Know Your Pooch
The writer is former director, GSI, and an avid animal lover. His understanding of man's best friend comes from over six decades of dedicated association with it
My father passed away in hospital in 1994. While carrying his body it flashed in my mind that my Labrador and GSD were well -rained and I would be able to make them ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’ in one corner of the house, but I was wondering how I would control my perky Chihuahua!
As per the custom, his body was placed on the bare floor of the largest room, that is the living room and the room adjoining was the dining room with a door in-between. To my surprise, the trio sat in the ‘Down’ position without any command in the dining room. People were coming in and going, but the dogs remained unaffected. Despite the shock of my father’s death, I kept wondering what made them stay in one place, with eyes glued on the body and occasionally they would look at our sad faces or flutter an ear at the sounds of our sobbing.
The next occasion after a few years was my son’s wedding. I had the Chi, another GSD, and a Miniature Pinscher. Of course, the Chi and the Minpin were perky as per their breed character, the GSD was rather chary of people, kept an eye on everybody, but never growled at anyone. Her stare scared the guests. There was lots of merrymaking, music, and dancing in the air. All three dogs enjoyed a lot and even the GSD, sometimes throwing caution in the air, danced with us. They had a gleam of happiness in their eyes and their mouths were open as if laughing. This incident further complicated my problem. I was wonder-struck as to how they guessed our moods.
After scanning many published papers on dog psychology and behaviour, I realised that they had an intrinsic power of observation. With a vision of 180 degrees dogs are able to perceive things much before we realise. For example, you are walking on the street and a stray dog is snoozing near a dump of solid waste. He has a bone between his paws, but since he is tired of chewing, he is just snoozing to relax. However, all the time he is scared that the piece of bone may be snatched by an enemy (another dog/s, animal, or even a human being!) He has ears that are 80 times more powerful than ours and a nose that can sniff up to a one km radius, so he is sure that he will be able to tackle his ‘enemy’. It is a chance that you happen to pass by. He has heard your footsteps from a distance and however cat-footed you may be, you cannot cheat him.
In case you are scared of dogs, it is cent percent sure that he has sniffed the adrenalin released in your sweat. You may not be expressing it, but in your heart of hearts, you are scared. As you approach closer, he gives an almost imperceptible growl that is audible to all the canines and felines and even rodents. But alas, being a human being, you can’t hear that. He opens his eyes slightly and is able to see you even without turning his head. Another step and he is ready with all muscles taught to attack. At that moment if you dither for a moment, then you have had it, he will attack with all his might. But if you just ignore and keep walking ahead without changing your pace, he will go back to his slumber once again.
This was just to explain to those people who are scared of dogs and complain ‘I was just walking by and he attacked me from behind suddenly’. Their power of observation is so uncanny that they can see even a twitch of muscles on your face, gleam, or tears in your eyes. This process starts at a very early age. The six- to eight-week-old puppy that you bring home starts observing everyone in the house and keeps a note of that. For example, the family may all dote on the pup but a guest aunt hates him. The moment she lands at your door, the pup notices the frown on her forehead or slinks behind a sofa on hearing her shrill voice.
As time passes, the owners start saying, ‘Oh, he is almost a human being, he understands everything we say or do’. For example, my dachshund bitch used to know that I am going out on tour, sat inside the suitcase the moment it was kept at a particular place in the room. In case the suitcase was taken out just for dusting, she would not bother, but otherwise, she knew and would sit inside almost holding the edge of the suitcase with her toes with a laughing expression on her face. But the moment I forcibly removed her and locked the room, she would put her nose to the bottom of the door and try to visualise what was going inside. The moment I closed the zip she would know and cry to be let in.
I agree that they have an uncanny power of observation, but do you think that observation alone helps them in understanding our moods? No, it is not only the observation, but some other instincts like the greater power of smell and hearing also help. The ‘swoosh’ of the zip sounds as clear to a dog as a saw cutting wood is heard by you. Likewise, the power of smell helps them to evaluate the traces of adrenalin in your sweat and makes them realise that you have put on Christian Dior drops on the back of your palm and you must be heading for a party!
Yet another instinct that comes in handy to them is the association of ideas and often their retention. For example, by the swoosh of the zip and the length of the swoosh, they know that a large suitcase is being packed and you must be heading for a long vacation and leave them in a doggy crèche with all those dirty-smelling evil dogs! Or the perfume on the back of your palm tells them that you will return late and he will be alone, pacing the hall!
Dogs are damn good teachers, provided you are ready to learn. Are you ready?