What do dogs want?

Max is our dog. He is a cream-colored miniature poodle, one of a breed that is believed to be high on the canine intelligence scale. We consider ourselves fairly intelligent, too, so we often enhance our efforts at communicating with Max.

At times it appears that Max is trying hard to communicate with us as well. This occurs mostly when there is something specific he wants but his human housemates are just not comprehending his request. The scenario goes something like this:

Max approaches one of us, stares us straight in the eye, and waits. We usually begin with the basics like "Do you want to go out?" and wait for confirmation. Silence. We look around and sniff the air, wondering if there is some tasty morsel in the vicinity that we have forgotten about. Nothing. He couldn't be hungry or thirsty because his food and water bowls are full.

In the face of human ignorance, Max tries to help out. He barks once and waits, keeping his eyes glued to ours. We take a closer look at him to see if something hurts. I run my hands over his warm, furry body to search for sensitive spots, and his eyes widen in wonder. Another bark.

"What is it, Max?" we ask in frustration. Now a sequence of barks. And we are still none the wiser.

"Show us what you want," we plead. Max stands resolutely on all fours, head at attention, and stares some more. His tail is not wagging. We rattle the box containing his favorite treats. He gives it a millisecond's quick, careless glance, then looks back at us.

"What is it, Max?" we ask again with mounting distress. Why can't canines learn to speak? Max is certain of what he is trying to tell us. And we sincerely want to understand. But the human/canine twain are not meeting.

Finally another dog trespasses on our front yard and Max speeds off to defend his territory. We all enjoy a temporary reprieve from the canine guessing game.

There are times when the previous situation is reversed. Like many dog owners, we had visions of our companion going out each day, tail wagging, to fetch the morning paper and deliver it to us. (The evening slippers would be nice, too, but we knew that was pushing it.)

I began by showing Max the folded paper and trying to put it in his mouth. He lifted his floppy ears to 45-degree angles and stared at me with rapt attention. I threw the paper, hoping that would stimulate some instinctive retrieval response. Max looked at the paper, then at me, in what appeared to be amusement. I showed him how I pick up the paper and bring it to the kitchen table, while enthusiastically calling "Fetch!"

"So what?" his expression seemed to say.

After several more tries, with and without tasty bribes, I admitted defeat and left Max to wonder about the strange behavior of humans.

Despite our frequent communication flaws, sometimes we are definitely on the same wavelength. Max knows instantly when one of us is sad or worried. He sits close by, offering the intermittent lick or cold nose poke, both of which never fail to comfort us. He is equally good at sharing joy - jumping and running exuberantly alongside us as we walk along the beach or in the woods.

And then, without any need for explanation - we are connected.

A child psychologist acquaintance of mine was contemplating a career switch to dog psychologist. "Don't bother," said his vet. "We can never really know how dogs think."

Slowly but surely I resign myself to the fact that Max (or any dog) and I (or any human) often do not understand each other. But it doesn't really matter. Trust and companionship do not require mutual comprehension. Joy and love and loyalty can be shared in our clueless states. It works between dog and man. Maybe it could even work among humans?

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