could not for the life of me figure out if my dog wanted to go outside for a walk, play indoors, or have something more to eat. All I knew was that he needed something from me and was desperately trying to communicate that.
The truth is, our pets seem to understand us a lot better than we do them. Anyone who has a dog knows that he tracks your every move, springing to action from a supposed deep sleep when you venture near the refrigerator and its coveted contents. Dogs in general, and Porties in particular, seem to have that “what’s next?” associative ability. One look at me lacing up my sneakers and he deduces correctly that a walk is in his immediate future. My friend’s cat climbs onto or even into her suitcase when she places it on the bed in preparation for packing. A new surface that’s noteworthy to explore? A stern warning that my friend is not to travel far and wide? Or a nod to author Cynthia Heimel’s book title: If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? This same cat prefers to drink from the kitchen faucet, though my friend knows not why. (see exhibit A)
Pets don’t just observe our actions, they pick up on our emotions. I imagine it’s what Daniel Goleman would call “emotional intelligence.” Additionally, animals can smell sadness and fear. A dog can smell human perspiration and adrenaline, both of which come into play when we are fearful.
Pets see what lies beneath the surface, what’s not visible to the human eye. When my older relative got sick, her cat started sleeping in the crook of her arm instead of at the foot of her bed as he had done before. A friend of mine tells me that her two cats were playing on her sick uncle’s bed and knew the instant that he had taken his last breath.
So often, we explain our pet’s behavior in human terms that don’t necessarily apply. Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist, has written a thought-provoking book called Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. Of particular surprise to me were her explanations of dogs and their raincoats and dogs’ experience of the present (tense). First, the raincoat: She reminds the reader that both wolves and dogs have their own natural coats and lets us know that a wolf may seek shelter when it rains but does not cover itself with natural materials. She explains that a raincoat covers and presses the back, chest, and sometimes the head. Wolves are pressed upon the back or head when they are being dominated by another wolf. So in other words, when you next notice your dog freezing in place or ducking his head when he spots the raincoat, you may deduce not just that he hates the rain or that particular yellow slicker (see exhibit B), but that he does not need a jacket (thank you very much) and doesn’t wish to feel dominated!
We think we understand dogs’ conception of time. We envy them their ability to truly live in the present. Yet their present is not the same as ours. Horowitz explains that for a dog, “smell tells time.” She continues: “The past is represented by smells that have weakened, or deteriorated, or been covered. Odors are less strong over time, so strength indicates newness; weakness, age. The future is smelled on the breeze that brings air from the place you’re headed. By contrast, we visual creatures seem to look mostly in the present. The dogs’ olfactory window of what is ‘present’ is larger than our visual one, including not just the scene currently happening, but also a snatch of the just-happened and the up-ahead. The present has a shadow of the past and a ring of the future in it.”
Do you know what your pet is thinking? How has your pet shown that he or she understands you, perhaps even better than you thought?