We humans have a tendency to miss the forest for the trees. Or even worse, for mere paintings of trees, or plastic imitation-trees in hotel lobbies … or for McDonald’s hamburgers. We tend to interact with the world (or rather avoid interacting with it) by way of intermediaries: artificially alluring signs, symbols, and tokens of potential meaning that keep us always one step removed from true animal satisfaction; at first physically, but in the end emotionally as well.
We read street signs and study maps instead of enjoying the view. We type on computers instead of looking into our long-lost relatives’ smiling faces (and we are all one another’s relatives). We watch The Real World instead of, well, living in the real world.
Dogs don’t watch TV. And the ones that do only like it because they think it’s real; we’ve tricked them into believing that the critter scampering across the screen is actually edible. They don’t type or read; and the ones that make use of the morning newspaper use it for a slightly different function than most of us. And they care more about smelling, feeling, and running through the grass than talking or hearing about it.
If you own dogs, you’re forced to live many hours a day experiencing the world in at least some small ways through their eyes, ears, and nose – even if you don’t often notice that you’re doing so. To sense at any given moment what they need, what they want, what they’re afraid of and what they’re attracted to, you have to be seeing and feeling the world at least for that moment in the same ways they are. To fulfill their animal needs in our human world you have to guide them through the streets and interact at the dog park alongside them. And to successfully communicate your own needs and desires to them, and get the behavior that you want in return, you have to express yourself on a base, bodily, intuitive level. One thing that is as impossible as squaring the circle is successfully lying to a dog.
Dogs aren’t better than us, whatever that might mean; we can certainly do many amazing and beautiful things that they never can. Even the most humble of humans are born with an almost magical sense of art, an incomprehensible moral conscience, and a godlike ability to reason logically and consciously plan for the future. These gifts come bundled with undeniable power as well as with a burden of responsibility to use them well. But one thing dogs can do, that the human race seems increasingly hardpressed to accomplish entirely on our own, is save us from our own worst tendencies.
For helping in that area, I am daily grateful to that best species of friend.