The Mental Life of Dogs
I am back from the country hovel at Eel Swamp. For nearly a week I had mud, water and shit midway up my wellies. It is the Monsoon season. Rain or shine, spending time with animals is a good thing. Animals have a lot to teach us. Here are a couple of observations from studying my five dogs and two ducks. First, animals aren’t divided into religion let alone into religious sects that target rivals like insurgents setting IEDs for the next Humvee to roll over. Second, animals don’t hang out with each other because of a share ideology. They have no real politics to speak of. Like religion, politics, is simply absent from their day. You may protest that animals aren’t rational, don’t have logic or analysis working for them. True enough but at the same time animals never consult astrologers before making a decision.
Of course, you’re going to point out that dogs form packs with a pecking order. Yes, that is true. But the top dog doesn’t promise change you can believe in, or health care or daycare for puppies. Might is right keeps the pecking order a well-oiled machine. Life is basically sniffing each others asses and urine trails, eating, begging for food in between meal time, sleeping. And Oscar, the Lab, sometimes picks up his ball, brings it to me, I throw it, he looks at the ball and at me with those large, sad eyes, as if to say, “Why did you do that? Now I’ve got to wander over in my old sweet time, lift a leg to keep the urine trail fresh, have a nice drink of water, and yeah, ‘Why was I going over here?’ He often forgets the ball destination. For dogs it is all journey. They have no real destination to speak of. They happily travel with nothing remotely equivalent to our world of frequent flier points as an incentive.
Dogs, as far as we know, despite the dialogue above, have no interior monologue going on. Dogs aren’t Hamlet. They don’t argue with themselves. They don’t suffer doubt, make holiday plans, worry about growing old or whether global warming will cause their urine trails to dry into nothingness. In other words, dogs have no conception of the future. That alone relieves them of huge anxiety. Marlowe, who is 14 years old, is going deaf, his eyes are clouded, he’s slower in getting to his feet, and he’s still nursing a hernia resulting from a fight over a bitch. But Marlowe behaves pretty much the same way as he did when he was one year old. He has no perception that he’s an old man, and that fighting other, younger members of the pack, over a woman at 91 years old (in human years) is bound to be a losing battle. Dogs don’t know their limitations.
It’s not just the future that dogs are oblivious to thinking about, it is also the past that eludes them. Elephants may have a memory for slights and rough treatment but dogs have no such memory. Yell at them, and an hour later, they wag their tails, and lick your hand. Forget to feed them, and, hey, no hard feelings. None of that boiling up rage over what someone did a day, a week, or years ago. My dogs don’t wait in the dark to knife someone who caused them to lose face. I love dogs because they seem free of the kind of delusionary thinking that passes for day-to-day human mental activity. In their lives, they don’t need wire taps, guided missile, loyalty oath, preachers, assault helicopters, GPS, Internet, Twitter or Facebook.
A dog looks in the mirror and doesn’t know it is looking at itself. There’s something to be said for lack of awareness of self. Because it is our sense of self and sense of time that, from a dog’s point of view, could be more usefully spent tending a urine trail and looking for food. Dogs don’t write anything down. Because they basically don’t need to remember a lot of stuff, and they don’t have to search where they last left their reading glasses or car keys. Dogs are both freer than we are even though from our point of view they are locked in a mental prison with no possibility of escape. Life is filled with these trade offs.
Knowledge is the devil that spins us like a top. It equips us through books, movies, folklore and myth to face a more complicated mental world where we are convinced the stakes are much higher. We suffer from knowing too much, from our inability to easily forget or forgive, and from entangled emotions and intellect that fight like two overtired mud wrestlers, with the battle ever shifting and never ending.
Things like face, revenge, the past and the future, are so much part of the human species, that we marvel having animals around us that are happy, content, and playful, day after day, in the absence of such mental processes. Years ago, Thais frequently would tell a foreigner, “Thinking too much is no good. It gives you a headache.” I haven’t heard any Thais saying that lately. A lot of them seem to have a headache.
Sanuk or fun and sabai or feeling comfortable are also standard Thai ways of being. Or so it was in the past. You don’t hear many Thais talking about sanuk or feeling sabai. It’s because they’re too busy thinking too much. We laugh at dogs because they lick their balls (at least my four male dogs do) and fail to laugh at ourselves for constantly licking our emotional wounds, real or imagined, not to heal them but to remind us of our enemies, to reinforce our rage, and to plot our payback.
When I am away from Eel Swamp and the animals, I soon leave their world and float back into the human world of Bangkok. The thing about my dogs, is they never leave their world, not for a moment, because that is only the place they live, in the moment, and I envy them for being content to be in that big Now.
As for the two ducks, that is for another blog. Here’s a preview: The Klong Toey market duck (the white one) bought as a wife for the existing duck at the pond in Eel Swamp may turn out to be a male. No one at Eel Swamp has made a physical examination to determine the duck’s gender. Ducks are hard to catch. But that may not be necessary. My mother-in-law dismisses the need for such an examination. “Leave the duck alone,” she says. She says a duck’s gender is determined by the tone and timbre of its quack. Gender floats to the surface by examining the voice register. In her mind a female duck’s musicality is as distinct as Mozart is from the Rolling Stones.
There is no gynecologist near Eel Swamp to confirm or deny the white duck’s gender. The household is betting she is a ‘she’ though the odds vary day to day, depending on latest reports on her tone scales. This isn’t Julie Andrews singing the Sound of Music theme song. There’s a lot of variation on a theme in the white duck’s quacks. The gardener has made a side bet that the white duck is a katoey.
Next week: The Strange Case of Duck Gender at Eel Swamp.