I’ve needed to tell this story for quite some time. Apologies up front for exceeding 140 characters by a few thousand.
Zo’s birthday is today. Or, was today. We lost him right before New Year’s this past year, about a month after his eleventh birthday. Eleven. Not all that long for a typical dog, but Methuselian for a Great Dane, who typically give us eight years, ten tops.
Zo wasn’t the greatest dog in the world. He was bit neurotic, territorial, and predictably unpredictable. A great family dog, in that he would have done anything for any of us, if only we knew how to ask. When I was deployed or just TDY, it was more than a little comforting to know he was there to answer the front door. But he was a lot of work. I guess all Danes are a lot of work, inasmuch as 170 pounds of anything is a lot of work. But our pup really had his moments. We’d take him to the park, and he’d let a dozen kids climb all over him, and then one particular kid would do something he didn’t like and you’d see his upper lip curl, and you knew you had about ten seconds to turn his attention to something else. And if you were in our home, don’t even think about taking an unexpected step towards one of us without making eye contact with him first to make sure it was okay.
Neurotic for sure. He would let a six pound cat push him around, steal his sun spot, lay down in the middle of his bed, and he would stand there and pout, even whimper some times. But then that same cat would walk over and sniff one of his chew toys, and Zo was on her like it was nobody’s business. Like I said, predictably unpredictable.
But one thing he never failed to do was make me wonder about anthropomorphism. Especially when he lied to me one day.
We have a complicated relationship with man’s best friend. Seems our early ancestors weren’t so hot about writing stuff down, which is bad if you’re the type who likes things nice and tidy, but not so bad if you have an anthropology degree and are lucky enough to have found a research job. But the general consensus is, we’ve been hanging out with dogs, if not necessarily calling them “pets,” for somewhere around 16,000 years. Cats, on the other hand, have been pets for only a few thousand.
Nearly everyone likes dogs, and just as interesting to me, just about everyone is a little suspicious of those who don’t. For comparison, our society seems to think that it’s okay if you don’t like cats. David Quammen wrote of a survey of Americans’ favorite animals. The dog was #1 by a country mile, and the cat limped in around #26 … right after the brown trout, if I recall correctly. The funny thing is, there are just about the same number of cat owners as dog owners in this country. But the cat suffered in this popularity poll from negative voting: Cat owners typically put the cat down as #1, and the dog somewhere in the top ten. But some (not all) dog owners ranked the dog as #1 and then cats at the very bottom. Mistrust of cats is given. For every person who loves his cats, there’s a hater out there, and no one questions or tries to convert the non-cat person. But a dog hater? There must be something wrong with that person, most of us think.
The funny thing is, while we are mostly in agreement on dogs as a positive asset to our society, there is a large range of attitudes within general construct. There are folks with working dogs, say a rancher with an Australian shepherd, who just don’t get why someone would want a little chihuahua to carry around ones purse, take to the mall, dress up for the holidays. And likewise, there are folks who consider their dogs to be a part of the family who can’t believe that someone would leave his dog outside, make him work for his food, and treat the pup as if it were an indentured servant.
Did you hear that? I call a dog “it,” not “him” or “her.” I’m betting some folks saw that and felt a little twinge, while others didn’t catch it at all. Which is my point.
The reason for this rambling introduction? Anthropomorphism. One of those words I learned around the same time as antidisestablishmentarianism — a word that initially caught my eye more for its length, weight, and vowel repetition than for its definition. Now, I don’t know in exactly which grade I first learned this vocab word, but I remember this: there was a general negative connotation with it, unless one was using it with poetic license, say in a Disney story or fable. Basically, if the audience is under 12, then anthropomorphism is okay, but for everyone else, we need to watch it. I think it’s because it’s a slippery slope from thinking that your dog is brave or showing compassion, to actually having a brain that works like ours: conscience, sense of self, even a soul. That’s ground most of us don’t want to think about, because it’s danger-close to questioning whether there is in fact anything that significantly sets us apart from the wild kingdom. So we tell ourselves that there’s a line there somewhere, even if the actual boundary is hard to define.
Like I said early, we’ve been hanging around dogs for at least 16,000 years, and cats only a couple of thousand. Hence, the dog’s resulting physical transformation, through selective breeding, from a standard wolf to the hundreds of breeds, from the one-pound chihuahua to the 200+ pound St Bernard, while a cat pretty much looks like a cat. But it also explains the emotional symbiosis between man and dog. Anyone who has been around really big dogs will tell you that they are just as emotive as any person. It’s harder to see on a tea-cup poodle, if only because their features are so small. But you can’t miss it on a Dane or other big dog. Zo’s ears would tell you exactly what he was thinking, flipping up or pulled back or hanging low. His jowls had the full smile-frown-snarl spectrum like any of us do. His eyes would light up when you came home, or darken if he thought you were having a bad day.
Uh oh … I said it … “thought.” That’s the part folks really can’t agree on. Was he thinking, or is that just a conditioned response, something he learned would get him an extra pat on the head? I dunnoh … I’m no expert, and don’t even play one on TV. For 99% of his perceived emotional traits, you could argue either way and I’d believe you. But what about the point I’ve been meandering about: that my dog lied to me? How does one square that with a belief that dogs, as are all animals, incapable of the level of thought-process that we feel makes us human?
Zo was the most idiosyncratic dog I’ve ever been around. It went beyond simple habits, his routine ways of doing things. He had to have things just right or it made him antsy and distressed — a veritable Woody Allen, or the Monk of dogs. Like most dogs, he liked to chew on things. But he took chewing to a whole new level. Fortunately for us, he only chewed on the things he was supposed to chew on. He had his ropes, Kong toys, and whatnot, and that’s all he would ever touch. I could put my belt, a leather shoe, his chew rope, and his leash (which looked exactly like his chew rope to me) all on the floor in a row, and he would go straight to his rope and ignore the rest.
Yeah, lots of dogs chew … but Zo had a chewing system. Before he sat down for a chew, he’d gather other toys, toys that he had no intention of playing with at all. He’d gather them up and put them in a pile in the middle of the floor. The last toy he’d pick up would be his chew toy for the evening — typically, a six-foot length of climbing rope from REI. (I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I did figure out this: for $10, I could get a chew toy from PetSmart, which Zo would destroy in a couple of hours. Or, for $5, I could get six feet of climbing rope from REI, which he could chew on two hours a night for about two years before it finally wore out.) Then, he’d turn around in circles about a dozen times before finally settling down. Always facing us: if we were still having dinner, he faced the dining room table, but if we were sitting down to read or watch TV, he’d face the couch.
And then, he’d chew. And chew. And chew. Typically for 2-3 hours. For as long as we were in the room, he’d sit there and gnaw on his rope. Now remember: this is a 170 Great Dane, with jowls big enough to sub-let as a studio apartment. On a good day, he was a drooler. But when he was worked up into full chewing mode, he gushed like a mountainside river in early spring. We quickly learned that we needed to drop a beach towel under him as he got going, because after two hours, the carpet looked like Joe Mondragon’s beanfield.
Zo’s territorialness came out in different ways, and there was a lot of back and forth with the cats. He knew he was only supposed to chew on his ropes, but he also knew that the cats had a lot of toys that they never played with — little fuzzy mice and catnip-filled balls that they were supposed to chase. But being the lazy cats that they were, the toys just sat there in their bin … until Zo decided that instead of going to waste, he could put them to use. A couple of times we caught him with a mouthful of cat toys, whaling away on them, until they were a mulched ball of saliva-coated felt-based goo. Zo got a “bad dog” from us, was redirected to his ropes, where he got a “good dog” and a pat on the head, and we thought, problem solved. But we’d still catch him staring at the cat toys, wheels turning in his head. My assumption was, when our backs are turned, he’ll try to grab one, so let’s just keep an eye on him.
Idiosyncratic. Idiosyncratic to the point where we could predict exactly what he was going to do when he started one of his routines. Eat dinner, get a drink, go to the toy bin, grab a bunch of toys, lay them down, go get the rope, lie down in the middle of his toys (facing us) and begin chewing.
But one day he broke his routine, and he was most definitely acting out of sorts. He ate dinner, got some water, then put his toys in position. But then he spent a little bit too much time digging up a chew rope. When he got the rope, instead of going directly to his toys, he walked back to us. We were making dinner, just about ready to eat, and he’s following us around the kitchen with a big long rope hanging out of his mouth. And he was breathing funny. But he wasn’t just following us. He was getting in front of us as we moved about the kitchen, in front of us and facing us, looking up at us. He’d make eye contact and shake his head back and forth. The best we could figure, he was saying, look at me, I’ve got my rope. “Yeah, I know, Zo — that’s your rope. Now go lie down, go have a chew.” But he wouldn’t leave. He was making some concerted effort to make sure that we saw that he had his rope.
Finally he left, went to his spot on the floor, and lay down on the floor. But instead of facing his, his back was towards us. He was looking 180º from his normal position, which he never, ever did. And he started chewing, but instead of getting into a Zen-like chewing groove, he would chew for a minute, then turn around and look at us, rope in his mouth. He’d stare at us until we made eye contact, then turn back around and go back to chewing.
He did this several times before we both realized that something wasn’t right. That’s when it hit us: his back was to us because he was really chewing on cat toys, with the rope on the floor in front of him. And every couple of minutes, he’d pick up the rope — cats toys stashed in the back of his mouth — and turn around to show us that everything was normal, nothing to worry about, because all he had was his rope. When my firing-on-three-cylindars brain finally figured this out, I yelled “Zo!” and from the tone of my voice, he knew he was busted. And as I got up to go take the cat toys away from him, he scrunched up facing away from me and chewed as fast as he could, as if he was getting as many illegal chews in as possible before the cat toys were taken away.
Now there are a lot of assumptions going on in this description. I think this is what Zo was thinking when he did whatever, I’m guessing this was his motivation or thought-process here or there. There are a lot of assumptions in this story, but in one particular aspect, the math only adds up one way: he was lying to us about not having any cat toys, and about only have his normal chew rope. The whole bit about dancing in front of us with the rope, cat toys safely tucked away in his jowls, was all deception and decoy. Turning his back on us was intentional so that we couldn’t see that the rope was on the ground. And his accelerated chewing when he was busted was clearly because he knew he was doing something wrong, knew he had been caught, and was trying to get in as many illicit chews as possible before the Law came down on him.
I have no idea what’s going on inside a dog’s mind. They keep proving me wrong time and time again. And I have no idea what exactly it is that makes us human, and whether any animal is capable of having just a little bit of it. But here’s what I know: About once a week I stumble upon a story of a dog saving a little kid, or helping another dog across a highway, or even this week about a dog in a pound who breastfed a litter of abandoned cats. And just about every day, the evening news has a story about a human or group of humans doing something absolutely despicable. By actually lying to me, I’m not sure a dog is able to more clearly act human, by any definition.
Happy birthday, Zo. Hope you have all the chew ropes you need up there … and the occasional contraband cat toy as well.