The mysterious connection between ‘homo sapiens’ and ‘canis familiaris.’
Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By DAVID AIKMAN
Of course, dogs that save lives are the staple of stories that make us feel good about ourselves. Dogs rescue drowning children from swimming pools, warn of the danger of a fire, or sometimes alert rural folk to an otherwise unobserved snake in the grass. Well and good. But what about the really difficult to explain times when dogs seem to sense things about other people that we do not? How are dogs able to detect an epileptic seizure minutes before it happens—and, in a few cases, stand at the top of a staircase to prevent an epileptic child falling down it?
Franklin has an arresting anecdote about his dog’s embarrassingly unfriendly reaction to meeting a new academic administrator for the first time. The dog retreated to the other end of the room, his tail between his legs; but Franklin had taken an instant liking to the man. Within a few days the administrator started acting towards him like a Gestapo interrogator. How did the dog know that this would happen?
Why, for that matter, do dogs have such a benign effect not just on mental patients but on their owners who are having hard times emotionally? Dogs undoubtedly have a broad range of emotions which appear to include embarrassment, jealousy, and grief. I recall reading a column in the Times of India about a dog that was so distraught by the death of its mistress that it died of grief itself within a matter of days. Since scientists admit that animals besides dogs experience a broad spectrum of emotions, it is surely not anthropomorphizing dogs to suggest that their emotional range may have been increased by millennia of interaction with humans. (Cat-lovers, of course, would claim that many of the dog’s endearing companionable traits are also demonstrated by cats.) Nobody quite understands how dogs can detect certain kinds of cancer—by smell, obviously—that do not show up on scientific machines.
More difficult to explain is the human/dog closeness that enables dogs, at times, to perceive things about other human beings (is it all smell?) that we humans don’t. Dog owners and dog lovers, as Franklin notes, are fiercely loyal in their affection for what used to be called “man’s best friend.” In the United States there are far more of them than anywhere else in the word: The dog population may be as high as 77.5 million. Dog owners deeply resent any government attempts to part them from their dog companions, and the success of books like Marley and Me, and even of memoirs purportedly written by dogs in the homes of famous humans, prove that we cannot get enough of the relationship with our favorite four-legged companion.
I have often claimed, only half-flippantly, that George H.W. Bush won his presidential race over Michael Dukakis at least, in part, because he revealed to the American people that he shared his shower with his wife’s dog, Millie—who, I mean the dog, went on to write a bestselling book. That’s my kind of guy, countless American voters apparently thought. Woof-woof! Or if you are a German mutt, wau-wau! David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.