At the dog park, this thousand-odd-square-meter oasis of chewing, chasing, digging, loping, barking, nipping, pouncing, and rolling canine friends, neural nets wearied by endless curbside crowds may relax in the luxury of perceiving humans as the odd ones out. Lazily decomposed into its component percepts, the adult Homo sapiens can be a dismaying sight. Endurance and thermoregulation that helped us conquer a planet manifest as lumbering gaits and plaited spherical heads bobbing like fishing lures above the folds of unnaturally colored swaddlings, we look easily awkward amid a teeming pack of liquid quadrupeds. The comically tufty, stretched, and brachiocephalic ones notwithstanding.
At the dog park, the humans are often stilting, hesitant islands of asocial rumination. By contrast, the dogs are an ocean, lapping up newcomers dripping through the entrance and drawing wayward swashes back in for just one more chase.
In this ebb and flow of canine exuberance, there’s something going on, it seems, that I can’t see.
I wonder whether any convergence of disparate observations into a grand unified Theory of Dog is paradoxically aided by their evident absence of syntactical spoken language. As much as—or, for some, even more than—words may inform, they can also detract or obscure. Words can carve windows into subjective experiential truth. But they can also erect smoke-screen walls around behavior, enabling their abusers to tear unseen through the mud and steal everyone else’s favorite tennis balls as they go.
Dogs have no such luxury of semantic deception. Here is a Corgi digging holes by the fence. Here is a Springer Spaniel humping the ribcage of her patient friend. Here is a Labrador with a smiling mouth full of poo. Their behaviors stand out naked as a Chinese Crested without the verbal sorcery of primate cognition to spin them from view—and yet the secretive ape cannot help but inquire into the potential vastness of the universe in which these behaviors are themselves orbiting.
Is this canine inner life a jungle that bears exploring, or is it just an Escherian labyrinth of infinite exits? To what extent is the communication of dogs—with each other and with us—based on high-level integration of multivariate intentions spun into expressions of will, as opposed to subconscious displays of instinctive emotional state? This question may seem a meaningless exercise: to what extent is any of us decisive beyond the storm of electrochemical wiring that we comprise? What is the significance of separating the canopy of surface action from the convolved forest of decision trees beneath it? In the field of animal cognition at least, this distinction between incidental and willful is a necessary one, in that information transmission among individuals is denoted by different words depending on whether it is unintentional (a sign) or intentional (a signal). When humans, for example—excepting those few of the most manipulative bent—cry or laugh, it is typically an unavoidable and sometimes unwelcome sign. By contrast, when we arrange our faces into a polite smile for a stranger it involves conscious decision-making that makes it a signal.
More than once I have been approached on my usual corner bench by a dog with a tennis ball in her mouth who clearly wanted me to throw it for her. One Alsatian-Border Collie mix, who carefully washed her increasingly gritty prize in the park’s plastic kiddie pool every few throws, had methodically pulled this trick on everyone else at the park and then proceeded to alternate her offerings between me and the only other individual to exhibit a favorable response, a hoodie-clad young man two benches away. Another, a Goldendoodle with a warm head of woolly blonde hair that he patiently allowed me to pet with one hand while he carefully dropped the ball into my other, kept at it for nearly twenty minutes until the woman who had brought him in apologetically explained that her dog only ever wanted to play fetch with strangers because he knew that at some point she would try to take him home (which she then did). Yet another, a fat English bulldog whose wrinkled forehead felt like the bristles of a new toothbrush, appeared to be of the school perpetually unable to remember whether they were playing fetch or tug-of-war (she ultimately decided on a nap).
In these interactions both parties were following the same script, albeit with some unpredictable mild flairs like the periodic detour to the kiddie pool or an impromptu nap. These deviations were adorable rather than concerning precisely because they were unobtrusive against an otherwise smooth operation, like a small mole on an unfreckled face or an unexpectedly dissonant verse in a largely predictable concerto. Did the dogs, like their human teammates, derive the same enjoyment from the structure and stability inherent in the sport of fetching, this well-orchestrated release of tension created by a lost ball that, with every retrieval and reset, cultivated trust between two strangers who otherwise had little to offer each other? Here, the dogs might be saying. I will give you my toy because I trust that you will give it back. Sure, we would agree. And I will then throw it away as far as I can, perhaps even farther than I can see, because I know that you will also bring it back to me.
Some of these communicative symphonies are, alas, more harmonious than others. I once witnessed an elderly black Labrador Retriever straddle a tennis ball in the center of the park and bark steadily for ten minutes to her human, who clearly wasn’t listening over his own steady barking into a phone. At some point too late, the man decided he had had enough, shuffled over to the ball, and winged it hard across the park, only for the dog to fall silent and offer a puzzled stare. He then proceeded to pick up and throw every one of the other dozen tennis balls within shuffling distance past the stone-faced dog, who continued her silent vigil as slime-covered yellow orbs buzzed past her head like a nest of angry hornets. Defeated, the man finally shrugged and shuffled back to his bench, where he resumed his conversation as the dog gallivanted over to the pile of expired balls and took up her insistent barking once more. That was one decision tree jungle that will remain a mystery.
By contrast, some interactions glow with the apparent virtuosity of dogs appearing to play others like violins. Take, for example, the Jack Russell Terrier who inspired a large shepherd to gleefully chase her around the circumference of the park for well over a dozen rounds. After about five minutes of nonstop zoomies, it had become increasingly clear that her energy was flagging and she was tiring of the game. Instead of simply surrendering to her friend, however, she gradually widened her escape trajectory to bring her past a fortuitously placed toy rope, which, on her next pass, she swept up with tiny jaws and flung around with great chutzpah. Her point made, she dropped the rope behind her and fled to safety as the shepherd abruptly diverted her interest to this obviously superior new game.
Of course, the connection-hungry primate brain attempting to view the world with some objectivity must also be aware of its instinct to desperately project meaning where none likely exists. More than one stranger at the dog park with whom I found myself bound by conversation has employed the words “soul mate” to denote her canine companion to me, and one woman went so far as to assert that she could telepathically feel when her Brussels Griffon was trying to send her messages through the spiritual plane.
Observations of hygienic Border mixes and manipulative Jack Russells defensibly fall into a similar category of confabulatory interpolation. But would painting over the potential complexity of calculations behind these behaviors not be the greater sin than retouching the picture with colors just a bit too bright? And is this propensity to erroneously ascribe intent perhaps ironically another trait that we share with our four-legged friends—one that brings us even closer together?
A brindled coonhound runs over, tail wagging, and leaps onto the bench to park his butt on my lap. As with another human, I cannot know exactly what he is thinking, but his joyful presence is all the encouragement I need at least to continue trying.