We of the human species Homo sapiens believe our kind to be perched securely on the topmost branch of the evolutionary tree. We see ourselves as the most highly developed, and as masters of “the beasts of the field,” to borrow a familiar phrase from Isaiah in the Old Testament.
But while there are many things the so-called beasts cannot do, at least by our reckoning, some display what seem to be uncanny abilities. Awareness is one of the most notable and evident; awareness that sometimes seems to border on the psychic. Perhaps we’re just missing the cue or the signal that a non-human creature picks up. But at times it does seem like they have the proverbial sixth sense.
When my family and I lived in town, before our recent move to a rural location, there were more than a few dogs in our neighborhood. Our chocolate Labrador, Bella, lived with us in our home, rather than outdoors in a kennel. As a result, we had ample opportunity to see a canine demonstrate this kind of acute animal awareness.
Many were the times that Bella would break into a barking jag, for no apparent reason. With all the doors and windows closed, curtains drawn and shades pulled down—and no sound or other sign that we could perceive—we would puzzle over the motivation for her barking. Almost without fail, a look out a window or doorway would reveal someone on foot in the street or on the sidewalk beyond, with a dog on a leash.
How did Bella know? Some will say that it’s a dog’s hearing, pointing out that canines are believed to have hearing sensitivity that is two to four times as great as a human—depending on the age, health, and breed of the dog. While admitting that I belong to a more sensory-deficient species, I still find it hard to believe that Bella could hear a dog walking outside through insulated walls, doors and windows, at a distance of 60 feet and more. But I’ve been wrong before.
There are other animal perceptions that may not be exactly uncanny, or attributable to supernatural senses, but are impressive nonetheless. Those whose dogs live with them in their home, like us, understandably have the closest human-canine relationships, and see these things most often.
Empty-nesters sometimes have bonds with their pets that resemble a parent and child. That’s us, too. Bella is a back-seat passenger when we run errands, is granted couch space when we’re watching the news or a Netflix episode in the family room, and even has—some may consider this a taboo—snooze-on-the-bed rights when she needs a nap.
Perhaps worse, in our parental weakness we have a habit of sharing with Bella a bite or two of our human food. She’s not a “table scraps” dog. She eats high performance dog food, and gets daily workouts year-round. But if—for example—I make a solid breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast, she gets occasional bits as I consume the lion’s share of my portions.
A downside is that whenever a food she likes is being prepared, she’ll come from wherever in the house she happens to be, expecting to share. Even if I’m stealthy, no matter if she’s on a different floor of the house, she knows. Is it the barely audible sound of the toaster? Is it the wafting of scent as a brick of cheddar cheese is surreptitiously and quietly cut, or a plastic peanut butter tub is opened? Is it the crinkle of the plastic liner as I pour from a box of sugary cereal? Though I might prefer to eat in peace, it takes extraordinary measures to defeat her senses.
Then there are errands. Apart from the companionship, Bella knows that accompanying us on errands often includes a detour through the Starbuck’s drive-through, which for her means a “pupaccino.” This is a tiny cup of whipped cream that the purveyor of coffee and latte has come up with to compete with the “pup cup” of soft-serve ice cream—garnished with a dog biscuit—at the Dairy Queen. (Bella is equally accepting of either!)
She knows without being told when errands are on the agenda. When my wife dresses in good clothes instead of her around-the-house work togs, or puts on make-up first thing in the morning, Bella knows this will not be a mundane, stay-home day, and there is likely to be a treat in it for her. When she’s picked up a signal, he’ll stick to my wife like glue to avoid being left behind, and nothing—not food, a tennis ball, or a new leather dog chew—will cause her to be distracted.
She gets fooled from time to time, though. Some trips to town involve banking, and a pass through a drive-up teller lane. She has been known to whine in protest when all that comes back through the pneumatic tube with the cash or the receipt is a dog biscuit, sans whipped cream or soft-serve ice cream. She will also whine if the line of cars is long and tests her patience.
There are also certain words that will bring her to rigid attention. This is not miraculous, since oral commands are a normal part of dog training. But it’s interesting that uttering a single word can convey a message as surely as an electric shock. “Take” is such a word: “I’m going to take Bella to the field and throw tennis balls.” Or “I’m going to take Bella for a swim.” Or “I’m going for gas, and I’ll take Bella.” For good or ill, whenever he hears that word, she comes doing double-time, cocking her head as if seeking a confirmation: “Did you say ‘take’?”
Dogs are certainly not the only pet with which one can have a close and emotional relationship. But there is a reason behind the label “man’s best friend,” a generous and complementary expression attributed to 18th century King Frederick the Great of Prussia, later popularized in verse by the American poet and humorist Ogden Nash.
Part of this reputation can be attributed—in many canines, at least—to pleasant disposition, a desire to please, and pure companionship. Not so unlike what we might appreciate in a human companion. And, not to be ignored, intuition, which dogs seem to have in abundance; somehow the dog just knows.