Year of the Dog
[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He teaches survival and self-reliance at Pasadena City college and throughout the community. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]
As we are about to begin the Chinese Year of the earth Dog on February 16, it is a good time to take note of all the good things about dogs. It seems that everyone has something to say about the character of dogs. They exhibit unconditional love, they are loyal, and they really seem to want to be a part of your life, to the extent that they are able.
Dogs are deeply loyal to their families and friends. They are regarded as honest and straightforward, and they can be deeply responsible for the welfare of those around them (remember old episodes of Lassie saving someone?).
Many of our most profound observations about human nature come from our observation of dogs. For example, Sigmund Freud noted that “dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate.”
James Thurber observed, “If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.”
One of my favorite episodes of the Twilight Zone was “The Hunt,” where Hyder Simpson and his dog went for a hunt one day. Hyder’s dog jumped into a pool, and didn’t come out and Hyder looked for him, eventually finding him. They both had died, but Hyder didn’t know it, and he strolled down a road where a man informed him he’d died and that he was now at heaven. Hyder was about to enter but the gatekeeper said dogs were not allowed. So Hyder just kept strolling, saying he’d not go anywhere if his dog couldn’t go. He eventually came to another gate and the gatekeeper again invited him in. “What about my dog?” asked Hyder hesitantly. “Oh, he’s welcome” said the gatekeeper. It turned out that this was the real heaven, where both Hyder and his dog were welcome. The other gatekeeper was at the entrance to hell! It’s an excellent episode and makes you think about what is important to you in life – and after life.
Ann Landers once wrote, “Don't accept your dog's admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.” And I really like the bumper sticker I once saw that read, “I wish I was half the person that my dog believes I am.” A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself, said Josh Billings. And Andy Rooney noted that the average dog is a nicer person than the average person. How true that often seems!
We make fun of some habits of dogs, like going in circles many times before they will lie down, or sniffing everything, because perhaps we do not understand dogs. Dave Barry once comically noted that “dogs need to sniff the ground; it's how they keep abreast of current events. The ground is a giant dog newspaper, containing all kinds of late-breaking dog news items, which, if they are especially urgent, are often continued in the next yard.” Funny, but probably true. I remember walking my pit bull Cassius Clay in my Altadena neighborhood, and there were certain lines of bushes which he had to slowly sniff before we could move on. It took so long to get by that area that I would sometimes avoid it entirely or I would never get home. What did Cassius smell? His brain was likely translating the different odors left by other dogs, just as Barry suggests, and those odors conveyed a complex picture of each dog that had passed by and probably a few things about its history.
As for the intelligence of dogs, I believe it is quite high. Much has been made of the supposed higher intelligence of pigs vs. dogs. I don’t doubt that some scientist conducted some tests of brain activity and found that pigs were higher functioning in some areas. Pigs certainly have incredible memories. When I had both a pig and a dog, I observed that my pig, Otis, had an incredible memory, but the memory was largely limited to food: where he once found it, whether he liked it, and whether he might find more there again. Whereas the pig seemed to be less interested in humans and wanted to live for food and pleasure, the dog’s mentality was very much geared to the human “master,” and very much included the concepts that we humans call love and loyalty.
I have so many dog stories – stories that are uplifting, sad, hilarious, stories of how our dog pal made our life more meaningful, and taught us to love even more. I realize that if you’re not a “dog person,” you’re not going to get this. I remember once on the Dennis Prager radio show – not a “dog person”, by the way -- he talked about people who love dogs dearly. In his attempt to figure this out, Prager concluded that people who love dogs more than people have some sort of deficiency, and they are trying to make up for it by loving dogs. Respectfully, I think you got that one wrong Dennis. Granted, no two people are alike, but I see that people who can love dogs too are people who are big lovers, not small lovers. They are people whose hearts are big, and they see the beautiful life force and vitalistic energy within these non-human beings.
I have spent some time attempting to master human-to-dog communication. It is definitely not about words. Yes, dogs will remember certain sounds and what they are intended to convey, regardless what human language you are speaking. But they primarily pick up on your tone and intent. They know anger, fear, uncertainty, love, respect, and many more of the so-called human emotions. I also believe that Beatrice Lydecker got it right in her book, “What the Animals Tell Me,” where she shared her “secrets” to animal communication. Essentially, Lydecker explains that you need to think in pictures, and to then attempt to convey those pictures to the animal, mentally. I experimented with the Lydecker approach many times with Cassius and found that, towards the end of his life, we had some very deep and profound exchanges of ideas.
Welcome the Year of the Dog! What an auspicious year.