My dog Pebbles is a shelter mutt the size of a shoe box.
I can’t explain how she managed to end up in my household. She must have sensed that I’d lost part of my soul, a piece whose absence I couldn’t get used to, which knuckled me awake in those long, sad hours before dawn.
Whatever she’d divined that I lacked, she somehow decided what I really needed was an alarm system. Her solution was to spend her days bark, bark, barking at (in no particular order), strangers at the door, the neighbor’s cat, me, the TV, a Christmas tree, my sweetie, the refrigerator , a pair of chipmunks that frolic on the corners of the yard and, I’m not making this up, her water bowl.
She performs her duties with unbridled enthusiasm and sounds the alarm at random intervals throughout the day and night.
A couple of years ago I posted an essay about all the dumb dogs that have found their way into my heart over the decades. I made the case that they in no way resembled the dogs that I spent my childhood reading about — Lassie, Big Red, the two companions who joined with a cat to make an Incredible Journey. Some people took that to mean that I didn’t love those mutts or appreciate their unique contributions to my life.
On the contrary, their ability to affect me in profound ways has always been a source of amusement and more than a bit of mystery.
It turns out that there is a lot going on behind those gentle eyes.
That’s the message from Dr. Brian Hare’s “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think.” Dr. Hare, the director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, is a pioneer in understanding how dogs think and their remarkable ability to fathom our thoughts and intentions. In fact, he posits that their domestication was not the result of human-driven enterprise by selecting the offspring of less-aggressive wolves, but rather a dog strategy to climb aboard the civilization gravy train.
He’s devised 10 tests that measure five kinds of intelligence — empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning. By determining these values in individual dogs, he’s able to outline the ways that a dog can discern its owner’s needs and commands.
At the end of the day, dogs are domesticating us just as much as we’re working on them.
Consider what’s happening when we lock eyes with our canine. Just as reverently as they look at us, we’re looking at them, trying to comprehend their thoughts.
Beneath the surface, though, when dogs look at us that way, they’re creating a measurable change in our brains. We produce more oxytocin, that remarkable hormone that alleviates stress and fosters a sense of, and there’s really no other word for it, love.
That’s right, through some arcane and wonderful Canine Mind Trick, dogs are able to make us love them.
It’s a partnership that’s immeasurably enriched both dog and human lives.
Think about it — wolves, dogs’ closest cousins, are pushed to the very fringe of habitable land, with the threat of extinction never too far away. Dogs remain at our sides, on every continent and in every environment, including Antarctica.
And what do we get out of this magical relationship?
“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” — Milan Kundera
And I get a truly amazing burglar alarm.