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Dog Thoughts
Written October 11, 2002

Scientists warn us against "anthropomorphism" in dealing with non-human things.  We're told that it's a mistake to treat non-humans as though they were driven by human emotions or desires.

But it's hard not to think like a friendly dog.

For example, suppose a man takes his dog with him in the car on a shopping trip.  He leaves the dog in the car while he goes inside the store.  Often, the dog will feel abandoned.  At least, that's the human emotion I attribute to him.  He paces nervously inside the car and barks, staring at the door of the store where his master disappeared.  There are other interesting people moving about the parking lot, but the dog is obsessed with one thought:  "When will my master return?"

I empathize with the dog.  When I misplace something, I become similarly obsessed; I can't think of anything else until I find the lost object again.

Another example:  I was out walking one day and saw a Siberian husky in his yard.  The dog called out to me,  "Hi!  Want to play?  Look, there's a ball over there.  You could throw it, and we could have fun!"

Of course, he didn't use words.  He used body language, like this.

• The dog walked alertly toward me with his tail wagging:  "Hi!"

• He stopped, extended his forelegs, and bowed down with his chest close to the ground while looking up at me:  "Want to play?"

• He turned his head for a couple of seconds to look at his toy:  "Look, there's a ball over there."

• He looked back at me expectantly, tail still eagerly wagging:  "You could throw it, and we could have fun!"

But I didn't want to go onto his property and pick up the ball, especially because his humans were there with him in the yard.  I just stared back at the dog and kept on walking.  He probably thought that I was incapable of communication and had no idea what he had just said.  Stupid human.

On another occasion, I had some time to kill in downtown Boston, near the Long Wharf.  I sat down on a bench beside a grassy area where people had brought their dogs to socialize and exercise.

One young man was throwing a toy football for his puppy to fetch.  But his puppy stood beside him and watched the ball go.  The puppy thought, "That's interesting, but I'm on the ground and that ball is up in the air.  I can't go up there and get it.  What am I, a bird?"

But then the football hit the ground some yards away and started flopping around as footballs do.  "Aha!" the puppy thought.  "The ball has landed, and it looks like it's wounded.  Now I can go get it!"  And he raced off to retrieve the toy.

With more experience, he would learn the difference between balls and birds.  Balls can't fly forever.  In fact, by watching their flight, one can predict where they're going to come down and run to the spot even before they decide to land.  (There are humans who make their living that way.)

A golden retriever was romping around and spied a baby a couple of benches away from me.  He came running happily toward the infant, who turned away and started crying.  The dog's body language obviously said, "Oh, I'm sorry!  I didn't mean to scare you, baby.  I apologize.  I'll go away now."

Then the retriever saw another dog playing Frisbee with its owner.  The retriever watched with interest, but he didn't try to catch the Frisbee himself.  He knew that it belonged to the other dog.

Now some people on the left claim that the notion of private property is an unnatural human invention, and that we should abandon it and simply share everything with each other as in Acts 5:34-35.  John Lennon sang:

Imagine no possessions
(I wonder if you can),
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world . . .

Well, speaking for myself, I'm afraid that I can't imagine no possessions.  In fact, the idea of private property seems to be ingrained in our animal nature.

The golden retriever understands the concept of respecting someone else's Frisbee, someone else's food, someone else's territory.  At least that's what he told me.



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