Yesterday I visited a friend whose backyard garden always enchants me: there are doves flying free who come back to their dovecote in the giant Pohutakawa tree; she has two ultra-tame chickens running free (there are no native mammals in New Zealand, so chickens have few enemies), a rabbit, a cat, and two dogs. One of them loves to play soccer with the boys: he noses the ball, and is so good at avoiding players on the opposite side that it is impossible to win against him.
Benjy, my dog, a golden lab who is the hero of my book The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving (comes out next month) was with me. True to his nature and the name of the book, he too loved the rabbit, and the chicken, and the cats, and the two dogs. But he looked at what the dog did with a blank expression. Huh? Nothing in the world would get Benjy to move that quickly, to feint, and to move the ball in any direction. He just wouldn’t get it.
In fact, Benjy gets very little. He was a colossal failure as a guide dog. The people who trained him loved him to bits, but were perplexed at how dim he seemed. His good nature is in inverse proportion to his “intelligence,” they claim. What an insult! But, alas, it seems to be true. When I feed Benjy his breakfast in a Cong and he leaves the Cong in the grass outside our house I ask him to find his Cong and bring it back to me. He looks blank. I go out and search, and he watches me in confusion. He just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t, in fact, get much.
Is it true, then, that dogs come with very different intelligences? Can Benjy really be as slow as he seems? AND YET have such immense empathy for all creatures. He, like Bill Clinton, feels their pain. He really does. He would not harm an ant. Literally. I have watched him notice them underfoot, and step carefully to the side, so as not to harm them. It is what I love about him. It is what has made me write a whole book about him. It is what has made me think more deeply than ever before about this strange coincidence of our relation: we are the only two species, I think, who reliably, constantly, and consistently, make friends across the species barrier. Benjy likes ducks, and rats, and squirrels, and people and other dogs. So do I. We like this about each other.
Did we learn to do this in tandem over the last 40,000 years? That is what I have asked in this new book. And each day Benjy causes me to marvel at his kindness, his dignified concern for every creature he encounters. How did this happen? How come other animals are not more like this? What is it about dogs? I live with four cats. I don’t need to tell you, they are not like Benjy. Not one bit. I am going to blog about this in the next few days, because truth to tell, I find it one of the most fascinating topics on earth: how dogs are more like us, in ways that count (at least to me) than any other animal on the planet. How did this happen??