This post originally appeared as a column in “The Finger Lakes Times” (Geneva, NY) as part of the weekly “Denim Spirit” series: http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-being-played-by-your-dog/article_1647cee6-4082-11e7-9c18-d3bcabc68533.html
My dog is named Rabia, after a fifth century Sufi mystic whose name translates from Arabic as, “fourth.” She was the fourth daughter in her family and Rabia is my fourth dog. It is not a name that rolls off the tongue and whenever anyone asks, it inevitably evokes the echo, “what is it?”
Rabia is needy. If you know dogs, and I tell you her mother was a golden and her daddy a lab, then you know she comes by her neediness honestly.
She is also submissive. Not long ago on our early morning walk, we saw a woman heading our way up the sidewalk, led by a proud little pug on a leash. As soon as Rabia saw the pug, she got down on her belly, front legs extended with her head on her paws – and wagging her tail. No matter that Rabia was four times that pug’s size, she went down and wanted nothing more than to get that little pooch’s approval then play.
There is a multitude of recent canine research lauding the intelligence of the species. Dogs, they say, are far more intelligent than humans have recognized – up there with dolphins and whales (and much smarter than cats). Consider, for example, that canines recognized very early in the evolution of the human species that hanging around people was good for their diet. Some of that research suggests the reason dogs make such good guardians, is that they are protecting their meal ticket – humans. Even my submissive mutt turns ferocious when protecting the house. Dogs know what a good thing they’ve got going and have a multitude of behaviors to evoke our affection, and garner food.
Research also indicates that some dogs can learn hundreds and hundreds of words, amassing a vocabulary that matches a three or four year old child. In addition to that, they seem to have an intuition that recognizes human moods with the sensitivity of the most sophisticated radar.
But I remain conflicted about whether or not I wish Rabia could talk.
Those haunting, sorrowful looks she gives me are powerful enough without having words to go with them. I am not at all sure I want to know what she is thinking or feeling because as much as I love my shedding mongrel, she is still a dog.
Some people seem to forget their pet is not human, and minimize the boundaries and differences between humans and other animals. I have great difficulty understanding people with a passionate advocacy for animals when that passion does not extend to advocacy about human injustice and suffering. There is definitely a powerful projection that takes place between humans and their pets, made all the more intense because our pets cannot use words to let us know we have interpreted their expression, motivation, or needs all wrong.
The research I eluded to above, also indicates that for companionship, humans may be better off with dogs that are not quite as smart as the most brilliant of their breed. Moderately intelligent dogs appear to be more responsive to human moods and desires even though less capable in the arena of tricks than the smartest dogs. Dogs may do better with slightly less intelligent human beings too, people like me who don’t realize they are being played by their pet.