If you’ve owned dogs and served cats, as I have, watching them closely can give you a peek inside their noggins.
There’s a great book by Jared Diamond—GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL—that drops serious knowledge about the kittehs and doggos, and yes, that book is all about the rise and fall of civilizations around the world, so why would he bother with house pets?
(1) Diamond says you can figure out which civilizations struggled and which turned into mighty empires with a simple trick: count how many plants and animals they could domesticate.
(2) That’s because you can’t have permanent villages and cities, much less an empire, if you’re stuck roaming around as hunter-gatherer. Tough life, carrying everything that you own, especially without a horse to haul it around. You have to be able to grow wheat and herds of goats and such to settle down and have villages, then cities, then science and tiny supercomputers that allow a single human to send Candy Crush spam to all of their Facebook friends.
(3) The only animals that can truly be domesticated are ones that naturally travel in packs or herds, because only those animals understand how to be social. In other words, animals with some natural manners. Other animals might be sort of tamed, but never truly domesticated.
(4) Doggos live in packs and are totes social.
(5) Cats are solitary hunters and brutal killers. Seriously. Yes, even the ones that look like this:
Back when The Discovery channel did science instead of reality shows about pawn shops and such, there was a Top 10 Predators episode. You had the great white shark, polar bears, lions, tigers, Kevin Spacey, you know, the usual suspects.
Number 1? House cats. Even if well fed, they’ll run around killing scads of birds, mice and whatever else they can, just for fun. They are furry little Sith Lords.
So why are puppers and doggos so different?
I’ve watched our Hound of the Baskervilles from when he was about one year old and have gotten a good look inside his head.
Mystery Number 1: Why do dogs HATE the mailman?
This seems to be such a cliché, an urban legend. The kind of thing that could get traced back to an off-hand line on I LOVE LUCY that just took off in pop culture and never died off.
Except there are good reasons for dogs to hate mail carriers and delivery folks.
Since we live on a dead-end road with few neighbors, there are two distinct types of people driving by: folks who live here and visitors.
The Hound doesn’t bark once when he hears the cars of people who live here. Doesn’t even look up—he knows the sound of each engine, though he’ll head for the door to greet family members when he hears their car start up the hill.
Random visitors might get barked at, but to him, they heed that warning and keep on driving past to their destination. They don’t stop at our house or show back up again tomorrow.
Delivery folks do.
To the dog, the FedEx folks show up all the time and the post office people come by every flipping day, ignoring all his barked warnings.
Even worse: the mailman is the only person to stop at the corner of our property for a long time. I believe, deep in my soul, the Hound thinks the mailman is peeing on our mailbox. Because that’s what a dog would do: mark territory.
It doesn’t matter who’s wearing the uniform and driving the delivery truck. To doggos, those are the colors of an invading army, and each person wearing them and stopping at the mailbox is sending a clear message: “Your home is now my territory, and so are the homes of all your neighbors and friends. Your warning barks don’t frighten me. I’ll be back tomorrow to pee on the mailbox and claim your home as mine. Do something about it, tough guy.”
Mystery Number 2: What do dogs think of cats?
Back when we had three cats, the Hound couldn’t figure them out.
He understood the rules: don’t go upstairs, don’t go in the dining room and stay off the couches. We trained him to do things and when he did them, he got rewarded with treats or affection. That’s the system.
Cats don’t listen. They don’t care about your stupid rules or wishes.
To help train the doggo, we have him sit in another room when food goes in his bowl. And it might be a few minutes before we tell him OK, go eat. He sits at attention, no problem. It’s like he’s in the army. He enjoys clear rules and learning new tricks.
There’s no way any of our cats would ever sit and wait for food, not even if you offered them treats and love.
Quite the opposite. Whenever they were hungry, they made sure you knew it. Joy the White (kinda like Gandalf the Grey but after fighting that demon thing) would go further. If she was pissed off, she’d make it literal by stalking into the room to glare at you while she peed in a corner, just to show she was upset about her food bowl being empty or some such thing.
To the Hound, the cats were unpredictable and immature little furballs with no brains or social skills.
If he saw one of them breaking the rules, like walking into the dining room, he’d police them, gently nosing them back into the kitchen. Trying to get them in line. It wasn’t aggressive, like he was the boss. It was incredulous. “Are you crazy? Don’t offend the Tall Wizards Who Control Light and Dark, because we have a good thing going here: warm house, soft beds, fresh food and their protection. Why are you trying to screw that up?”
This isn’t a question of brains. Cats are plenty intelligent and with a lot of effort, some people have trained them. With zero effort, you can watch them do clever things and get into all kinds of trouble. Like experimenting with gravity.
Dogs are pack animals and wired differently. Puppers simply don’t understand why the Tiny Furballs with Needle Claws have no social manners and refuse to learn things from the Tall Wizards, especially when the reward for learning things is yummies and love.
Mystery Number 3: The on-off Switch of Guard Dogginess
The Hound sees it as his job to (a) alert us when strangers or delivery people are outside, and (b) to guard the door.
This is fine normally. When we have a lot of people over, though, it can be a hassle and a mystery–because once people are in the kitchen or dining room, there might be 15 people there he doesn’t know, and he won’t bark at a single one. his tail and happily gets petted all night.
A similar thing happens the Hound hits the kennel: the kennel owners always let dogs out into a fenced area separated from the main run. Every time, the new dog goes to the fence to touch noses with all the other dogs, then they let that new dog into the main area with tiny terriers and Great Danes, with zero problems. They all play together.
Except none of that works when the dog can still see their owner. They’ll bark at the other dogs and do not get along. The Switch of Guard Dogginess going from OFF to ON. Back on duty.
I took this idea home and started putting the Hound in the library when guests push the doorbell. Mystery solved: if people are at the door, he’s on duty. Once people are past the foyer and in the kitchen or dining room, I let him out and everything’s great.
In his doggy brain, he’s thinking something like this: “Clearly, the Tall Wizards let all these people deep inside to our most sacred room, where we store all the food. So they’re friends. Friends who brought us MORE food as tribute. I have never smelled so many good things! Our pack is popular, which means our territory and power is growing. The mailman dares not challenge us now.”
For serious dog knowledge, here’s some pretty good stuff on dog body language.