There is nothing like the love from your dog. It is an unconditional, all-giving kind of love. The kind of love that scratches at the front door excitedly when they hear your car pull in, the kind of love that bursts from one end of the house to another simply because Daddy’s home, the kind of love that pushes itself under your hand for a few loving pats. The kind of love that sits near you whatever you may be doing – working on your laptop, sleeping or even brushing your teeth in the toilet. The kind of love that follows you around like a shadow even if you are just going downstairs for a glass of water, the kind of love that stands at the edge of your bed first thing in the morning, breathing heavily and wagging its tail, making you wonder – ‘Ermm… so how long exactly have you been there watching me sleep for?’
You know, this kind of a love:
I was just reading up the other day on some new dog training material that we had received. One of the lines that struck me was that ‘Dogs are not capable of abstract thinking, they only know what works and what does not work.’ It gave me an M.Night Shyamalan movie flashback to all the times when I have been ‘loved’ by our dogs; you know, the flashback where you realise that the dogs never loved you all along, and had possibly killed you at the start of the movie and you were just a ghost remembering what it was like to love dogs?
(‘I see dead poodles.’)
Yeah, that kind of a flashback.
If dogs were not capable of abstract thought, then are they actually capable of love, an abstract concept?
It was a disturbing realisation, to say the least, but true enough, one that was good for their training. Whenever we go for walks, I realise that the primary reason that I run out of food so quickly is that I essentially have a beating marshmallow where my heart should be, and that I give in to Toby’s winning smile every few seconds and throw him a treat. Judge me for being a softie, but I mean, look at that cute mug:
How could you resist throwing food (and potentially all the spare change you have) at that face?
But after reading that manual, I have decided to be the strict parent, and only give them treats to distract them from bikes and other dogs, and only when they do some thing I tell them to. Interestingly enough, this has worked well – Toby now rarely gives me this cute face whenever we walk (because he realises it doesn’t work), which makes for a truly sad walk, but on the plus side – we rarely run out of food before the end of a walk.
This realisation both comforted me and disturbed me all at once. Are dogs capable of actually loving you if they are not capable of abstract thought? Do they actually know you for who you are – what work you do, what your hobbies or values are, or which football team you support? Can they love you meaningfully?
Or do they only recognise you as the person from whom all food blessings flow, who soothes their separation anxieties with your presence and a pat? Would they know the difference if you were someone entirely new tomorrow, who did the exact same things to fulfil their primal need for food and affection?
I don’t really have the answer to this unsettling conundrum, and sometimes there is the temptation to be a little cynical especially after the next disappointment of them lunging at other dogs, or peeing on another piece of furniture or waking you up with their piercing barks in the wee hours of the morning. I don’t need a Father’s Day card from you, but a little consideration would be nice, you know?
And then Toby goes and does something like this.
Karen and I have been playing a game for 2 players on the Playstation called Ibb and Obb. It is a nice little relaxing puzzle game which causes Karen to yell out whenever she misses a jump or dies in the game. Whenever this ‘Aaaah’ of excitement or distress happens, Toby’s ears perk up, and he instinctively stands, and then leaps on her to comfort her with his paws.
‘There, there,’ he seemed to say. ‘We are going to get through this bad game together. Don’t be sad.’
It was really heartwarming to see Toby do this, this almost human reaction to Karen’s distress bringing me closer to the answer as to whether some dogs are capable of a higher kind of love. (It soon got a little Hovering-Mother annoying, however, after he repeatedly kept interrupting the game to comfort Karen, which left her unable to see the screen with all the fur in her way. We have a game to finish, Toby!)
Maybe this was it. Toby, the sensitive, loving dog would come comfort us in our moments of deep sorrow.
I tried it myself, you know, to see if he would come running. ‘Aaah!’ I yelled.
‘Aaaah!’ came my bloodcurling scream. ‘Aaaah!’ came my broken heart. ‘Aaaah!’ came my ‘I’m trapped in the well, Lassie, go get Mommy!’
Not a turn to look at me, not a flicker of his ear, not even a batted eyelid. We know who’s going to survive a disaster in our house if it comes knocking. (Hint: Not me.)
So yes, a very confusing foray into the world of how dogs think (or don’t), and how they love. It is both wonderfully unconditional (it doesn’t matter who you are) and also unpleasantly unconditional (it doesn’t matter who you are) and it can be so hard to read them at times. I am sure all the dog owners out there will have their version of how they know their dogs love them, especially.
Toby and Tootsie spend the night in our bedroom nowadays, which I know some dogparents out there are clucking their judgmental tongues and shaking their heads at, but it has been impossible to sleep with them being so unsettled overnight. We have had some visitors over the holiday period which has caused them no end of heightened anxiety, and they respond even more crazily to any sound in the night – other dogs barking, passing cars, someone thinking. They would run downstairs to bark at least three or four times overnight, and so we let them into the room to see if they would settle down.
It was surprising how much they did settle down – those extra five to six hours of just being in your presence really did make a difference to their overall inner peace. The days have been mostly better since we have let them into the room – Tootsie no longer demands that you play with her every spare moment of your waking hours; and Toby, well, Toby is just happy to be alive.
Whenever they do get desperately out of hand though, we do what comes most naturally to loving parents of anxious children – we load them with drugs.
This is Rescue Remedy (RR), a herbal over-the-counter medication that was recommended by one of my veteran nursing friends when I told her about my problems keeping up with their boundless energy and resulting behavioural problem sometimes. It is made of the extraction of 5 flower extracts (ironically one of the flowers is named Impatiens) in a grape alcohol solution. (Wait a minute, grape alcohol solution – am I just loading my dogs with wine?)
Anyways, a few drops of this over-the-counter concoction and suddenly the dogs turn into these magically well-behaved pets – quiet, sedate and crashing into furniture with their drunken walk. (Kidding.) Unfortunately, this good behavior lasts only a couple of hours before it wears off and they are their normal rambunctious selves tearing down the place.
We got the Rescue Remedy because we wanted to cut Tootsie’s nails, which had gone from Fashionable to Fatal in these past few weeks. A previous trip to a groomers resulted in our money being refunded because no one could get near her nails. So, a huge dose of RR, and magically – she still almost clawed our eyes out when we approached her with a clipper. Looks like a trip to the vet for some sedation (just for nail-clipping! Unbelievable!) is up soon.
Love and all her potions are still not enough to calm our dog’s primal fears.