Years ago when I was studying Human Ecology in college, I was introduced to the concept of anthropocentrism. If you ask anyone to name the most significant species on the planet, most people will instinctively pick humans. Many cultures have used that bias to subordinate all other creatures and satisfy their every extravagance, no matter how harmful. Those beliefs and others like it tend to prevent people from appreciating the way other animals perceive the world. It also undermines the compassion they should feel.
The primary way that all animals understand the world is through their senses. It’s how we all navigate the environment from ants to whales. It’s difficult for even the most enlightened among us to understand what it’s really like to be an ant or a whale. Consequently, it’s easy to treat ants, whales, and all animals as nothing more than chattel. In this way the thoughts and feelings of other species become irrelevant.
Some modern religions reinforce this disregard. They teach that the natural world was created so that man can have exclusive dominion over it. Meanwhile, some so-called primitive cultures actually honor the creatures that inhabit their surroundings. In rituals, they even impersonate them, hoping to acquire their special characteristics. Their legends are filled with animal spirits; yet, as people from these cultures join the modern world, they abandon traditional practices in favor of a more rational and materialistic outlook. Their connections to the natural world that were once vital for survival are broken and their ancestral empathy for animals is lost.
In spite of all this, it’s still possible to imagine the lives of other creatures. As children, we play-act popular zoo animals — tigers, elephants, and monkeys. Yet, in this game kids only learn about the outward characteristics and not much about the important inner lives of the creatures they imitate. As adults, we can take this game to a deeper level and imagine much more.
For a moment, consider antness and what it truly means to be an ant. Close your eyes and go deep inside their seemingly manic world. Spend a few minutes there. Next time you encounter one scurrying in your path you might stop and think before squishing it with your foot. Pick another to imagine, elephantness, owlness, fishness, snakeness. When you get around to dogness, spend some serious time. This is an important first step toward understanding the heart of your dog.
If you were to morph into a dog right now, what would you experience?
The first thing you’ll notice is that your eyesight, particularly your ability to distinguish colors, is diminished; however, you’ll become more aware of things that suddenly move in your line of vision. Your nose is now bombarded with thousands of new scents. At first you may be confused, but soon you’re able to sort through the onslaught and distinguish subtle differences, much the way you did with your color vision, as a human. Hearing is acute, too. You face another challenge to prioritize all the sounds you now hear. As you get used to your new powers, you realize that you can now detect how close or far away sounds and scents are. You also notice that previously putrid and repulsive odors aren’t so bad anymore. In fact, some are downright pleasing. As you explore this new world, your nose, eyes, and ears are hanging close to the ground. You scratch and dig to acquire and process hidden information about what’s below the surface. You find you can diagnose where other animals have trekked. You can even estimate how recently they’ve passed, based on your ability to detect the freshness of their scent. You’re probably excited by the sight or smell of a squirrel, rabbit, or raccoon. Chasing, attacking, and killing are irresistible; then you discover that you can now run much faster than any human. You also notice that you’re comfortably warm, since normal canine body temperature is 101°F. If you aren’t already part of a family or pack, you’re constantly on the lookout for one to join or start. Fortunately, you do have a loving family, so you mark your territory. All this romping has left you a little tired. You go home to take a nap. After a quick slurp of water, you settle down and instantly fall asleep. Suddenly you jump up wide-awake, startled by an unexpected sound. You determine it’s nothing important, so you fall back to sleep just as quickly. Sleeping thirteen hours a day feels just about right.
Now morph back to human form and consider canine intelligence. Unfortunately, dumb dog is a common expression. It’s easy to insult your dog when its behavior doesn’t match your expectations. Yes, compared to humans, your dog’s IQ is much lower. That isn’t only because your dog has less total brain power. The truth is, your brain and your dog’s brain are wired differently. Higher level thinking and planning aren’t important for your dog’s survival. What’s more important is the ability to rapidly process and analyze the huge volume of sensory information to make quick decisions.
Wolves need to have sharp wits and respond instantly to everything they confront. Dogs have similar instincts. Humans, on the other hand, rely on complicated layers of reasoning that filter multiple options before reaching a decision. Without human intervention, dogs will rely on their impulses. To survive as a dog, you need to act fast. If you hesitate, that squirrel will get away.
All these things and more require a particular intellect unfamiliar to humans. Is it fair to measure canine intelligence based on human standards? Dogs are not dumb. The channels in their brains are simply different than ours.
In spite of these differences, there are many ways in which dogness and humanness overlap.
Order a Signed Copy Now!
Free shipping (USA only)