When my Border collie, Sky, wants to play, I often send her to find a ball, and sometimes, I let her know where to look. She understands under and on, as in “It’s under the bed,” or “It’s on your crate.” These hints are old hat. But the other day I had noticed that a colorful selection of balls had ended up under my desk and so when Sky came and gave me the look, dancing around, backing up, “C’mon. Let’s play,” without giving it much thought, I told her to look under the desk. She went straight there and a moment later plopped a ball onto my lap. But here’s the hitch. I’d never sent her to look under the desk and when she frisked the area, she’d never looked there. In fact, when I am at the desk, I am working and when I am working, I don’t want to be bothered. As a result, I had never used the word desk before. The desk is mine, all mine. It’s my woman cave. It’s not a place where I interact with dogs. It’s a place where I write about interacting with dogs or draw pictures of dogs interacting with each other, with humans or thinking about doing so.
So how did Sky do this?
Did she know what desk meant because it was not the bed or the crate or the bookcases I often name? Did she know what desk meant because she heard me say things to my husband like “Leave it on my desk”? Or did she pick up the picture I formed when saying, “Look under the desk,” the picture of a tennis ball, a squeaky ball and a high bouncer nestled in the far right corner of the knee hole?
Why is it that humans think we are the only thinkers around? Why is it that we need to believe that animals can’t reason, that they have no feelings, that they have no moral code? I know that this is changing now, at last, but it is changing very slowly. For every parent that tells a small child, No, you can’t pet that lady’s dog. That dog is working now, there are ten or twenty parents who shriek, DOGGY, when they see my working dog. There are still so many people who think their dogs are dumb when the truth is that they, the humans, haven’t figured out how to communicate their thoughts and wishes with another species (or maybe even their own!) Pets are still acquired without thought, left on their own all day, dumped in shelters when their humans are bored or disappointed with them. And on a more personal note, why is it that intelligent observation is ignored until, years later, SCIENCE comes up with the astonishing news that, say, dogs and humans get a rush of oxytocin when they gaze into each other’s eyes. Like really, good people, unless you’re made of cement, you knew that all along.