Wilton columnist: Dog days, again
It’s probably time for us to get another dog. We’ve had a long (18-month) mourning period for Tanzi who was with us for 14 1/2 years as a close companion. Will we ever find another dog with whom we can be that close?
That was a question we asked when our two beloved Bernese Mountain dogs died in succession, each having lived only 7 1/2 years. So we went with a rescue-dog mutt the third time — though a young friend identified Tanzi (correctly, to judge from the book he showed us) to be a flat-coated retriever. Who knew there even is such a breed?!
Those 14 1/2 years were filled with great joy and lots of fun together, as well as serious moments, too. She lived up to the meaning of her full name: “gives strength.” Our children were adults by her time, but she became no less close to them than the Bernese with whom our children grew up. And then our grandkids got close to Tanzi, too. They still tell us how much they miss her, and several have stuffed animals who look remarkably like Tanzi with her sleek black coat that gracefully feathered on her tail and legs.
So we’re giving serious thought to our next dog, and consequently I’m doing some research on dogdom by rereading the bestseller of 10 years ago by Barnard College animal behavioral psychologist Professor Alexandra Horowitz entitled “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know.” Its 300 engaging and often witty pages offer many insights, sometimes from her observations of her own dog, and underscore why humans and dogs have become such close companions. Here are some of her teachings drawn from animal behaviorists’ observations and experiments:
Dogs view the world from one to two feet off the ground — very different from our own perspective multiple feet higher. Their vision is also both more and less acute than ours: most dogs see with a much broader peripheral vision than ours, and their night and low-light vision is much better also because “light entering the dog’s eye hits the retina at least twice … redoubling the light that makes images visible.” However, dogs’ color vision is much more limited: not completely absent but not bright in colorful array like ours. Horowitz analogizes it to seeing the world only under yellow lighting that renders pinks, for example, white-ish.
By contrast, as we all know, dogs’ senses of smell and hearing are many multiples better than our own and put our own rather measly oral and auditory faculties to shame. They also see the world moving in segments more closely spaced in time than we do, which helps to account for their incredible abilities in frisbee catching and the like. They likewise are heavily primed to respond to motion, while things at rest can easily escape their attention. They definitely, and especially, “act in response to our actions, with alacrity. They dance with us. … The rules of [their] play —signaling, timing — are similar to our conversational rules. And so we can enter into a dialogue of play with our dogs.” On walks, dogs should at least sometimes have the freedom to explore scents and set the pace themselves: smelling yields them huge amounts of information on other dogs, other animals, and life in general — like reading a newspaper for us.
A recent New York Times article summarizes new research indicating that dogs are genetically predisposed to love other species around them from an early age, from humans to sheep. We all know that stroking a dog is therapeutic for us, and dogs also greatly appreciate touching and intimacy. We both also enjoy a warm greeting ritual as we joyfully acknowledge each other for the first time after an absence.
Dogs are great students of us, primed to read our body language well. Part of the reason for that is because the way dogs communicate with each other on meeting and in play is based on multiple very fast but pronounced (to a dog) movements and gestures that dogs need to be able to read and that clearly convey specific meanings about such important subjects as friendliness or hostility and willingness to interact in play.
So when we acquire a dog, we take on a companion whose objective will be to know and read us extremely well and even to love us, and whose skill in doing so is really remarkable. On our side, Professor Horowitz encourages us to “imagine your dog’s worldview, and let him change your own.”