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Buster Qua Buster

Andrew Ferguson ponders Buster

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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For reasons too boring to go into, I have recently inherited custodial duties of the family dog. When Buster first arrived, more than a decade ago, we spent a fair amount of time together. I took responsibility for training him with a rigorous program lasting several weeks. To this day, if you ask him to fetch, sit, roll over, shake hands—any of your basic doggie tasks—he will instantly lie down and close his eyes. In the early days I walked him a lot too. 

Buster the dog.

Buster

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Time passed. Work obtruded. My wife, at home with young children, became Buster’s primary care giver. I didn’t pay much attention to him, to tell the truth. And now, 10 years older, we are getting reacquainted, settling into a comfortable routine as old family members do. I don’t have much choice anyway. Most days he has me under constant surveillance. We take long walks in the early morning. He lies on my office floor during the day, follows me to the kitchen for lunch, returns postprandially to his position next to my chair, and stretches out so that with a single false move a roller will snap his tail in two. At 4 p.m. precisely he starts to whimper for a dinner that, he must know, is never served before five. 

At least I assume he knows this. He does, doesn’t he?

It’s the kind of question that pesters me throughout the day. Often finding myself without much to think about, I begin to wonder what Buster is thinking—whether Buster is thinking. Our walks display his twin natures, the lower, animal nature brightened with glimpses of .  .  . something higher. On fair days he is incapable of walking more than a few feet without stopping to investigate the messages left by other members of the dog community. A fire hydrant is like a plump edition of the Sunday Times to him, offering in its riot of pheromones news of illness and health, food and sex, rest and exercise, birth and death. 

Buster scans these bulletins with an avidity that’s almost unseemly—a carnal single-mindedness that suggests a 1950s teenager handling his first issue of Playboy. Faced with a pile of leaves or a divot of turf, Buster buries his snout impossibly deep and then somehow buries it further, pushing it forward like a furrow splitter, as if he could pass through the material world altogether into a spirit world of doggie bliss, the realm of pure pheromone. At some moments his whole body stiffens. When I grow impatient and give a gentle tug with the leash, his reverie breaks and he seems momentarily disoriented, off balance, a shade of chagrin passing over his face as if he’s been found out—the teenager with the Playboy again, startled by Mom rapping at the bathroom door.

But I’m just imagining his chagrin, aren’t I? Anthropomorphizing? 

To find my way out of my puzzlement, I checked out a stack of dog books from the library, with promising titles like Inside of a Dog and How Dogs Think. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at what I found. The same mad reductionism that has snowed thoughtful people in every other field of inquiry—the ravages of neuroevolutionary cognitive sociobiopsychology, and the rest—has seized the people who study dogs. They give mysterious names to ordinary things as a way of rendering the most mysterious questions ordinary.

I learned, for instance, that when Buster and I spend time together we are in fact engaged in cross-species pair bonding. When he places his head in my lap, he is launching a thermotactile sensory probe, the sly dog. On our walks he might accelerate his gait to match mine or I will slow mine to match his. The simple courtesy one species pays to another, you’d think? No: We are exhibiting allelomimetic behavior. Sometimes, in what I once assumed was an excess of affection, Buster will turn and try to give me a kiss. But of course what we perceive as affection can be nothing more to the sociobiologist than an evolutionary strategy. So no: Buster is trying to make me vomit. Back in the prehistoric wilderness, it seems, Buster’s ancestors provided for their pups by only half-digesting food. When Mama returned to the den, the puppies learned to lick her face, inducing her to vomit up boluses for their enjoyment. 

The reductionists don’t let me off the hook, either, of course. My illusions about Buster are no more pathetic than those I harbor about myself. I could tell you about the bio-evolutionary subterfuge that makes me think I love my dog when all I’m doing is rewarding myself with blasts of oxytocin and prolactin, thereby enhancing my Darwinian fitness. But I’ll spare you. Besides, Buster has his eye on me from his perch on the couch, as if to say, “Time for some cross-species pair bonding?” 

That is what he’s saying, isn’t it?

 

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