The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
Why does a dog do the things it does? Dog owners and dog experts don’t always agree. When we got a mixed breed puppy we call Star (for a white galactic shape on her black chest) nearly four years ago, we had no children in the house, and we both had some time on our hands so inevitably we did a little reading about dog behaviour and training. There is a certain fascination in watching the development of a creature of a different species, and for a while the puppy was our favourite topic of conversation.
Dogs, they tell you, are creatures of habit. Well so am I. I once wrote, somewhere, that habit is life’s most enduring pleasure. So on that basis, Star and I get along pretty well. Most of how I behave seems comprehensible to her, and most of how she behaves makes sense to me. Her obsession with squirrels can lead to a little excessive barking, but on the whole we get along without problems.
We’re used to each other by now, and there are fewer surprises. But still there are questions about how she thinks and feels. Years ago I knew a dog breeder (a small woman who bred very large dogs) who said she thought of dogs as people who had very strong feelings but were not too bright. The manuals about how to deal with dogs suggest that owners tend to rate the intelligence of their pets more highly than the experts. Of course animal intelligence is in some ways not lesser but merely different.
Still there are intriguing questions.
Do dogs have a sense of humour? A bizarre question no doubt. But clearly they do have a sense of play. They can’t make verbal jokes, but isn’t playful behaviour a kind of humorous acting out? Let’s look at sticks. Your average dog likes sticks. Star adores them, and can keep herself involved for quite a while with a large stick, flipping it, tossing it, catching it, dragging it, trimming it down. Like most dogs she likes to carry around a stick, and like other dogs I’ve known, she will sneak up and bump my leg with the stick, hoping that I will make a grab for it, and she will be too quick for me. There exists a command for her to drop it, and she will obey if necessary, but she doesn’t enjoy it. However teasing me is great fun. It’s game for which she sets the rules, and she nearly always wins. I’ve been through this with other dogs, and it is clearly play.
But a sense of humour? Well maybe.
Like most dogs Star loves to go out—to walk, run, swim, even to drive around in the car. In order for me to take her somewhere I have to change from my slippers to my shoes or boots.
As soon as I sit down, Star—who is not a small dog—comes to me and with thumping and bumping and poking and wriggling, prevents me from changing until I tell her to go and sit by the door and wait.
What does she want? To go out. So why does she deliberately delay our departure?
I pondered that, and the obvious response is that she is being playful. Pretending. Now I’m not quite ready to generalize about dogs and humour, but I can find no reason for her to repeatedly postpone her own pleasure except to assume that what she is doing in this strange form of play is effectively a joke. No doubt the whole thing would collapse if I were to get angry. But as long as I am good-tempered about telling her to go and wait by the door, she continues to have her fun—like an old friend or relative who tells the same old joke over and over and has done so for years.
Good old predictable Uncle Charley.