The Doggishness of Dogs

Our labradoodle has a particular way of running when he is feeling whatever dogs feel when they are happy. His front legs move each to one side as he hurtles towards you full of eagerness and devotion. He is nine years old and weighs 39 kilos. When this happens, the trick is to crouch low on the ground, so avoiding the risk of him cannoning into you, although he probably doesn’t intend doing this, as he usually veers off to one side a split second before the collision happens. These moments of untrammelled joy occur unannounced and seemingly for no particular reason, except that the sun is shining and he finds himself in an open green space in the company of three people who he loves. I use the word love guardedly, only because I can’t think of a better one.

Do we anthropomorphise our animals too much? Many would say that we do. But I think that if we were not to make clear to our animals the depth and intensity of our need for their affection and loyalty we would all be the poorer for it. We do this as we condition them to understand us and in the way we tell ourselves that we understand them, or so we like to believe.

A dog is a pack animal, but one with a difference. Much as I love horses, and those who work with, or own horses will know just how deeply felt this love can be, I don’t credit them with the kind of intelligence peculiar to dogs. It isn’t possible to share a house with a horse, for example. As a child, I had a small Shetland pony who I once persuaded to come upstairs into my bedroom. The experiment, though successful in one sense, was a disaster. He almost did himself terminal damage. He also wrecked the staircase and the whole episode got me into a great deal of trouble. Part of the problem was, unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, lack of trust. The Shetland did not understand why this manoeuvre was necessary.

Dogs seem to have an innate ability to understand the underlying reason for what is being asked of them, whether it involves not fouling the nest we allow them to share with us, or the need to see a blind person safely across a busy road. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that they are pack animals, rather than herd animals. Horses, who are herd animals, seem on the whole to feel happier doing what all the other horses are doing at any one time. Not so with dogs. Dogs decide whether to really adopt their particular human, an idea which is brilliantly sketched out by Russell Hoban in his post-apocalyptic novel Ridley Walker. That being said, dogs, in Hoban’s novel, revert to a primal pack state where they decide together whether to adopt the human or, in this case, simply eat him. We anthropomorphise, and sentimentalise, our relationship with dogs when we forget what they were originally programmed to be, creatures who kill to eat and who survive best in packs.

This returns me to this morning’s moment with our labradoodle. Have such instincts simply been bred out of him over a few generations of solidly reliable antecedents and responsible breeding by those who ‘engineered’ his existence? We met his mother, a kind and gentle chocolate lab, along with his four siblings who, on meeting us, did the morning joy caper with as much enthusiasm as we witnessed in their brother this morning. He, on the other hand, hid behind the stable door which immediately endeared him to us.

I sometimes wonder whether those of us who are privileged to be the guardians of dogs, cats or horses (for whom, if there is such a thing as judgment, we will one day be answerable) are at times not quite human. In order to bond with our labradoodle, which I do at great length every night before parting from him until the next morning, I park my sensible human self on a shelf for a few brief moments while I get down on the floor and up close to the dog. If you have a loved horse, you will do something comparable. You will sneak out to the stable and canoodle with her or him for a few last minutes, on the pretext that you are just checking that your beloved is settled and happy.

I have also found that these moments have a profound spiritual intensity to them. While the dog, or the horse, or the cat, all three of whom I count as sentient beings (as opposed to a goldfish or bird, though some birds might qualify as sentient), respond with everything they have to give when they receive these attentions – a succession of sneezes, a wide open maw of appreciation, a gentle nip, or blowing through the nose and a stamp or two – they are limited in how they can reciprocate. What seems to happen instead is a kind of shared understanding, a shared knowing of something unnameable which is unimpeachably good and, I believe, utterly vital to the survival of the human species, as proved when dogs are invited into hospitals. Dogs in hospitals have a marked effect on people’s ability to mend, both physically and psychologically. Autistic kids who are given even a small amount of responsibility for the care of a horse feel a current of healing and calm pass from the animal directly into their often frightened and confused selves.

We may think that our reasons for keeping animals have their origins in the agrarian utilitarianism of centuries past, but they are far more subtle and complex than that. We need the particular response to our love which these animals give us because they afford us with the opportunity to be vulnerable, in other words to trust another sentient being. The way we tend to behave around very young children, and around animals we love, suggests that we are only fully human when we are in this particular state of vulnerability and trust.

An animal we trust is often as close as any of us gets to trusting a God who is revealed in the full and complete doggishness of a dog. Recognising and owning this love for what it is makes us capable of being just a little bit better than we are most of the rest of the time. When you stop to think about it, how will we, and the earth itself, survive if God’s love is not chanelled to us through the doggishness of a dog ?

Author: Lorraine Cavanagh

Anglican priest living in Wales, UK. Author. Books include 'In Such Times - Reflections On Living With Fear' (Wipf and Stock 2019), 'Waiting On The Word - Preaching Sermons That Connect People With God' (DLT 2017), 'Finding God In Other Christians' (SPCK 2014), 'Beginning Again' (Kindle e-book 2015) All books available from Amazon

4 thoughts on “The Doggishness of Dogs”

  1. Lovely. Psychologists` experiments over the last 20 years have revealed that, like us, dogs have the ability to do telepathy. Rupert Sheldrake, Cambridge & Harvard professor has posts about this and other parapsychological phenomena on Youtube!


  2. Lorraine, your doggy comments need a loud AMEN! My Gypsy lived until she was 21 and nursed me and many of my directees with loving care. I live the way you write and fondly remember our brief time together at Caitlin’s wedding. Peace, Sharon Stinson


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