An Irishman's Diary

Mon, Jul 16, 2012, 01:00

TRISTAN padded into my life about three years ago. His demands are simple and, I like to think, he keeps the house a tad safer just by being around. He has managed to appear in family photographs and even in the local newspapers. He lets me know when vehicles enter our short street, even before they’ve drawn near the front door. He’s named after the Breton poet, Tristan Corbière, and his intellectual pretensions cause him to object to being linked with Tristan and Isolde. He can sulk at the mere suggestion.

A three-year-old border terrier, early in life Tristan found himself abandoned in an Irish village. With bowed head, he has informed me that this is not an uncommon fate for dogs of all breeds. We discuss many things and he has, I am glad to say, exhibited a growing appetite for reading and current affairs which is as avid as my own. So we get along quite nicely. He enjoys the company of other dogs and a day out to the beach at Salthill, weather permitting, is a high point in his social round. Most of the time, while in the house, he is content enough to curl up and doze on a wicker couch in the front hallway.

Now it would be easy enough to maintain a sort of baby-talk narrative around Tristan and his times. But it seems to me, in spite of what “experts” tell us, that Tristan contains as many “human” as canine traits and that communication between a dog and its owner takes place on much more sophisticated levels than is commonly assumed.

It is very difficult not to feel at times that Tristan understands perfectly well one’s moods, one’s opinions, one’s likes and dislikes, and that this understanding accumulates at a much higher level than mere attempts at imitating or mirroring human behaviour. And when one talks of a dog as being intelligent, it’s sobering to remind oneself that what might pass for intelligence to a human may seem like downright stupidity to a dog.

In 1973, a paper was published by a Russian scientist, one VS Rusinov, which showed that dogs “think” in images and sensory evaluations, such as sound, smell and taste and have mental experiences much as humans do. And dogs can suffer from emotional trauma; we know they experience pain and loss. I would go further and suggest that dogs experience abstract feelings such as impatience and dissatisfaction and, certainly, jealousy. An argument has been raging for some time in the scientific-psychological world as to whether dogs, or any other animals, can experience emotion, or emotion as humans understand the term. Increasingly, however, research appears to be swinging towards an acceptance that animals experience emotions; though this is not to subscribe to anthropomorphic notions of humans and animals experiencing emotions and other traits in the same way.

Now imagine for a moment if Tristan could vote. Upon what lines might he make his mark? It is likely that he would vote for what served him best and most immediately, with little concern for any greater good, and one might easily argue that this system of political thought is on a par with the parochialism and tribalism exhibited in most Irish elections. Similarly, Tristan would not have any concept of a nation or of patriotism as he would squat down to plant a paw on the ballot-paper. He is a mé-fhéiner in the best tradition. Is self-interest not a very human trait? And before one bursts out laughing at the very idea that a dog is aware of politics and the State, it is worth noting that Tristan, during an anti-war demonstration near Shannon Airport some months ago, was threatened with the dog warden by a rather large human dressed in a policeman’s uniform, merely for stepping on to the road while his owner carried a banner! So now he’s a known dissident “face”.

There is much useful evidence to suggest that dogs can have a calming and healthy effect on their owners, that they relieve stress, alleviate loneliness and are beneficial to our emotional and mental wellbeing. One is distressed to see a human, he or she allegedly possessed of all those additional ganglia and synapses and consequent intellectual superiority, beating a dog because it is behaving like a dog and wants to bark, run, or sniff other dogs. There is surely some truth to the belief, held by many, that if one can be cruel to a dog one can be cruel to a human being. Imagine walking over to shake a friend’s hand only for someone to come up behind you and smack you round the head with a leather strap simply for being human.

And one is reminded also of the dreadful tortures dogs are subjected to in the name of cosmetic and medical research and, God help us, even culinary experiment or fashion. Then we have the appalling barbarity of dogs being trained to fight one another for money. It would be discomfiting, no doubt, to remind ourselves that humans train other humans to fight for money in spectacles that are often no less bloody. The human capacity for cruelty is boundless.

It seems to me that it is convenient in such instances to regard a dog as having neither feelings nor emotions. But with what legitimacy do we arrive at such conclusions? It is simply not possible to be around a dog for any length of time without acquiring the belief that he shares certain sets of emotional and cognitive responses and that he is capable of, let’s say, drawing conclusions in a distinctly “human” way. Put simply, if one treats a dog well, one will be treated well by the dog. If one acts like a brute, the dog will eventually respond as any human would to the aggression of an enemy. If, of course, a brutalised dog eventually turns on a human being, he is put down. We blame the dog, his breed. We resort to the very human capacity for hypocrisy.

One can be forgiven for thinking that dogs would gain nothing, and lose a great deal, if they ever attained the intellectual and reasoning capacity of a human being. I do not wish that Tristan ever becomes too human.

Dogs, after all, do not wage war.

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