In the midst of all this dog training and behavioural science, dogs remain one of the beautiful gifts nature has bestowed on us. Let’s take a moment to appreciate them for all that they are — and be thankful for what they are not.
Badger was the “wild child” all his life. He threw himself at everything with reckless abandon; even a bad spine in his later years didn’t slow him down. Vince was the tough guy. He met everything with that “Oh, yeah? Why should I?” attitude that was offset by his wicked sense of humor; he loved to make us laugh. Mario was the “mama’s boy” for all of his too-short life. While he enjoyed herding and agility and other activities, he enjoyed them because my wife, his “mom”, was there with him. He just adored her.
Tiramisu is the virtuoso. She approaches everything with the intensity of a skilled surgeon and enjoys learning to do everything with precision and perfection. And Rizzo is the “Party Animal”. I’ve never met a more outgoing, social Belgian Shepherd than this guy. He loves everyone he meets and greets each new adventure without fear.
Twenty years of Belgian Shepherds in our lives. Each one so different from the next, and each one genuine and true. None of them ever apologized for who they were. They all remained true to their unique natures while being Belgian Shepherd through and through. They have all been remarkably complex personalities and yet wonderfully open and understandable.
The honesty of dogs has been celebrated in song and verse for centuries and still, after all this time, that wonderful quality remains. I can only guess that it is the product of nature. For all of our selective breeding and the differences in the environments in which they live out their lives, this great variety of dogs all meet us as they are with no apologies and no covert agendas. As Susan Kennedy once said, “Dogs are miracles with paws.”
Maybe it’s the simple way they view their world. In her book Culture Clash, author Jean Donaldson describes it as seeing the world in two categories: things that are “good for dogs” and things that are “bad for dogs.” Each thing in their lives seems to fall neatly into its place in their world view. Things to seek out, things to avoid, things to keep, and things to leave behind.
I would guess that scavengers need that kind of mind set. Take it as it comes, deal with it, and move on. Dogs seem to have developed a sense of adaptation. They see what needs to be done and simply find a way to do it no matter what the impediments might be.
The first dogs learned to tolerate the presence of humans for the food and security that relationship brought them. Today, dogs have learned to tolerate all kinds of things, from being left on their own for hours on end while we work to wearing sweaters and booties for our amusement.
All to get their food and water, they learn to heel, to sit, to jump on cue, to sniff out the scents we want them to, to find bombs or drugs, and assist the less capable humans with their daily lives. They are just looking for the solutions that make the whole food/water/security/affection thing work in this very human world in which they find themselves.
I have heard dog trainers talk about “honest” dogs. There are even articles to be read on the internet about “honest” sled dogs. Most often, when I hear people talking about “honest” dogs, they aren’t really referring to the truthfulness of the dog. What they are actually referring to is how well they can read the dog in question. You see, to these trainers, an “honest” dog is one that they can easily figure out. One who’s demeanor and behaviours are predictable and reliable. And isn’t that an interesting turnabout in language? To me, it seems, the trainers are just being “honest” about what they are seeing in the dog.
When we describe people as “dishonest” we most frequently are describing their efforts to deceive us. We label those who intentionally try to mislead or misinform us as dishonest. If there is an animal on this planet that I believe to be incapable of guile or deceit, it is the dog.
I know that some of you reading this may have had to pause to roll your eyes at such a bold statement. I freely admit that my Belgians have always been among the most clever and tireless dogs at trying to manipulate us into giving them what they want. But you have to admit, dogs pull off their manipulation attempts with all the cunning and treachery of a three-year-old child. They are just too obvious in their motives and methods. Do I not consider these manipulations as lies and deceit? Not really, no. Just scavengers looking for a way to get something with minimal effort.
Unfortunately, to some dog owners, their dogs only become “honest” when the trainers are able to see and understand their actions and motives. That strikes me as backwards. Our dog is always our dog, always honest. But as soon as we learn to see our dog clearly, who exactly is being “honest”? The sooner we dispose of our preconceived notions about dogs and stop projecting our motives and emotions onto them, the sooner we see our dog as “honest”.
Constant as the Night
Dogs don’t fret about who they are. They wear their emotions on their sleeves, or paws if you like. They are with us regardless of our moods, our situations, and our choices. We expect them to come when we call and stay until we tell them they can move. They are simply there for us. hey are like the sky — unique and different each day but always always there.
I depend on my dogs. They give me perspective in times of trouble. They give me someone to share a sense of joy with. They give me permission to be silly as I roll around on the floor with them. I can learn something from them everyday if only I look close enough. All they ask in return is some food and water and some affection.
I can’t imagine my life without my dogs. I find it hard to understand the lives of those who don’t have dogs in their homes. Dogs are said to provide unconditional love and they do so without hesitation. It is a simple relationship. I do something for them and they do something for me. There may be the occasional negotiation but there is never a dirty deal, no one ever gets the bad end of the it. If anything, my dogs can be too generous.
Is there anything more precious than the child-like affection and love of a dog? What other companion is more accepting, more willing, or more patient than the dog? Their openness and honesty is a gift. To me, there is no greater gift in this life than a dog — honestly.
Have fun with your dogs.
All photos © Petra Wingate 2005-2011