I’ve been mostly off-line for the last two weeks, because I’ve been dog-sitting my friend’s American Pit Bull Terrier, Bentley, which has been so much fun that I’ve just let it consume me. I’ve never had a chance to get to know a Pit Bull, so about all I’ve done is hang out with Bentley!
It’s a lot like when the grandparents (grandpa, in this case) sit the kids while the parents go on a long vacation. The two-edged sword is that, while the parents know the kids are safe and secure, they also know they’re gonna get spoiled all to hell and gone.
Or in this case, dog-gone spoiled by a loving grandpa who is a sucker for that ‘starving dog’ look. (Those hungry brown eyes; who could say no?)
Bentley’s mom was lucky enough to head for much warmer weather than we had here. First it was the nasty polar vortex bringing sub-zero temps. Then it was snow; lots and lots of snow. (We created a new February snowfall record!)
So poor Bentley didn’t have ideal weather for those necessary outside visits (let alone the prospect of taking a walk to explore her new environment).
If you’ve ever rough-camped in winter, or gone back in time, you know how much it sucks peeing outside in -10 degrees (Fahrenheit).
I never did teach her to walk (with me) all the way to the street for that first (or sometimes only) pee. She often let go at the top of the driveway.
Given the whole driveway had a thin layer of compact snow (from the plow), her pee-bombs burned big yellow-lined holes in the white cover. Which then froze pretty much immediately. Made the driveway look hysterical.
Full disclosure, I was fine with this on several levels.
In such cold weather, I can’t fault her for wanting to go the shortest distance possible if it’s just out to pee (and I have a neighbor who parks his big honkin’ truck a bit over the line, so I was okay with her peeing on my driveway next to his truck).
So I never really even tried to teach her to go all the way to the street.
In large part because, holy buckets, it’s been hell outside, and a big part of a dog’s life involves outside, so I was willing to cut her any slack she wanted on that.
After the coldest bits, and after the snowplows did their thing, we were finally able to do some better walking than just down the block and back.
I live in a great place for walks (weather allowing), lots of trees and wooded areas, several parks, and a fair bit of wildlife (I once walked touching distance past a small deer; I sang softly to it, and it just stood there).
We weren’t able to take as much advantage of it as I’d wished, but we did visit the closer park a few times. As did many other dog owners (or other dog sitters, for all I know).
Bentley quickly learned where dogs in the neighborhood lived — they left the same ‘dog lives here’ traces she did outside my place.
Sadly, some dog owners let their dogs out alone to do their business and don’t clean up after them. That leaves even more obvious signs.
We met a few of those unescorted dogs (on the same evening walk). Everyone was friendly, there wasn’t ever any tension, but I wasn’t thrilled about it being just me if things escalated. (Which can happen quickly with dogs.)
I have to say Bentley was, in fact, a perfect angel with every dog we met (even better than my Black Lab, Sam).
Dogs generally show signs of tension — hair standing up, tail stiff — that warn of potential escalation. Bentley was always wagging her tail and showing an eager, friendly posture.
She almost seemed to realize she was a guest or visitor. Or maybe it was just because it was all so new. Regardless, she did her mom proud — a very well-behaved good dog!
As always, what fascinates me about dogs, one reason I love them so much, is the question, “What is it like to be a dog?” What is their consciousness like?
In one view, they are a neural network evolved to specific and very effective interaction with humans. Dogs, in a sense, are symbiotes with humans. They depend on us for survival; they return protection, companionship, and what certainly feels like love.
But it’s hard to look into the eyes of a dog who knows you and is looking back and not see ‘someone’ there. It’s hard not to see a mind at work, one with opinions, goals, and feelings.
It does raise the question of the difference between a system that seems conscious from the outside and one that ‘actually is’ conscious (whatever that actually means).
Dogs lack language — almost certainly lack higher thinking — and cannot communicate to us what it is like to be a dog. We have only their behavior and interaction with us to indicate what might be going on internally.
The weather permitted Bentley and I one chance for a really long walk (75 minutes). Along that path, about 50 yards off, someone had a full-body life-size profile silhouette of Sasquatch (ala Harry and the Hendersons) in mid-stride.
Bentley locked onto that and stood motionless for a good while. Then kept an eye on it as we walked. Then stood some more and stared. More walking, more standing and staring.
It was hysterical. She was waiting for it to make a move.
An interesting insight to how they process what they see. She was clearly reacting to a large humanoid figure. She was definitely aware (as dogs usually are) of any human or dog in sight. In this case, there was no scent in the air, so it was purely visual.
One of the things that’s long fascinated me about dogs is the question of how well they map an area as they come to know it. How good is their geography?
A lot of it seems scent-based. Dogs know an area by how it smells. But do they have a map in their head (like I do) that tells them the physical layout of an area?
They seem to, from what I can tell, but without language, who can really know.
There’s the Gary Larson cartoon where the inventor’s dog interpreter helmet that translates all the dogs’ barking as (merely), “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”
Regardless of all that, Bentley and I spent a delightful two weeks. There’s nothing like curling up with a warm dog. Petting a dog is a good time for both! It comes close to being a pure experience untainted by life’s anxieties.
The trust and love of a dog is a pretty great gift.
All in all, I will say that, as much as I adored having Bentley and spoiling the crap out of her, I confirmed I’m at a point in life (despite the urging of friends) where I’m just not willing to make that commitment full-time.
There’s an old saying about “a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” that captures it. It was a great vacation for me as much as for her mom or for Bentley. One I’d take again happily!
Stay dogged, my friends!