Saturday, July 17, 2010
IMITAIKS: The Dogs with Us
These history seminars in Browning in mid-August are always wonderful just as an experience, quite aside from what one learns from the experts. Bill Grant’s design of Cuts Wood School works beautifully to pull breezes through the open spaces of the classrooms and the grassy yard is a good place to eat the traditional-style lunch, maybe buffalo soup. Usually the attenders are an interesting mix of local and traveler, Blackfeet and other.
As prep or, if you bring your laptop, as preface, you might enjoy one of my fav vids, which is Tom Hall’s video of reservation dogs. The url has wandered off from my notes, but you might enjoy the search since now there are a LOT Of YouTube vids about reservation dogs, as well as a homegrown soap opera called “Rez Dogs.”
It’s hard to think about dogs, as it is always when the subject is familiar and daily, too close to see. I just watched a show about advertising called “Art and Copy” which is a very vigorous (and profane) exploration of the GOOD side of advertising, the side that pulls us to a new way of thinking, often in service to better behavior. For instance, here’s an innovative Brit public service ad that a friend sent me:
It’s quite wonderful. I love looking at it. But my response is NOT to buckle my seatbelt. It makes me want to hug people I care about. Maybe I’m dense or maybe I’m too anti-sentimental, but it’s clear to me that much of the advertising done on behalf of dogs is along these lines, by humane societies and based on the human/animal bond. The alternative strategy is like the ghastly photos we see about refugees or babies with cleft palates: shocking. Both approaches are through emotion. There is more to dogs than that.
“Art and Copy” talked about taking YEARS to analyze how we feel about milk or Volkswagens and why, trying to disassemble the unconscious assumptions we have, boil it down to a two word slogan. “Got milk?” (“Got dogs?” )
When I was working for animal control, at the beginning of a talk I would sometimes ask everyone to draw a quick cartoon of a dog and hold it up to share. No two dogs were alike. The trouble with the subject of dogs is that they are so various, but people insist on seeing them as all one category, just like the dogs they know best. Of course, they’re aware that dogs are big and little, black and white, male and female -- but they are usually NOT aware of the incredible variety of ways that dogs are shaped by their environments, whether as companions to a person they imitate so closely that they begin to look like them, or as near-wolves, pack animals loyal only to the strongest dog -- the one they call the alpha dog. And sometimes the alpha is a bitch. Loners are rare.
We know that dogs look different from each other except that where dogs are used for a specific purpose they will often standardize into what we call breeds. (In plants they would be cultivars.) The Victorians, a little twisted as they usually are, made dog breeds into status indicators and inbred them to the point that in the last hundred years formally classified dogs -- meant to meet arbitrary appearances for shows -- are cripples and invalids. The word on this has not spread as far as it needs to, but the AKC is beginniing to see the error of its ways. Their advertising assumption has been like big glamorous cars that malfunction. The working breeds, valuing performance, have fared better.
Two books raised my consciousness. One was “The Hidden Life of Dogs” By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Growing up in Africa had taught her to see animals in a rather different way, so when she was house-sitting and caring for their family dogs, she noticed that the dogs disappeared for a couple of hours every morning. This made her curious, so she put on her running shoes and followed them for a few days. She learned their route around the terrain, the smelling signposts they visited (which she understood), their ritual activities, and the other dogs they stopped to visit. Her conclusion was, in fact, that what dogs want is other dogs. The reason they like us is that they think we’re dogs.
The other book was Alan Beck’s first book. He’s at Purdue University now, where he runs their human-animal bond program, but when he was young he wanted to study wolves. There was no money. So he decided to study dog packs in New York City. Most people until then had thought of dogs as either “pets” or “strays.” To them, “strays” were lost “pets” who should be restored to that status. This idea has given rise to a whole genre of books about rescuing dogs and dogs, like Lassie, trying to get home. What Beck saw was that some dogs don’t even relate to humans -- they belong to other dogs. The word is “feral.” Since in this country we see dogs as possessions, an undomestic dog had never registered in the public mind.
In third world countries the pariah dogs -- like vultures and pigs -- live on the streets, cleaning up everything edible including corpses, even human. No wonder the Islamic people consider dogs filthy. “Pye-dogs” barely survive so the selective pressure on them is high. Peckinpah, filming in Mexico, often included them. They slip around in “Blackhawk Down.” But lately I saw a news story that said now with war in the Middle Eastern countries so much more food and offal is in the streets that the dogs are reproducing rapidly and becoming nuisances. Officials have resorted to the same kind of animal control we used to have in Browning when I first came in 1961. In spring during calving, the ranchers and police simply shot all the loose dogs they saw. If you valued your dog, you kept it in the house for a few weeks.
Lately people here have lost their tolerance for dogs in traffic and dead dogs and injured bony dogs. Their response more strategic now, gathering them into spay/neuter clinics and encouraging fenced yards with leash laws. But the back side of that in the three communities close to the mountains is that with no dogs in the streets, the bears and cougars come into town. In Helena it’s deer who can jump the fences to taunt the dogs, so the deer have to be periodically culled. I have a friend who suggests they ought to just turn the dogs out loose at night. But deer kill dogs.
The family across the street have a golden retriever. This summer they are traveling a lot because this fall their daughter starts school and the family will begin to empty the nest. The dog, too big to take along, is fenced. He grieves for his pack. He doesn’t get over it until they are back. They don’t hear it -- I hear it. A high proportion of dog complaints is about noise.
I never forget the complainant whose daughter was dying at home -- a dog blocks away was a howler and to her it was the Black Dog that in the end comes for us all. In Browning dogs manage to attach to the street people who sometimes fancy that the dogs are the spirits of old friends now dead. Their “pack” is interspecies and includes spirits. Don’t ever make jokes with them about “dog soup,” no matter what your anthropological information might be. Dogs don’t pull travois anymore either. But now they go to Heaven. Don’t they?