The heart of a dog: an elegy

The heart of a dog: an elegy

I haven’t felt able to write for the last few days. As if January 2017 wasn’t bad enough – paint it battleship grey with a cold, steel heart – our beloved dog passed away on Saturday. If those words arouse no strong feeling of empathy, it’s OK, you can leave now. We dog lovers know there are many who don’t share our passion. Continue reading “The heart of a dog: an elegy”

Walking the Dee shore at Thurstaston with birthday dog

Walking the Dee shore at Thurstaston with birthday dog

Thursaston 1

Thurstaston Country Park: keep away from the cliff edge

The sun was shining, but the forecast was bad. Nevertheless, we decided to take a chance on a walk since it was our dog’s 4th birthday a day or so ago.  We headed off to one of our favourite spots (and, more importantly, the dog’s): to walk along the Dee shore at Thurstaston.

Thursaston 2

It was never so blue…

We set off so quickly I forgot to take my camera.  But I snatched I few shots on my phone: they’re better than nothing, but a little dark and strangely blue.

We parked at the Wirral Country Park centre at the bottom of station road (the car park is actually situated between what once were the platforms of the railway station here).  We walked across the field to the edge of the low clay cliffs where signs warned of the dangerous state of the cliffs.  This place is a favourite, too, of fellow Liverpool blogger Ronnie Hughes who, in a recent post, described the erosion of the soft mudstone clifffs by the December storm surges.

Thursaston 3

We headed down the path to the shore, battered by the pretty fierce wind that was blowing onshore.  Down on the shore, we could see the evidence of the cliff erosion for ourselves.

Thursaston 4

Looking out across the estuary, we marvelled at how we lived in the city, yet in half an hour could be walking in a place like this – wild and quite lonely, but for a few other walkers and their dogs.  Fancy ones, some of them: we met a bouncy 6-month old Cockapoo.  Terrible name for a delightful, and very popular, new ‘designer dog’.

Thursaston 5

The tide was right out, so not the best time to see many of the wading birds that congregate here in great numbers (and we had forgotten the binoculars, too!)  We did see plenty of Oystercatchers and Dunlin, though.  According to the Dee Estuary Birding website there were Whooper Swans and Bewick Swans here in great numbers just yesterday.  We had seen these fine birds in high definition on our telly only this week, thanks to that great BBC institution, Winterwatch.

The shore here is a rich feeding area for Shelduck, Oystercatchers, Knot and Dunlin, but we were here at the wrong time.  According to the Birding website, if you come down to this shore three hours before a big high tide you will be rewarded with the sight of thousands of birds slowly being pushed up river and massing close inshore.

Thursaston 7

After half an hour or so, we could see the cloud thickening and the sky darkening over the Welsh hills opposite.  Inexorably, the clouds advanced and we turned into the wind to walk back the way we had come.

We didn’t make it back before the rain reached us, driven by the wind we were buffeted and soon soaked.  But this was, perhaps, the high point of the walk because, perhaps stirred by the wind and rain, a dense flock of several hundred Oystercatchers rose in unison, to fly up river, tracing a calligraphic line parallel to the shore.  It was a sight worth getting wet for.  Driving back across the Wirral to Liverpool the sky turned as black as night and the rain lashed down, almost defeating the wipers.  Darkness at the break of noon.

Thursaston dog

The dog trots freely

Here’s my favourite dog poem for the birthday dog: ‘Dog’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality
Drunks in doorways
Moons on trees
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows
their heads a block away
The dog trots freely in the street
and the things he smells
smell something like himself
The dog trots freely in the street
past puddles and babies
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen
He doesn’t hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
and past the dead cows hung up whole
in front of the San Francisco Meat Market
He would rather eat a tender cow
than a tough policeman
though either might do
And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit’s Tower
and past Congressman Doyle of the Unamerican Committee
He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower
but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
very depressing
very absurd
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself
But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled
Congressman Doyle is just another
fire hydrant
to him
The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog’s life to live
and to think about
and to reflect upon
touching and tasting and testing everything
investigating everything
without benefit of perjury
a real realist
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
                 barking
                                 democratic dog
engaged in real
                             free enterprise
with something to say
                                         about ontology
something to say
                                about reality
                                                          and how to see it
                                                                                           and how to hear it
with his head cocked sideways
                                                        at streetcorners
as if he is just about to have
                                                   his picture taken
                                                                                   for Victor Records
listening for
                        His Master’s Voice
                 and looking
                                        like a living questionmark
                                                        into the
                                                                       great gramophone
                                                                        of puzzling existence
                            with its wondrous hollow horn
                                 which always seems
                              just about to spout forth
                                                                 some Victorious answer
                                                                                    to everything

See also

The dog trots freely

We first noticed him the other night on the TV news showing the riots in Athens: a dog, nonchantly trotting between the lines of riot police and protesters. It turns out that this dog has been seen at nearly every demonstration in Athens over the last two years and has appeared again during the protests against the EU-IMF austerity measures. Naturally, there’s a Facebook page devoted to the dog, which is apparently called Kanellos.

The photos of this Greek rebel dog brought to mind Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s rather wonderful poem, Dog, from the mid-1950s that honours a similarly ‘real live / barking / democratic dog’ that ‘doesn’t hate cops / He merely has no use for them’. The poem is a swipe against corrupt political bosses and the activities of one Congressman Doyle, a member of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee at the time. For the dog, as for Ferlinghetti, ‘Congressman Doyle is just another / fire hydrant’.

The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality

Drunks in doorways
Moons on trees

The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows
their heads a block away

The dog trots freely in the street
and the things he smells
smell something like himself

The dog trots freely in the street
past puddles and babies
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen

He doesn’t hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
and past the dead cows hung up whole
in front of the San Francisco Meat Market

He would rather eat a tender cow
than a tough policeman
though either might do

And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit’s Tower
and past Congressman Doyle of the Unamerican Committee
He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower
but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
very depressing
very absurd
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself

But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled

Congressman Doyle is just another
fire hydrant
to him

The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog’s life to live
and to think about
and to reflect upon
touching and tasting and testing everything
investigating everything
without benefit of perjury
a real realist
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
barking
democratic dog
engaged in real
free enterprise

with something to say
about ontology
something to say
about reality
and how to see it
and how to hear it

with his head cocked sideways
at streetcorners
as if he is just about to have
his picture taken
for Victor Records

listening for
His Master’s voice
and looking
like a living questionmark
into the
great gramophone
of puzzling existence
with its wondrous horn
which always seems
just about to spout forth
some Victorious answer
to everything

Dog, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Footnote, June 2011

Paul Mason meets the riot dog in this YouTube clip from Newsnight.

Inside of a Dog

I’ve been reading Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know,which aims “to take an informed imaginative leap inside of a dog — to see what it is like to be a dog; what the world is like from a dog’s point of view.”  Horowitz describes dogs as “anthropologists among us”, in the sense that they are constantly observing our actions, interpreting our behaviour and emotions so that, over time, they learn how to please us, control us, and persuade us to provide them with food, shelter and a place on the sofa.

Horowitz – a cognitive psychologist who has studied the behaviour of rhinos and bonobos as well as dogs – argues that, uniquely among animals, dogs  are keen observers — of humans. Though descended from wolves, this is what makes the domestic dog distinct from the wolf.  In one enormously important variation from wolf behaviour, she argues, dogs will look into our eyes.

“Though they have inherited some aversion to staring too long at eyes, dogs seem to be predisposed to inspect our faces for information, for reassurance, for guidance.”

Horowitz began her career observing bonobos. Scientists weren’t interested in dogs because they are “so familiar, so understood”. Then she took a camera to her local park to film other people’s dogs and, sitting through hours of footage, realised that she was watching “a complex dance requiring mutual cooperation, split-second communications and ­assessments of each other’s abilities and desires. The slightest turn of a head or the point of a nose now seemed directed, meaningful.”

Horowitz’s book is an attempt to understand the world from a dog’s perspective. She tells us that dogs have exceptionally sensitive nostrils: they can detect fear, anxiety or sadness, and know “if you’ve had sex, smoked a cigarette (done both these things in succession), just had a snack or just run a mile”. She passes on the results of research into dogs’ other senses,explaining how a dog’s retina works differently from ours – this is why dogs don’t watch TV – and what barking might mean.

Her work draws on that of an early-20th-­century German biologist, Jakob von Uexküll, who proposed that anyone who wants to understand the life of an animal must begin by considering what he called their umwelt: their subjective or ‘self-world.’

To explain this idea, Horowitz uses the example of  a rose.  A human might experience a rose as a beautiful shape, a bright colour or a heady perfume.  But for a dog beauty and colour is irrelevant, barely visible; the scent ignored. Only when it is adorned with some other important perfume – a recent spray of urine, perhaps — does the rose come alive for a dog.

Dogs, as any dog owner knows, sniff a lot. They are, says Horo­witz, “creatures of the nose.” To help us grasp the magnitude of the difference between the human and the canine olfactory umwelts, she tells us that, for example, a beagle nose has 300 million receptor sites, compared with a human being’s six million. Humans must exhale before we can inhale new air. Dogs do not. They breath in, then their nostrils quiver and pull the air deeper into the nose as well as out through side slits. Specialized photography reveals that the breeze generated by dog exhalation helps to pull more new scent in. In this way, dogs not only hold more scent in at once than we can, but also continuously refresh what they smell, without interruption, the way humans can keep “shifting their gaze to get another look.”

Dogs don’t just detect smells better than we can, they can also use this superior sense to ‘smell time’, Horowitz writes.

“Perspective, scale and distance are, after a fashion, in olfaction — but olfaction is fleeting. . . . Odours are less strong over time, so strength indicates newness; weakness, age. The future is smelled on the breeze that brings air from the place you’re headed.”

There are many more insights in this interesting book. It is an engagingly written survey of the current state of scientific knowledge of dog behaviour (with the research sources extensively cited at the end of the book). However, it has the drawback, for this reader at least, of a rather sugary American style.

Links

Dog Day Afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon

As noted elsewhere, this morning we walked a stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool canal – but the main event of the day had to be the arrival in our lives of this little bundle, now named Fudge. She’s 10 week old tricolour King Charles Cavalier, born on January 22.  We picked her up from the breeder’s home in Southport and brought her home to a gathering of camera-toting admirers.

Fudge: the papers are signed

An absence bounding at our side

We’ve lost our lovely companion of the last seven years – Tilly, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who came to us at around six years old from a breeder with whom she had produced a number of litters. With us, she settled into a life of domestic bliss after years of yard living. Extracting every possible degree of comfort from us: sleeping on laps, sofas, cushions and in the bedroom, she was totally devoted to us, as we to her. She relished life: bounding along on walks, luxuriating in the company of ourselves, our daughter or the two cats.

There is no better encapsulation of the feelings that a dog-lover has at a time like this than a passage from Jim Perrin’s Travels with the Flea, his account of walks through Wales with his little dog, Flea. The book ends with his description of the Flea’s death, and this comment:

You may not like dogs, or even animals at all, and if so, that’s your business and I have no desire to criticise.  This account may leave you quite cold.  My point in writing it is not self-indulgence or maudlin sentimentality but a need to express this: wherever and in whatever sphere our response to the world is predicated on love, we are increased in our dignity of sentient being, and the world is enhanced.  If you desire to counter that by pointing out that a love of animals is easy by comparison with love for our fellow human beings or our abused planet, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you, but questions of degree do not discount the essential point.  Love in its every form, so long as it’s possessed at root of a pure and disinterested concern for the other’s welfare – whoever or whatever that other may be – is our truest point of connection into the world we inhabit.

Perrin concludes:

It’s evening now.  F and I have been walking through the spring woods where the badgers live, and in the fields we’ve not ventured in since she went.  Everywhere, nature burgeoning.  There was the thinnest crescent moon in a pale sky, a single star rising, and an absence bounding at our side, reminding us, insisting upon how empty a world we inhabit when we lack the capacity to notice, to care, to love.