Long before the Dog Whisperer, anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas revealed to readers the nature of pack dynamics, leading to a completely new understanding of dogs, their personalities, and their desires.
Based on thirty years of living with and observing dogs, The Hidden Life of Dogs asks one question: What do dogs want? To find out, we must meet the pack. First there is Misha, a husky Thomas followed on her daily rounds of more than 130 square miles. Then there is Maria, who adored Misha, bore his puppies, and clearly mourned when he moved away; the brave pug Bingo and his little wife, Violet; the dingo Viva; and other colorful characters.
In observing them, Thomas learned that what dogs want most of all is other dogs. Informative and captivating, The Hidden Life of Dogs will give every canine owner and canine lover great insight into dog behavior.
“A wonderful book . . . Too bad dogs can’t read. They’d be fascinated. Dog people will be too.” —USA Today
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I began observing dogs by accident. While friends spent six months in Europe, I took care of their husky, Misha. An agreeable two-year-old Siberian with long, thin legs and short, thick hair, Misha could jump most fences and travel freely. He jumped our fence the day I took him in. A law requiring that dogs be leashed was in effect in our home city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also in most of the surrounding communities. As Misha violated the law I would receive complaints about him, and with the help of these complaints, some from more than six miles distant, I soon was able to establish that he had developed a home range of approximately 130 square miles. This proved to be merely a preliminary home range, which later he expanded considerably, but interestingly enough, even young Misha's first range was much larger than the ranges of homeless dogs reported in Baltimore by the behavioral scientist Alan Beck. Beck's urban strays had established tiny ranges of but 0.1 to 0.06 square mile. In contrast, Misha's range more closely resembled the 200- to 500-square-mile territories roamed by wolves, most notably the wolves reported by Adolph Murie in "The Wolves of Mount McKinley" and by L. David Mech in "The Wolves of Isle Royale." What was Misha doing?
Obviously, something unusual. Here was a dog who, despite his youth, could navigate flawlessly, finding his way to and from all corners of the city by day and by night. Here was a dog who could evade dangerous traffic and escape the dog officers and the dognappers who at the time supplied the flourishing laboratories of Cambridge with experimental animals. Here was a dog who never fell through the ice on the Charles River, a dog who never touched the poison baits set out by certain citizens for raccoons and other trash-marauders, a dog who never was mauled by other dogs. Misha always came back from his journeys feeling fine, ready for a light meal and a rest before going out again. How did he do it?
For a while I looked for the answer in journals and books, availing myself of the fine libraries at Harvard and reading everything I could about dogs to see if somewhere the light of science had penetrated this corner of dark. But I found nothing. Despite a vast array of publications on dogs, virtually nobody, neither scientist nor layman, had ever bothered to ask what dogs do when left to themselves. The few studies of free-ranging dogs concerned feral dogs, abandoned or homeless dogs. Alone in hostile settings, these forsaken creatures were surely under terrible stress. After all, they were not living under conditions that were natural to them, any more than are wild animals in captivity, imprisoned in laboratories and zoos. How might dogs conduct themselves if left undisturbed in normal circumstances? No one, apparently, had ever asked.
At first, that science had ignored the question seemed amazing. But was it really? We tend to study animals for what they can teach us about ourselves or for facts that we can turn to our advantage. Most of us have little interest in the aspects of their lives that do not involve us. But dogs? Dogs do involve us. They have shared our lives for twenty thousand years. How then had we managed to learn so little about dogs that we could not answer the simplest question: what do they want?
Our ignorance becomes more blameworthy when we consider that no animal could be easier to study. Unlike wild animals, dogs are not afraid of us. To study them we need not invade their habitat or imprison them in ours — our world is their natural habitat and always was. Furthermore, because their wild ancestors were not dogs at all but wolves, dogs have never even existed as a wild species. As a result we have had the opportunity to observe dogs since dogs began, an opportunity that for the most part we have chosen to ignore. Hence, curled on the sofa beside me of an evening was a creature of mystery: an agreeable dog with a life of his own, a life that he had no wish to conceal and that he was managing with all the competence of a wild animal, not with any help from human beings but in spite of them.
One evening he got up and stretched, preparatory to voyaging. First he braced his hind legs and stretched backward, head bowed, rump high, to pull tight the muscles of his shoulders. Then he raised his head and dropped his hips to stretch his spine and hind legs, even clenching his hind feet into fists so that the stretch went into his toes. Ready at last, he moved calmly toward the door so that, as usual, I could open it for him. And then, as our eyes met, I had an inspiration. Misha himself would answer my questions. Right in front of me, a long-neglected gate to the animal kingdom seemed waiting to be opened. Misha held the key.
Who could resist the appeal of this notion? No money, no travel, no training, no special instruments were necessary to probe the mystery — one needed only a dog, a notebook, and a pencil. I didn't even regret my total lack of formal training to begin such a project. In fact, because no biologists had ever hinted that they knew or even wondered what ordinary dogs want, my ignorance seemed almost a qualification. Anyway, I didn't feel I'd be ignorant for long. Turning out the lights so that the neighbors wouldn't see me flout the dog laws, at least not in this instance, I opened the door a crack. Out slipped Misha, with me right behind him, and thus our project began.
Again and again we did this, at least two or three nights a week for almost two years, not stopping even after Misha's owners came home to claim him, because by then Misha liked the work we were doing together and wanted to keep at it. Coming to collect me was not difficult for him — his community did not then have a leash law, so of an evening, after his owners let him out, he'd jump their fence and make his way across two cities to find me. Usually he would arrive after dark. By the light on our front porch I'd see him standing in the street, looking up at our windows like a captain looking for a sailor. I would turn out the porch light and crack the door, and Misha would slip inside for a brief visit with my family and also with his, for by then he had married my daughter's husky, the beautiful Maria, and was teaching some of his skills to the four children he had fathered on her. But eventually he would stand poised to go out again, looking back over his shoulder to see which of us would travel with him. Maria always volunteered, and if I wasn't going myself I'd sometimes let her. It was her or me, though, never both of us; if Maria and Misha were together, they traveled fast and wouldn't wait for me. Sometimes I took Maria on a leash, which kept us all together, but mostly I simply went alone with Misha. One by one, dog secrets were revealed through a series of adventures, some of them dangerous, all of them interesting. Misha was Odysseus, and Cambridge was the wine-dark sea.
The first question, perhaps the most important, perhaps even the most interesting, I was never able to answer. This was the question of Misha's navigational skills. To be sure, he had been traveling the streets of Cambridge long before I thought to go with him, and had probably memorized some landmarks. But sometimes he seemed to travel without the aid of landmarks, or at least not with the landmarks he had used to get where he was going, since once he had arrived at his destination, he might easily take another route home. Did heuse the stars or the position of the sun? Did he see polarized light? Did he, like a carrier pigeon, hear the infrasound made by the Atlantic Ocean, so that he always knew which way was east? Did he use odors floating in the air, as fish use the taste of currents in seawater? I didn't know, and could learn nothing by watching his sure trot, his confident demeanor. To probe more deeply would have required an experiment — blindfolding him, say, and taking him to some distant release point. But that wasn't the nature of our relationship.
I did learn two things, though, about Misha's navigational ability. The first was that his skills were probably not innate, or not entirely so. If they had been, other huskies should have shared them. But I knew other Siberian huskies who could not navigate. One was Misha's wife, Maria. When they were together, Misha established the route for both of them, and not easily, because she, young and enthusiastic, would go bounding ahead of him, often in the wrong direction, requiring him to overtake her. Then, by jumping at her, he would literally have to knock her in the shoulder to try to make her turn. If after all his efforts she still wouldn't go where he wanted, he would resign himself to following her.
Many another dog would have obeyed her leader, but Maria had been a little spoiled by Misha, who encouraged her to do whatever she wanted, even when he knew that what she wanted was wrong. Of the two, he was unquestionably the stronger and could very easily have been dominant, but he was crazy about her. He let her do as she pleased, which seemed to delight her. As a result, though, Maria never learned to find her own way.
In this the dogs were like two people in a car, with the driver learning the route better and more easily than the passenger. And in later years, when Misha was no longer there to show the way, Maria invariably got lost when voyaging. Even when she went out with her adopted daughter, a dingo-spaniel cross named Fatima, who was an excellent navigator, they would get lost. Why? Because in the hierarchy of their group, Maria was at the very top, while Fatima, a generation below, was next to the bottom, and when Fatima traveled with Maria, Maria insisted on leading. Dominant but misinformed, Maria often bungled the job. But she wasn't stupid, even if she couldn't navigate. As soon as she realized she was lost, rather than turning to Fatima for a suggestion, she would simply sit down on someone's doorstep. Fatima would obediently sit down beside her, and eventually I would appear in a car to drive them home. Of course, the people whose house Maria had chosen would have read her identification tag and phoned me, but the particulars of my arrival didn't concern Maria. With her faithful daughter at her heels, she would clamber into the car like a tired shopper getting into a taxi, always to the puzzlement of her benefactors, who, assuming that a lost dog is a frightened dog, would be expecting her to rejoice profusely at the sight of me.
The second thing I learned about Misha's ability to navigate was that although he made his way faultlessly through the city, his technique didn't necessarily apply in the country, especially if he hadn't reached the starting point on his own. From my house in Cambridge, he and Maria sometimes traveled on their own as far as Concord, about twenty miles away, and would successfully find their way home a few days later, sometimes with deer hair in their stools. But if I took these dogs with me when I went to visit relatives in New Hampshire or on Nantucket, and if then the dogs went voyaging, Misha wasn't always able to lead Maria back to my relatives' home. Perhaps he felt less sure of himself in unfamiliar surroundings, and would surrender to her inept leadership. Whatever the reason, if both got lost in the country, they would use Maria's technique for getting home and wait on someone's doorstep for me to show up in the car.
Another very important skill of Misha's was his management of traffic. Cambridge suffers from some of the worst drivers in the nation, but no car as much as touched Misha, who, like a civil engineer, had divided the streets and their traffic into four categories and had developed different strategies to deal with each. The worst and most dangerous areas were congestions of multidirectional traffic, such as are found in Central, Porter, or Harvard Square. These areas Misha completely avoided. If he needed to be on the far side of one of them, he simply went around it. The second category was composed of a few limited-access highways, such as Alewife Parkway and Memorial Drive, where the heavy traffic of speeding cars was especially dangerous to dogs, not only because no legal or moral responsibility is attached to killing a dog, but also because dogs are down low, where motorists can't see them. Misha couldn't avoid the highways and still go where he wanted, so, adopting a humble attitude, he approached the cars with diplomacy and tact in an attempt to appease them.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many dogs treat cars as if they were animate. Dogs who chase cars evidently see them as large, unruly ungulates badly in need of discipline and shepherding, and can't help trying to control them. But Misha didn't chase cars. Being a husky and wearing very lightly the long domestication of his species, he felt no compulsion to assist mankind. However, he well understood that cars could be tremendously dangerous, especially when they seemed to be acting angrily and willfully, as they did on the limited-access highways. So he offered them respect. At the edge of the highway Misha would stand humbly, his head and tail low, his eyes half shut, his ears politely folded. If the cars could have seen him, they would have realized that he didn't challenge their authority.
But the moment the cars became few, Misha's humility would vanish. His ears would rise, his tail too, and he would bound fearlessly among them, the very picture of confidence. Over the highway he would skip, and go happily on his way. Never while I was observing him did I hear a scream of tires. Sometimes, though, he would lose me beside a limited-access highway. I lacked his courage, also his speed and skill, and I usually had to wait much longer than he did before the traffic conditions met my requirements for crossing. If traffic separated us, Misha would wait for a while on the far side, but sooner or later he would assume that I had lost interest and would travel on. Calling him back was out of the question for me — I couldn't have asked him to risk the traffic again on my behalf. Rather, if we became separated, I would simply go home. There he would find me waiting whenever his voyaging abated for a time.
Misha's third category of traffic included the main city streets. Cambridge's famous Brattle Street offers a perfect example, especially because Misha often used this street as a thoroughfare. Or rather, he used the sidewalk of Brattle Street as he traveled from one neighborhood to another, just as a human pedestrian would do. When crossing an intersecting street, however, Misha used a better and more intelligent method than his human counterparts. Unlike us, he didn't cross at the corner. Instead, he would turn up the intersecting street and go about twenty feet from the corner, cross there, and return on the sidewalk to Brattle Street's sidewalk, where he would continue his journey. At first I couldn't understand this maneuver, although Misha invariably used it. Then I saw its merits, and copied him thereafter. Why is Misha's method safer? Because at any point along the block, traffic comes from only two directions instead of from four directions, as it does at the intersection. By crossing at midblock, one reduces one's chances of being hit by a turning car. Since learning the midblock technique from Misha, I have noticed that almost all free-ranging dogs do likewise, as do people who need extra time to cross or who depend on their hearing for safety. Certain blind people, for instance, use the same technique.
Safety, however, was not Misha's only consideration. Usually, a tree or lamppost or mailbox or fire hydrant stands just behind the building line at the place where a traveling dog likes to cross the street. For dogs, the object serves the same function as a wayside inn at the ford of a river, a place that most travelers would visit of necessity, and therefore a good place to leave a message or a sign. Misha would visit these fixed objects, and after careful investigation would turn around and lift his leg. This is a very familiar sight to most dog owners. Virtually all male dogs mark permanent items (or what they believe to be permanent items) as they progress along a street. Sometimes Misha would mark repeatedly, passing a little urine, investigating his stain, and passing urine again, sometimes repeating the procedure as many as five or six times before he seemed satisfied and ready to carry on. Sometimes he rotated his body until his belly tilted upward, meanwhile standing on tiptoe to place his mark almost three feet above the ground. But even these very high stains did not always please him. If they weren't to his satisfaction, he would turn around and stretch even more, so that when he investigated, he would find his mark at his own eye level or higher.
Excerpted from "The Hidden Life of Dogs"
Copyright © 1993 Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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