Chapter 7: Canine anthropologists

I am I because my little dog knows me (Gertrude Stein)

The dog's gaze is an examination, a regard: a gaze at another animate creature. He sees us, which might imply that he thinks about us--and we like to be considered. Naturally we wonder, in that moment of shared gaze, Is the dog thinking about us the way we are thinking about the dog? What does he know about us?

We are known by our dogs--probably far better than we know them. They are the consummate eavesdroppers and peeping toms: let into the privacy of our rooms, they quietly spy on our every move. They know about our comings and goings. They come to know our habits: how long we spend in the bathroom, how long we spend in front of the television. They know who we sleep with; what we eat; what we eat too much of; who we sleep too much with. They watch us like no other animal watches us. We share our homes with uncounted numbers of mice, millipedes, and mites: none bothers to look our way. We open our door and see pigeons, squirrels, and assorted flying bugs; they barely notice us. Dogs, by contrast, watch us from across the room, from the window, and out of the corner of their eyes. Their watching is enabled by a subtle but powerful ability which begins with simple vision. Sight is used to pay visual attention, and visual attention is used to see what we attend to. In some ways this is similar to us, but in other ways it surpasses human capacity.

The blind and the deaf sometimes keep dogs to see or hear the world for them. For some disabled persons, a dog may enable movement through a world they cannot navigate alone. Just as for the physically impaired dogs can act as eyes, ears, and feet, so also do they act as readers of human behavior for some autistic individuals. Persons with any kind of autism spectrum disorder are united by their shared inability to understand the expressions, emotions, and perspectives of other people. As the neurologist Oliver Sacks describes, for an autistic person who keeps dogs, the dogs may seem to be human-mind-readers. While an autistic person cannot parse a brow furrowed with concern, or interpret the rising tone indicating someone's fright or worry, the dog is sensitive to the mindset behind them.

Dogs are anthropologists among us. They are students of behavior, observing us in the way that the science of anthropology teaches its practitioners to look at humans. As adults, we walk among other humans largely without examining them closely, socially trained to keep to ourselves. Even with those we know best, we might stop attending to the minute changes in their expressions, their moods, their outlooks. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget suggested that as children we are little scientists, forming theories about the world and testing them by acting. If so, we are scientists who hone our skills only to later neglect them. We mature by learning how people behave, but eventually we pay less attention to how others are behaving at every instant. We outgrow the habit of looking. A curious child stares with fascination at the stranger limping down the street: he will be taught this is not polite. A child might be enraptured by a swirl of fallen leaves on the pavement; by adulthood, he will overlook it. The child wonders at our crying, monitors our smiles, looks where we look; with age we are all still able to do all this, but we fall out of the habit.

Dogs don't stop looking--at the gimpy walk, at a rush of leaves tumbling down the sidewalk, at our faces. The urban dog may be bereft of natural sights, but he is rich in the odd: the drunken man swerving through crowd; the shouting sidewalk preacher; the lame and destitute. All get long stares from the dogs who pass them. What makes dogs good anthropologists is that they are so attuned to humans: they notice what is typical, and what is different. And, just as crucially, they don't become inured to us, as we do--nor do they grow up to be us....