Dog days – Colm Keena on Lenny, the lockdown Labrador

An Irishman’s Diary

Lenny: can play your emotions with a skill that Cambridge Analytica can only dream about

Lenny: can play your emotions with a skill that Cambridge Analytica can only dream about

 

The inclination some humans have for anthropomorphising their household pets is one of those traits that used to make me wonder about the species.

But that’s changed a bit since we got our dog, Lenny the lockdown Labrador, who is, everyone agrees, not just handsome but stunningly intelligent.

Take last week, for instance, with the chicken. Free-range, organic, and roasted the day before, it was left on the kitchen worktop while the person who was nominally minding the dog went upstairs to the loo, taking Lenny along with him, and closing the kitchen door on the way out.

The dog, pretending to be companionable, followed his human friend up the stairs, strategising as it did so. Then, as soon as the flow began to hit the toilet bowl, the dog was down the stairs and jumping up on the kitchen door, one paw out so as to pull down the door handle. Goodbye chicken.

Not only can he plan ahead like a human, Lenny also uses his front paws in ways that are amazingly sapien-like. As already noted, he can open a door handle using them.

But he also uses his paws to express affection in a very human way. It’s like living with Joe Biden.

Say when you’re lying in bed in the morning, pretending to be asleep, and he comes into the room and around to your side of the bed, only to be presented with your back. First you feel his two front paws landing on the mattress behind you. That’s easy to ignore, but what he does then shows how well he understands the inner emotional life of humans. He waits.

You lie there, eyes scrunched shut even though he’s behind you, while he counts slowly to 10. Then, with perfect timing, and an exquisite feel for how much pressure to apply, he places one paw gently on your shoulder, in a way that manages to express his youth, affection, and desire to play, all in one, light, Yogi-like laying of paw. It’s impossible not to give in.

Not only can Lenny play your emotions with a skill that Cambridge Analytica can only dream about, he can express empathy with an ease that, worryingly, makes you think of a former US president from Arkansas.

Say you’re sitting on the sofa watching the match with the dog snoozing beside you – he wasn’t supposed to be allowed up on the sofa, the notions households have when they first get a puppy are gas – when Everton, whom you’re hoping might end up in the top four in the Premier League, concede a second goal even though they’re playing nearly-bottom-of-the-league Burnley.

You howl, and bark a couple of expletives at the TV. Lenny, who’s only seven months old remember, reaches out his right paw and lays its comforting weight on your lap, managing, at one and the same time, to convey the emotion, there, there, while also suggesting that you calm the ham a bit, can’t you see I’m trying to get some sleep.

(Despite being a male dog, and being amazingly mature for his seven months, Lenny has not as yet shown any interest in football on the telly, though he has progressed to the stage where he is capable of getting a football into his mouth, and giving it a good chew.)

The lockdown decision to get a dog – a phenomenon that, visits to the park would indicate, is sweeping the world like a pandemic – has not only brought about a weakening of the long-held conviction of this diarist that anthropomorphising dog-owners are a bit soft, it has also added a new topic to the family’s at this stage somewhat stale repertoire of Level Five conversational topics, to wit; you won’t believe what Lenny’s done now.

His presence has also changed the effect of going for a walk. Living in a city where people cover their faces with masks and cross to the other side of the street when they see you coming, can be a bit depressing. But when you bring Lenny along, suddenly everyone (almost) stays on the same pavement as you. Many go to the bother of making eye contact and saying hello (sometimes to you as well as the dog). A surprising number stop and positively invite the dog to throw his Joe Biden paws up on them. Suddenly, instead of being in a zombie movie, you’re somewhere everyone wants to soak up a bit of the love.

It turns out humans, as a species, are much friendlier, happier, trusting, prone to smiling and wagging their tails, than they’re given credit for.

They’re kind of like dogs, really.

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