The Social Lives of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Companyby Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Moving from Virginia to New Hampshire is a change not only for Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and her husband, but also for their three elderly dogs. A classically/b>/i>/i>
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From the bestselling author of The Hidden Life of Dogs and The Tribe of Tiger comes a groundbreaking work on canine consciousness and how dogs become family
Moving from Virginia to New Hampshire is a change not only for Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and her husband, but also for their three elderly dogs. A classically trained anthropologist, Thomas observes the way in which Suessi, Fatima, and Inookshook acclimate to a new house and new adventure. Over the years, as the dogs grow older and new ones are taken in, Thomas analyzes their behavior and personalities. What makes dogs react uniformly to certain situations? To what extent do they comprehend human dialogue? With every sniff of the dogs’ noses and every wag of their tails, Thomas builds an impressive understanding of canine reaction and affection, and of the ways dogs support those they regard as one of their own.
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The Social Lives of Dogs
The Grace of Canine Company
By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
All rights reserved.
Our group of mixed species began soon after my husband and I moved to New Hampshire from Virginia. Three dogs came with us, all very old, the only dogs who remained alive from a once much larger pack that, unlike most groups to which dogs belong, contained no nondog members. In the order by which these dogs would have presented themselves, Dog One was Suessi, a powerful white and gray husky, the only male. Dog Two was a sensitive, heavyset female who looked something like a beagle. She had belonged to our daughter, and was named Fatima for a much-loved teacher. Dog Three was Inookshook, Fatima's half-sister, a mild-mannered, very gentle dog who looked like a husky, with red-gold hair and pale blue eyes.
Strictly speaking, Fatima and Inookshook were not entirely dogs because their mother was a dingo. However, dingoes are almost dogs, and Fatima and Inookshook passed as dogs, so that is what I called them except in times of need, when I had five dogs and a dingo but lived where zoning requirements allowed me only four dogs, and it became necessary to omit the dingo from my communications with the authorities, and also to count Inookshook and Fatima as half-dogs so that together they made one.
By the time we moved to New Hampshire, all three dogs had varying degrees of arthritis. Fatima was diabetic, and Suessi and Inookshook suffered from a canine form of Alzheimer's disease which made them vague and vacant — they would look at me and other people as if they didn't know just what we were, and couldn't imagine how we came to be there. But if people were not important to them, their group was. They slept together as they had done all their lives, wherever we lived, lying calmly on their blankets but nevertheless touching one another, fur to fur.
At dawn, they followed Inookshook outdoors and waited while she, as dog custom demands of the lowest-ranking pack member, carefully chose the spot which, that morning, the three dogs would mark. As in days gone by she would squat while the other two dogs, in ascending rank, waited their turns beside her. When all three had emptied their bladders on the same spot, they would slowly explore the fields, Suessi and Fatima together as a pair, Inookshook far behind the others as a loner, all of them nosing around to learn what the wild animals, especially the coyotes, had been doing during the night. If a coyote had marked, the dogs would overmark his stain to point out, in their elderly, faltering manner, that they, the dogs, were the actual owners of the field, and that the coyotes should stay in the woods.
That done, they would spend the rest of the day lying on a hilltop side by side, their rumps to the woods where the coyotes lived, their eyes on the road where, from time to time, a dog would appear in the company of a jogger. So the hilltop was like a farmhouse porch and our dogs were like three elderly country people in their rocking chairs. Retired dogs, like retired people, still want to know what's doing with their neighbors.
In the evening, from the shed, we would hear the dog-door click three times. One behind the other, the old dogs would slowly come in for dinner, first the rickety Suessi, still the leader for all his infirmities, then fat little Fatima, the waddling elder sister, then tall, slow, Inookshook, the stiffly graceful younger sister. And thus we lived for their declining years, my husband and I preoccupied with our affairs and the three dogs preoccupied with theirs — a peaceful, well-ordered existence in which each of us knew our place and our duties vis-à-vis the others.
In December of that year, my mother was scheduled for surgery. I went to her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be with her. As I came up her walk, I saw a large white dog lying in a corner of her porch. I climbed the steps and stood beside him. He looked away, as if he wished he couldn't see me.
I reached slowly toward him but, unhappy and unsure, he shrank away from my hand as far as he could without standing up. His body might have been glued to the floorboards. And so, stepping back, I looked him over. He was a male, about seven months old. With his long muzzle and large, upright ears, he looked at first glance like a white German shepherd. But he wasn't quite as lanky as a German shepherd. Rather, he was square-bodied, more like a yellow Lab. Nose-tip to tail-tip, he was about four and a half feet long, and he seemed to weigh between sixty and seventy pounds. His fur was short and white, and was mostly guard hairs, with very little undercoat. His skin was pink; his ears were also pink where the sunlight shone through, but his eyes were dark. So was his nose, fading to pink where it entered his fur. In short, he was handsome. I thought he would stand up.
Strangely though, however long I smiled my welcome, he simply hunkered low and didn't move. Wondering if he'd been hurt, I tried to examine him, but saw no blood or bruises. I did, however, notice a long surgical scar up his left foreleg and over his shoulder, He'd had an operation. Perhaps he'd been hit by a car. His hair, which had been shaved for the surgery, was still growing back. Otherwise he seemed very beautiful and clean, in excellent physical condition. Although he had no collar, no tag, no identification of any kind, someone seemed to have cared about him.
Because I was concerned about my mother — we were leaving for the hospital — I couldn't do anything for the dog except to call the dog officer at the local humane society. I couldn't even invite the dog in, since no one would be there to answer the door when the dog officer came. So I left him on the porch. When I returned alone very late that night the dog was still there.
It was cold, but, because I had become even more preoccupied with my mother and not at all able to take responsibility for a stray dog, I again left him outside, hoping that he'd travel on or that, somehow, his owners would find him. Before going to bed I called the dog officer again, but didn't reach him, so I left a message on his answering machine. But in the morning the dog was still lying on the porch.
I left a new message for the dog officer before returning to the hospital, but the dog was still on the porch that night when I came back again. By then, the temperature had fallen seriously, turning uncomfortable weather into dangerous weather. Without shelter, the dog faced hypothermia. Also, he hadn't had food or water for at least two days.
I sat down on the step beside this white dog. Trembling hard, he glanced sideways at me. I talked to him calmly and quietly for a while, my head partly turned in his direction but my eyes averted. At last he looked straight at me, ears low. I stood up slowly. He did the same, the first time I'd seen him on his feet, and reluctantly he let me touch him very gently, although he shrank away from my hand. After a while I unlocked the front door and went in, leaving it open behind me. An icy wind followed. Soon, the dog did too.
As he stood alone in the hallway, uncertain and uncomfortable, I searched in the kitchen for something I could feed him, and found a bag of dog food left uneaten by my mother's late but much beloved black Labrador, Micah. In solemn silence, the white dog ate dear Micah's food. When he finished, he looked at me steadily for a moment and then, suddenly, surprisingly, his face lit up and he frisked very briefly, raising both front feet together in a little leap. For just that instant, he seemed happy. Then he got hold of himself again, had a long drink of water, and curled up on a blanket I had placed near a radiator, where he soon fell asleep. Perhaps he had been too cold to sleep while he was on the porch, or perhaps he had been keeping a vigil for his people. In the warm house, with his hunger satisfied, he could no longer stay awake.
In the morning before departing for the hospital, I left him in the house with food, water, and a blanket, and from my mother's hospital room began an intensive search for his owners. Before the day was over I had notified all the local newspapers and radio stations and had answered all the lost dog ads, each and every one, even the ads for dogs whose descriptions in no way matched the dog on the doorstep. By evening, I had called the dog officer of every community within a radius of thirty miles because I had known two huskies, Suessi's parents, who would travel that distance. I had also called everyone I knew who might adopt the dog if the owners could not be found. And by the time my mother was discharged on the third day, I had made up dozens of fliers which I tacked to trees or posted on the bulletin boards of supermarkets and other stores. In addition, I also walked the white dog on a leash, hoping he could lead me to his home, and I drove him around in the car to see if any neighborhood seemed familiar to him. But none did.
To find his owners began to seem hopeless. I wondered if the dog had been stolen from far away, then transported to my mother's neighborhood and released there. I considered bringing him to one of the local humane societies even though I knew that after a few days he would be put to death in the very likely event that no one came along to adopt him. But I closed my mind to this possibility because at the time, although it shames me to admit it, I didn't want a dog like him. Our three elderly dogs in their well-ordered group would never have welcomed a pup or an outsider. Nor would my husband, who didn't want another animal of any description. And even though I myself was always open to another dog, I hadn't planned to get one until the three elderly dogs were no longer living.
And when that time came, I planned to get a capable, adult dog whom I could learn from — a sophisticated dog who had been well educated by other dogs. I wanted a dingo, perhaps, or an Indian dog from northern Canada or a pariah dog from a Third World village. I certainly didn't want a purebred American dog, or even a mix of purebred dogs, which was what the white stray seemed to be.
The notion of breeding dogs to a standard of appearance has always seemed peculiar to me. The important features of a dog are his brains and his persona, so that some of the best members of the dog family are, say, ordinary working sheepdogs in the backcountry of Australia, or ordinary village dogs in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, or, for that matter, ordinary dingoes or coyotes or jackals or wolves. So I didn't want a purebred dog, or even a cross between two purebred dogs. I knew that any pedigreed strains in the white dog's makeup were not his fault by any means, but I felt sure the strains were there, and I didn't want him.
Yet after four days in his company, I began to feel very moved by the quiet, forsaken youngster. Like a professional soldier he seemed alert yet disciplined, quietly ready at all times to do anything that his superiors might command. I'd catch him watching me out of the corner of his eye, asking for nothing, assuming nothing, but even so, surely wondering what his fate at my hands would be. I couldn't help but feel his isolation, or admire his reserve, his pride, his delicacy, and his intelligence, and soon I began to ask myself what, after all, is really so wrong with a few purebred strains? I continued to search for his owners, of course, but with decreasing dedication, until at last I dreaded to hear the phone ring for fear I had found them.
My husband, Steve, was still not ready to take on another pet of any description, but by then I was hopelessly attached to this white dog, and he to me. His pale fur and his chilled, obscure persona reminded me of a certain sundog, a hazy, frosty image of the sun that Steve and I once saw below the real sun on an icy winter day. And against Steve's wishes I, Elizabeth, took the white dog, Sundog, to be my dog, to love him and to cherish him, for better or for worse, in sickness or in health, for as long as we both should live. So too had he, Sundog, taken me, Elizabeth, to be his lawful person, for better or for worse, whatever might befall us, until death would us part. Somehow, in spite of his long vigil on the porch, in spite of all my efforts to find his owners, and before either of us fully understood what was happening between us, the white dog and I became one.CHAPTER 2
When Sundog first came, our household contained two distinct groups. The members of one group were dogs — the elderly Suessi, Fatima, and Inookshook — and the members of the other group were people — my husband and me. We had no cats or other kinds of pets, as the husky and the dingo-dog crosses would have shredded them. As groups we kept more or less apart, each friendly with the other but separate nevertheless as we minded our own business and involved ourselves only with the affairs of our own kind. When Steve and I took walks, for instance, it didn't occur to these dogs to come along. They would have been welcome to join us, of course, and because of the dog-door and the fact that they were free to choose their own activities, they could have joined us if they wished.
They never did. Like people who take very little notice of animals, they viewed our doings incuriously. They took walks often enough, but only with one another and only to places of their own choosing, and whenever Steve and I set off, instead of following us as other dogs might, they merely watched without much interest until we were out of sight. In the same spirit, they paid very little attention to human visitors. They never barked when a car drove up or bothered to investigate whoever got out, rightly assuming that we, the human beings, would keep the newcomers under control, and that the reason for the visit would not be interesting or important in a dog's eyes. They also found no cause for excitement when, one night, a burglar entered our home and hence they did nothing to stop him. Invasion by a strange dog would have been an entirely different matter, but the burglar was a person and dogs weren't involved. Then as always the old dogs had minded their own business — dog business — just as Steve and I always minded ours. After all, if a dog passed by on the road, it didn't occur to Steve and me to wonder if our domain was under invasion. Nor did we concern ourselves with the coyotes. As far as we were concerned, they were welcome to come out of the woods if they wanted to. (If a person were to emerge from the woods, however, we might have taken him for a poacher and called the game warden.) We all were very species-oriented in those days.
When my mother was well enough for me to leave her, Steve came down from New Hampshire to get me, and drove me and Sundog home. Perhaps Steve hadn't wanted another dog, but he was very understanding about this one, and wondered aloud how our old dogs would behave toward him. It seemed possible that because the old dogs had once belonged to a much larger pack, they might be glad to see their number increase again, even if only by one. But our hopes were in vain. We might as well have expected that three elderly residents of a retirement community would invite a lonely teenage stranger into their rooms from the streets.
At first, Sundog saw things differently. He sensed no distinction between himself and the old dogs. He was a dog — a forsaken, lonely dog — and they were dogs too. As we came up the driveway, he was overjoyed to see them standing on the lawn, and when he got out of the car he ran to them offering a young dog's friendly greeting — his knees and elbows bent, his chin high, his neck stretched, his head and ears politely low, and the tip of his tail repressed but nevertheless waving — waiting for their inspection and their welcome, which would release him to wag not only his tail but also his entire body with all the enthusiasm in his young heart.
But the three old dogs scarcely bothered to find out who he was, giving him little sign of recognition and no welcome. He might not have been a dog, for all of them. He persisted, kissing the corners of their lips to emphasize that he was young and eager to honor them as his elders, but they bared their teeth, withdrew their faces, and walked away from him.
Excerpted from The Social Lives of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Copyright © 2000 Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is an acclaimed American anthropologist and author who has published a variety of fiction and nonfiction, including the international bestsellers The Hidden Life of Dogs and The Tribe of Tiger. After spending her early life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Thomas studied at both Smith and Radcliffe Colleges, and in 1962 won a Guggenheim Fellowship for Social Sciences. She currently lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire.
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