I used to watch my dog, Blue, sit motionless. He’d plant his front paws firmly out along the grass in front of him, belly on the ground and stare ahead for twenty minutes at a time.
I assumed he was bored, or just thinking. I never really analysed his behaviour. He was being quiet, so like many dog owners, I tended not to notice him unless he was whining, or barking or trying to get my attention.
In Alexandra Horowitz’s ‘Inside of a Dog,’ she suggests that when a dog is quiet but awake, watch their nose. Far from ‘doing nothing,’ this is like dog television. Smellevision, perhaps. Their nose is probably very active.
Horowitz’s book is a must have for anyone who wants to understand what life might be like for dogs. The more I’ve delved into dog training, the more I’ve realised that so much of what we assume dogs are doing or thinking is in fact, nothing more than our own behaviour projected back onto dogs. We see this when scrolling dog pictures on our phones. Dog shaming is a classic example – fun pictures of dogs looking ‘guilty,’ (we assume) or looking disinterested (or nervously avoiding eye contact). More often than not, the body language means something else entirely, but we can’t help attributing recognisable human facial expressions onto another species.
Ian Dunbar, explains how human’s projecting their own feeling and assumptions onto dogs, skewed how researchers interpreted dog behaviour. He credits the anthropologist, Thelma Rawell, with noticing that the infamous ‘dominance theory’ stuck around because she says, the researchers were all men and they were too important and busy to spend enough time properly observing animals. They saw themselves in dogs and wolves. Or as Ian Dunbar explains: ‘You go into a busy pub, at 9 pm – what do you notice? You notice the adolescents. The loud young people. They’re fighting and shouting and jostling. You don’t notice the quiet man in the corner, sat with his wife, chatting.’ This is what so many researchers saw in the animal groups they observed. They noticed the growling, chest beating, playful, boisterous young ones.
Alexandra Horowitz noticed a similar aspect to the research on dog’s use of urination. The early-twentieth-century ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, assumed that a ‘dog’s urine was his colonial flag, planted where one claims ownership.’ This hypothesis, while very much reflecting a certain historical attitude, failed to sustain as new analysis of dog behaviour materialised. Research on free-range dogs in India, for example, shows urination to be a much more social affair; more of a communication method for courting, and showing off. Perhaps we should think of it as the dog version of Tinder and Facebook! Or as Horowitz says ‘ a local bulletin board’ for dogs to signpost what they’re up to.
As research became more scientific – properly observed and recorded behaviour of groups of animals – data showed much more variable behaviours in dogs. And we can also now observe dogs in the wild. Animals whose ancestors went through the domestication process and then rewilded, so to speak. They are now observable as a distinct ‘wild’ species to get better data on their behaviour – village dogs in semi-rural India, or street dogs in Istanbul. Because of this, we can learn so much more about our own dogs, their needs and their behaviour.
So now when you see your dog doing a thing – sniffing, urinating, looking guilty – a closer look might tell something less obvious. We might discover a deeper, more unique way of ‘dog being.’ Now I think that when my dog Blue, was sat doing nothing, he was actually experiencing the most interesting and active part of in his day. Or maybe like in the poem by GK Chesterton, he was, detecting: ‘The brilliant smell of water/the brave smell of stone/the smell of dew and thunder/the old bones buried under.’