I love dogs. I grew up in households with dogs, and feel very comfortable around most dogs. And they seem to return the feeling. This has happened not only with familiar pets in the households of friends and family, but also with strange, unfamiliar dogs under otherwise trying circumstances. Through my childhood and young adulthood, I lived in an enclosed residential area which happened to serve as a sort of shelter for many random stray or abandoned, ill-nourished and emaciated street-dogs – some of whom were even survivors of abuse elsewhere. These dogs had the habit of raucously barking, for no apparent reason, at people walking by them; I remember, I used to stop, turn towards them and talk – mainly asking why they were barking at me – and this would inevitably result in the cessation of said barking, sending me my merry way. What’s more – they seemed to gradually recognize me (or perhaps my scent?) and would no longer engage in the pointless howls when I passed by.
Of course, to my young mind, this behavior incurred no surprise, as I was convinced that the dogs knew I would never mean them any harm whatsoever and so they tolerated me. Turns out that I wasn’t too far from the truth; according to canine behavioral research, dogs can indeed read a person’s facial expressions to gauge their feelings. I read today a well-written and fascinating essay – “Dogs Are Even More Like Us Than We Thought” – by Maya Wei-Hass, PhD and a 2015 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at the National Geographic, discussing a few of the latest studies on canine behavior, and all the happy dogly memories of this unabashed cynophile came flooding back. Do go and give it a read, if you haven’t already.
Maya discussed how certain behaviors that allow humans to navigate social spaces, such as people-watching and gaze-following, are displayed by dogs, too. The best anecdotal examples that I have of these canine behaviors are from my sister’s dog, Bingo. Rescued from a shelter in Florida, Bingo grew up in Miami and later New York City; he is a happy dog, and loves people, especially those who call him ‘handsome’ and ‘cute’. Stories about him are endless, since he has occupied a large part of all our hearts, but let me share a couple with y’all.
Bingo is a big, active dog, and he has his recommended diet – which he faithfully eats. He is generally not allowed table scraps of human food, and the vet has advised against it, too. But our Bingo loves food, and would eat just about anything if given a chance – which means that he tries real hard to get people to do his bidding. When he comes to visit us along with his pet-parents, my sister and brother-in-law, he is happy to be at our apartment and he shows it by running from room to room, jumping on to the sofa and the bed, and so forth. But if there is one spot where he would remain glued for hours if necessary, it would be beside our dining table – especially when the four of us would sit down to eat lunch or dinner.
Bingo is tall, and his head remains above the table-top level even when he is seated on his haunches on the floor. We would initially hear nary a sound, but two clear, limpid, brown eyes would follow the every move of our hands and fingers and cutlery, from the plate to the mouth – the rhythmic movement of his head giving an appearance of him watching a tennis match. The look in those eyes are absolutely heart-melting, but we have trained ourselves to project a studied ignorance of his presence while we eat. But woe betide my sister or me if we happen to steal a glance at him and catch his eye even for a second. He immediately figures out who the soft touch is for that day, and he would slowly sidle towards that person; he would suddenly become incredibly attentive towards every morsel of food that is disappearing in the person’s mouth, and his unblinking gaze would be accompanied by lip-smacking in a very human way, and occasional faint whimpers. At that point, usually one of us breaks down and gives him a bit of something or the other, which literally vanishes from existence within a fraction of a second. And if we manage to stay strong until the end of dining, the look of utter and palpable reproach that emanates from his eyes conveys betrayal and injury like there’s no tomorrow, and does usually plunge us into abysmal guilt – from which only remembering (and reminding ourselves of) the vet’s sagacious words can help us resurface.
Dogs are known to express empathy, what Custance and Mayer in 2012 described as ’empathic concern’ with the caveat that the behavior could also be conservatively interpreted as “emotional contagion coupled with a previous learning history in which they have been rewarded for approaching distressed human companions”. I don’t know exactly how dogs define or diagnose distress in their human companions, including relative strangers (as the Custance-Mayer study showed); perhaps they can pick up non-verbal cues from others in the vicinity. But I have seen Bingo do something similar, more than once.
When my sister had surgery and we brought her back from the hospital a little groggy and in some pain as the effect of the opioid analgesic was starting to wear off, we laid her down on the sofa, per her wishes, with pillows and a throw cover. Bingo, ordinarily running around, jumping up and down, barking at will, licking and nuzzling and so forth, did nothing whatsoever of that sort; completely uncharacteristically, he walked cautiously to the sofa, gently got up on it and lay down with his face resting on my sister’s feet, with nary a peep out of him.
The second, even more dramatic demonstration of Bingo’s empathic concern was from a later date. My wife and I were returning home after a long and harrowing international flight; the situation was made worse and more somber by the fact that my wife was grieving then-recent loss of an immediate family member. We stopped by my sister’s apartment to pick up some supplies before embarking on a four-hour long drive to get home. Sad and pensive, my wife waited in the car downstairs while I collected stuff. As we were coming down, Bingo came with us. When we reached the car and my wife opened the passenger-side door, without a sound Bingo climbed up onto her lap and just sat there silently with his nose nuzzling her cheeks. There was none of usual rambunctiousness or the vigorous tail-wagging. How on earth did he know? Does he even know what ‘death’ means? Does sadness have a different smell that dogs can detect? I have none of these answers.