Best Friend, Indeed. Woof.
“Be the person your dog thinks you are.” — J.W. Stephens, author.
Fresh off the school bus, the young boy walks down a desire path along the boundary wall of the residential enclave towards the apartment building that is his parents’ home. Midway, the path cuts close to an uncovered, front-open, concrete dumpster, constructed right in front of the wall and used by the residents of the buildings in the vicinity to deposit their daily trash, including food waste. Every once in a while, a man, paid by the enclave’s housing association, comes by with a rake, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow to clear out the dumpster, but on the in-between days, it often reeks to the high heavens of rotting vegetables and dead mice, especially during the wet, hot months.
The boy has gotten used to holding his breath and walking quickly by the dumpster beyond the reaches of the tendrils of that aroma. As he tries to navigate through this olfactory assault, he is forced to turn his head and pay attention to a sudden, unwelcome noise: a harsh, loud, staccato barking that manages to present a query and express annoyance at the same time. One starts, two others join in the obstreperous chorus.
“Hey! Why you barking at me? I’m not gonna do anything to you,” says the boy sharply, making direct eye-contact with three pairs of suspicious eyes. He shows his hands, palms facing up. “See? I’ve nothing hidden here.”
That young boy heading home? Was me. The eyes belonged to our neighborhood mutts, who lived within our enclave.
The enclave, designed as a gated community, houses fourteen four-storied buildings exuding a stoic, middle-class appeal. Its oblong grounds are enclosed by concrete boundary walls on three sides and a large pond on the fourth, with two metal gates at the opposite long-ends and a central, metaled road meandering between them. This enclave—for as far back as I can remember — has served as a shelter of sorts for many stray or abandoned, ill-nourished and emaciated street-dogs; all mongrels, some of them were born right there, some survivors of abuse elsewhere, some thrown out of their original communities or homes upon contracting mange or having been in some accident.
Within the enclave, the dogs would be fed on some days by some kindly resident; on other days, they would forage for sustenance through food trash inside the aforementioned dumpsters, which were constructed at several locations along the boundary wall. These canine denizens would roam the central thoroughfare at will, lounge in the sun on paved spaces, poop on the grass away from paved walkways, pee on tree trunks and outside walls of buildings, rest under the shade of the few large leafy trees we had along the road, and during the monsoon seasons, take shelter under the stairs of the apartment towers — to be chased out if the wet-dog aroma permeated into the house units too much.
Everyone largely let them be, but these dogs had the habit of raucously barking, for no discernible reason, at people walking by them — especially when they were dumpster-diving for food. In retrospect, it’s not surprising at all, because humans in their lives mostly did not do right by them, and they probably all suffered from food anxiety and pangs of hunger.
But not having this insight then, I used to — I remember — take being barked at rather personally. Strangely, when I talked to them, boy to dog, somehow it inevitably resulted in the cessation of their vocal endeavors, sending me my merry way. What’s more: they seemed to gradually recognize me (or perhaps my scent?) and would no longer engage in the pointless howls when I passed by.
Of course, to my young mind, this behavior incurred no surprise, as I was convinced that the dogs knew I would never mean them any harm whatsoever, and so they tolerated me. It turns out that I may not have been too far from the truth, as shown by canine behavioral research.
A 2015 Viennese study, led by animal behavior and cognition scientist Corsin Müller, demonstrated that dogs can indeed read a person’s happy or angry facial expressions to gauge the human’s feelings, even under test conditions where they were allowed to see only a horizontal or vertical half of the face. Trained to respond to happiness or anger expressed on faces by booping — yes, that is a highly scientific term indicating a physical contact with the nose — a touchscreen, the domestic dog participants could accurately recognize these expressions in unfamiliar, whole or half-visible faces.
During these training and testing sessions, the investigators also discovered that dogs responded better to happy/smiling faces than to angry/frowning faces, in a manner that suggested dogs were capable of assigning some meaning or context to those human expressions. This finding was different from — and helped extend — what we knew thus far about how dogs discriminate between known and unknown faces: by picking up on subtle behavioral cues in the humans.
A-ha! So, my local canine contingent did indeed come to know me — who knows, perhaps even like me? Woof!
I love dogs. For someone whose circumstances were never propitious enough for him to call a dog his own, I sure seem to have quite a lot of happy memories with dogs. While growing up, I spent a lot of quality time in my grandparents’ household where there were dogs: a Lhasa Apso and a couple of much-mixed mutts — one with some English Spaniel in him and the other, with some Spitz.
Subsequently, at various stages of my life, I had, and still have, friends whose dogs were kind enough to share bits of their time with me, allowing me to play with, cuddle, or walk them. This past Thanksgiving, my wife and I pet-sat over the long weekend a friend’s delightful dog, Leo, who was imbued with the confident knowledge of one of the most fundamental questions of our lives: who is a good boy? These precious moments have never been not rewarding.
Suffice it to say, I feel comfortable around most dogs of various sizes, and they seem to return the feeling. This has happened not only with familiar pets belonging to friends and family, but also with strange, unfamiliar dogs under presumably trying circumstances — like those street mutts from my childhood.
Genetic analysis of modern and ancient DNA from dogs and wolves, scientific measurements of length and curvature of their bones over time, and archeological evidence have come together to indicate that wolves and dogs probably descended from some common ancestor and that dogs have been around humans for a really long time, at least for 15,000 years or more. Therefore, co-evolution has probably something to do with it. But regardless of the reason, perhaps dogs are, you know, just good people?
I am an unabashed cynophile, of course, but my sentiments are amply supported by decades-long history of canine behavioral studies. In 2015, I was introduced to a few such studies by a delightful National Geographic essay — “Dogs Are Even More Like Us Than We Thought” — written by Maya Wei-Hass. In the essay, Wei-Hass discussed how certain behaviors that allow humans to navigate social spaces, such as people-watching and gaze-following, are naturally displayed by dogs, too. What’s more, the people-watching behavior directly led the dogs to avoid a human who was instructed to behave in a mean manner, for the experiment, towards their human.
I have a treasure trove of anecdotal examples of similar canine behaviors in my sister’s dog, Bingo. Rescued from a shelter in Florida, Bingo grew up in Miami and later New York City; he is a happy dog and loves people, especially those who call him ‘handsome’ and ‘cute’. Stories about him are endless, since he has occupied a large part of all our hearts, but let me share a couple with y’all.
A big, active dog, Bingo has his vet-recommended diet—which he faithfully eats. He is generally not allowed table scraps of human food, and the vet has advised against it too. But our Bingo loves food and would eat just about anything if given a chance — which means that he tries real hard to get people to do his bidding. When he comes to visit us along with his parents, my sister and brother-in-law, he is happy to be at our house and he shows it by running from room to room, jumping on to the sofa and the bed, and so forth. But if there is one spot where he would remain glued for hours if necessary, it would be beside our dining table — especially when the four of us would sit down for lunch or dinner.
Bingo is tall, and his head floats near the table-top when he is seated on his haunches on the floor. We would initially hear no sound, but two clear, limpid, brown eyes would follow every move of our hands and fingers and cutlery, from the plate to the mouth — the rhythmic movements of his head reminiscent of a spectator’s at a tennis match.
The look in those eyes is absolutely heart-melting, but we have trained ourselves to project a studied ignorance of his presence while we eat. But woe betide my sister or me if we happen to steal a glance at him and catch his eye even for a second. He immediately figures out who the soft touch is for that day and would slowly sidle towards that person; he would suddenly become incredibly attentive towards every morsel of food that is disappearing in the person’s mouth, and his unblinking gaze would be accompanied by lip-smacking in a very human way and occasional faint whimpers. At that point, usually one of us breaks down and gives him a bit of something or the other, which literally vanishes from existence within a fraction of a second.
And if we manage to stay strong until the end of dining, the look of utter, palpable reproach that emanates from his eyes conveys betrayal and injury like there’s no tomorrow. It usually plunges us into abysmal guilt, from which only remembering — and reminding ourselves of — the vet’s sagacious words can help us resurface.
Later studies have shown that when presented with positive/happy or negative/angry human or dog faces with matching playful or aggressive sounds, respectively, dogs can discriminate between these emotional states. In addition, certain dog breeds, for instance, those bred for herding work in close cooperation with humans, show higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol when their humans are stressed for some reason, as well as when they hear a human baby crying. Animal behaviorists refer to this phenomenon as emotional contagion, considered a primitive form of affective empathy — a mental state which allows us to understand and resonate with what someone else is feeling based on shared experiences. Interestingly, in such situations, canine behavior often defaults to submissive, yet highly alert.
A landmark study in 2012, conducted by UK psychologists Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer in domestic dogs, showed that dogs engaged in comforting behavior, like nuzzling and licking, when faced with a crying human, their human or even a stranger. Custance and Mayer considered that this could represent either an ability to express empathic concern or the effect of emotional contagion bolstered by a prior experience of rewards for approaching a human in distress. Later studies have clarified that the two options may not be different at all, and that dogs and their humans indeed undergo empathic bonding based on shared life environment and experience.
I don’t know exactly how this emotional contagion initiates, how dogs define or diagnose distress in their human companions or relative strangers; perhaps they pick up on non-verbal cues from either the object of their affection or others in the vicinity. But I have seen Bingo do something similar, more than once.
There was the time when my sister had a surgical procedure. At discharge, she was a little groggy and in some pain as the effect of the analgesia was starting to wear off. Upon returning home, we laid her down on the sofa per her wishes, with pillows and a throw cover. Bingo, who would ordinarily run around, jump onto the sofa, bark at will, lick, nuzzle, and get into all kinds of mayhem, did nothing whatsoever of that sort. Completely out of character, he walked cautiously to the sofa, gently got up on it and lay down with his face resting on my sister’s feet, with nary a pip out of him.
The second, even more dramatic demonstration of Bingo’s empathic concern was from a later date. My wife and I were returning home in the US after a long and harrowing international flight—our situation made somber by heartrending bereavement, for we had just lost my mother-in-law. Landing in New York city, we stopped by my sister’s apartment to pick up some supplies before embarking on a four-hour long drive to Baltimore.
Grieving and pensive, my wife waited in the car downstairs while I collected the stuff. As my sister and I took the elevator down, Bingo came with us. As my wife opened the front passenger-side door, without a sound Bingo climbed up onto her lap and just sat there silently with his nose nuzzling her cheeks. There was none of his usual rambunctiousness or the vigorous tail-wagging.
How on earth did Bingo know? Does he even know what ‘death’ means? Does human sadness exude a different smell that dogs can detect? For all my familiarity with the scientific literature on canine empathy and human bonding, I still have no answer to these specific questions.