First you see the head. Over the crest of the hill appears a muzzle, drooling. It is as yet not visibly attached to anything. A limb jangles into view, followed in unhasty succession by a second, third, and fourth, bearing a hundred and forty pounds of body between them. The wolfhound, three feet at his shoulder and five feet to his tail, spies the long-haired Chihuahua, half a dog high, hidden in the grasses between her owner’s feet. The Chihuahua is six pounds, each of them trembling. With one languorous leap, his ears perked high, the wolfhound arrives in front of the Chihuahua. The Chihuahua looks demurely away; the wolfhound bends down to Chihuahua level and nips her side. The Chihuahua looks back at the hound, who raises his rear end up in the air, tail held high, in preparation to attack. Instead of fleeing from this apparent danger, the Chihuahua matches his pose and leaps onto the wolfhound’s face, embracing his nose with her tiny paws. They begin to play.
For five minutes these dogs tumble, grab, bite, and lunge at each other. The wolfhound throws himself onto his side and the little dog responds with attacks to his face, belly, and paws. A swipe by the hound sends the Chihuahua scurrying backward, and she timidly sidesteps out of his reach. The hound barks, jumps up, and arrives back on his feet with a thud. At this, the Chihuahua races toward one of those feet and bites it, hard. They are in mid-embrace—the hound with his mouth surrounding the body of the Chihuahua, the Chihuahua kicking back at the hound’s face—when an owner snaps a leash on the hound’s collar and pulls him upright and away. The Chihuahua rights herself, looks after them, barks once, and trots back to her owner.
These dogs are so incommensurable with each other that they may as well be different species. The ease of play between them always puzzled me. The wolfhound bit, mouthed, and charged at the Chihuahua; yet the little dog responded not with fright but in kind. What explains their ability to play together? Why doesn’t the hound see the Chihuahua as prey? Why doesn’t the Chihuahua see the wolfhound as predator? The answer turns out to have nothing to do with the Chihuahua’s delusion of canine grandeur or the hound’s lack of predatory drive. Neither is it simply hardwired instinct taking over.
There are two ways to learn how play works—and what playing dogs are thinking, perceiving, and saying: be born as a dog, or spend a lot of time carefully observing dogs. The former was unavailable to me. Come along as I describe what I’ve learned by watching.
I am a dog person.
My home has always had a dog in it. My affinity for dogs began with our family dog, Aster, with his blue eyes, lopped tail, and nighttime neighborhood ramblings that often left me up late, wearing pajamas and worry, waiting for his midnight return. I long mourned the death of Heidi, a springer spaniel who ran with excitement—my childhood imagination had her tongue trailing out of the side of her mouth and her long ears blown back with the happy vigor of her run—right under a car’s tires on the state highway near our home. As a college student, I gazed with admiration and affection at an adopted chow mix Beckett as she stoically watched me leave for the day.
And now at my feet lies the warm, curly, panting form of Pumpernickel—Pump
—a mutt who has lived with me for all of her sixteen years and through all of my adulthood. I have begun every one of my days in five states, five years of graduate school, and four jobs with her tail-thumping greeting when she hears me stir in the morning. As anyone who considers himself a dog person will recognize, I cannot imagine my life without this dog.
I am a dog person, a lover of dogs. I am also a scientist.
I study animal behavior. Professionally, I am wary of anthropomorphizing animals, attributing to them the feelings, thoughts, and desires that we use to describe ourselves. In learning how to study the behavior of animals, I was taught and adhered to the scientist’s code for describing actions: be objective; do not explain a behavior by appeal to a mental process when explanation by simpler processes will do; a phenomenon that is not publicly observable and confirmable is not the stuff of science. These days, as a professor of animal behavior, comparative cognition, and psychology, I teach from masterful texts that deal in quantifiable fact. They describe everything from hormonal and genetic explanations for the social behavior of animals, to conditioned responses, fixed action patterns, and optimal foraging rates, in the same steady, objective tone.
Most of the questions my students have about animals remain quietly unanswered in these texts. At conferences where I have presented my research, other academics inevitably direct the postlecture conversations to their own experiences with their pets. And I still have the same questions I’d always had about my own dog—and no sudden rush of answers. Science, as practiced and reified in texts, rarely addresses our experiences of living with and attempting to understand the minds of our animals.
In my first years of graduate school, when I began studying the science of the mind, with a special interest in the minds of non-human animals, it never occurred to me to study dogs. Dogs seemed so familiar, so understood. There is nothing to be learned from dogs, colleagues claimed: dogs are simple, happy creatures whom we need to train and feed and love, and that is all there is to them. There is no data
in dogs. That was the conventional wisdom among scientists. My dissertation advisor studied, respectably, baboons: primates are the animals of choice in the field of animal cognition. The assumption is that the likeliest place to find skills and cognition approaching our own is in our primate brethren. That was, and remains, the prevailing view of behavioral scientists. Worse still, dog owners seemed to have already covered the territory of theorizing about the dog mind, and their theories were generated from anecdotes and misapplied anthropomorphisms. The very notion of the mind of a dog was tainted.
I spent many recreational hours during my years of graduate school in California in the local dog parks and beaches with Pumpernickel. At the time I was in training as an ethologist, a scientist of animal behavior. I joined two research groups observing highly social creatures: the white rhinoceros at the Wild Animal Park in Escondido, and the bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) at the Park and the San Diego Zoo. I learned the science of careful observations, data gathering, and statistical analysis. Over time, this way of looking began seeping into those recreational hours at the dog parks. Suddenly the dogs, with their fluent travel between their own social world and that of people, became entirely unfamiliar: I stopped seeing their behavior as simple and understood.
Where I once saw and smiled at play between Pumpernickel and the local bull terrier, I now saw a complex dance requiring mutual cooperation, split-second communications, and assessment of each other’s abilities and desires. The slightest turn of a head or the point of a nose now seemed directed, meaningful. I saw dogs whose owners did not understand a single thing their dogs were doing; I saw dogs too clever for their playmates; I saw people misreading canine requests as confusion and delight as aggression. I began bringing a video camera with us and taping our outings at the parks. At home I watched the tapes of dogs playing with dogs, of people ball- and Frisbee-tossing to their dogs—tapes of chasing, fighting, petting, running, barking. With new sensitivity to the...