Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: Dogs Never Lie About Love (With a Bonus Story!)

Title: Dogs Never Lie About Love

Author: Jeffrey Masson

Author's web site:

Date: 1997

Publisher: Crown

ISBN: 0-609-60057-5

Length: 263 pages plus 11-page index

Illustrations: drawings by Jared T. Williams

Quote: “In the case of dogs, their emotional responses so resemble our own that we are tempted to assume identity; the joy of a dog appears to be identical to human joy…Yet we can never claim that we know precisely what a dog feels.”

That disclaimer appears in the introduction. In chapter one (page 3), Masson admits: “Does one ever know what another human being is actually feeling? It may be no harder to find out the truth about feelings in dogs than it is in people.”

It’s an interesting exercise for pet owners, of whom Masson is one, to reflect on the different things we actually feel that seem to fit under a clear, familiar heading. There are reasons why animals, even litter mates who look alike, attract such different names. If you live with pets called Sultan, Magic, Goofy, Sneaker, and Ginger, you’re announcing to other humans not only (a) that you like animals, but also (b) that you like each of those animals in a different way.

Masson tells us that other people named his dogs Sasha and Rajah, and he changed Rajah’s name to Rat-ki-rani “to correct the gender error, but…preserve the sound,” but there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Sasha was a young adult police-type dog when Masson acquired her, and was allowed to help choose the golden-retriever-mix puppies Rani and Sima who became the followers in her pack. In some Indian languages rajah means a ruling king, rani a queen mother or queen consort, and although rat ki rani literally means “queen of the night” it actually just means a night-blooming flower, a sort of jasmine, which “has a sweet smell”…and Rani is a beta dog, a natural follower with “a sweetness of disposition.” Once you know that rajah means a king, it becomes hard to use that name to refer to a beta animal. You will, like it or not, relate differently to your alpha dog than to your beta dog. Likewise you’ll sense a difference, as Masson does, between two kittens—brothers—whom he calls Raj and Saj: Raj being a short form of Rajah and Saj being a short form of Sanjaya, which literally means “victory” in Sanskrit but, Masson reminds himself and informs us, he chose as being the name of the king’s driver in a Sanskrit book he’s read.

“I wanted to pursue questions that had not yet been asked,” Masson explains, as his goal for acquiring this menagerie…although undoubtedly he wanted to enjoy the animals’ company, too, and to rescue all of them but Sasha from the horrors of confinement in animal shelters. “For example, can dogs feel gratitude or compassion? Scientists often take the line that whatever cannot be proved…should not be raised at all.” (Right, and I for one am all in favor of teaching middle school science without reference to evolutionism or creationism, or global warming or the impending ice age, or other questions of scientific theory that too many scientists have sneaky, venal, insufficient reasons to confuse with facts.) “Yet only by asking such questions, even if at present we are unable to answer them, can we think about a direction in which to take our inquiries.” These questions “stretch our imaginations, and that is always a useful exercise.” So “Some of what I write about will be from observation,but some will be pure speculation.”

He begins, in any case, with stories. Even in cases where psychologists can agree on what kind of emotions can be classified as gratitude and compassion in humans, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to study those emotions “scientifically.” Even to define those terms, gratitude and compassion, we have to begin with stories. Stories also make Dogs Never Lie About Love a fun read.

Masson begins with the theory (admittedly speculative) that wild canines and felines may have chosen to tame humans rather than vice versa. Humans have certainly bred domestic dogs and cats for traits that would be weaknesses in wild dogs and cats.Dogs and cats as we know them appear in human history only at a certain level of cultural sophistication. Did their wild ancestors sense that it would be useful to train humans to care for those puppies and kittens who just wouldn’t make it in “the wild”? Masson doubts that dogs think humans are “gods” but thinks, from the evidence, that they “love us because we are fun.”

He postulates that love is “the master emotion of dogs.” Feeding, according to experiments he cites (from back in 1954), is “not a necessary part of the development of the social bond.” (This I can confirm; I’ve been cherished, adored, even defended, by dogs I never fed, and although I’ve been deputized to feed, walk, and groom friends’ dogs, I agreed to do those things only after the dogs had made it clear that they considered me a friend.) Most human observers note that dogs show different levels of friendliness with different people. Masson observes this too: Sasha, the big strong wolfish alpha dog, greets friends with “a kind of howl mixed with a whine” and “smacks her lips and rubs her body against the person”; Rani “wags her tail, her whole body wags with it,” and Sima “cannot stop squealing and charging -round in circles…racing between the person…and that person’s dog, pushing her nose into the dog’s mouth.” These are obviously top-dog, middle-dog, and bottom-dog displays…yet they express friendliness as well as that sense of hierarchy. Masson resists the simplistic classification of dominant and submissive displays that most scientists use when describing dogs’ social behavior, and associates friendly-dog displays, both dominant and submissive, with the loyalty and protectiveness he discusses in the next chapter. 

But not all dogs always show loyalty when humans (or other dogs) might want or expect them to. Some might see the ability of one dog to traverse hundreds of miles to find its home, and the inability of another dog to remember which way home was after walking three blocks, as an indication that dogs’ cognitive capacities may vary as dramatically as their sizes do. Masson can’t prove it scientifically, but his discussion of dogs’ homing behavior under the heading of “loyalty” shows that he thinks dogs feel emotional love and loyalty for places as well as people…selectively.

Dogs’ dominant sense is smell. Scientists have devised ways to measure the relative perceptiveness of different individuals within and across species. They tell us that almost all cats have a much more highly developed sense of smell than any human, and almost all dogs have a much more highly developed senseof smell than almost any cat has. Do dogs think as they smell? “It is not entirely clear whether humans can think and feel at the same time…Smelling is so intense for dogs that it may well preclude…thinking.”

Masson can’t fully explain, although he’s intrigued by, dogs’ tendency to wallow in things that smell strong and often, to humans, foul. It’s a bottom-dog thing, he notes: in a submissive display a dog offers itself to be sniffed, whether the individual to whom it feels submissive is going to sniff it or not, and dogs who do that often seem to be the ones who want to cover themselves with extra scents. Masson cautiously postulates, however, that dogs like whatever they feel when doing their submissive displays. Dogs show love and loyalty to those whom they recognize as leaders or masters.

Masson cites Carol Lea Benjamin as saying that dogs become lonely, anxious, and “difficult” when forced to spend much time alone. Desmond Morris also observed that dogs “are social…and…also intensely exploratory. If they are deprived of companions” and variety, “they suffer. The worst mental punishment a dog can be given is to be kept alone in a tightly confined space where nothing varies.” Masson postulates that “Maybe what feels like loneliness to us feels like abandonment to a dog,” which might account for “the exuberant, often almost hysterical greetings” we receive from dogs ‘we have left only moments before.”

He finds stories of animals protecting friends of other species. “Skeptics may be reluctant to see any of these stories as examples of compassion…Yet feeling compassion and committing compassionate acts make sense from an evolutionary point of view. Solitary animals…do not need to show compassion to survive, and examples of compassion among the big cats are scarce. On the other hand, humans and dogs are social animals, and…must learn to get on with one another to survive… Rats are reluctant to press a lever to get food if doing so will also deliver an electric shock to a companion…and some will even forgo food rather than hurt their friends.”

Masson also suspects that dogs may feel humiliation, and thus even “remorse,” which Ludwig Wittgenstein specifically claimed dogs can’t feel. I tend to agree with him about this; I’ve not seen a positive clue that a dog has felt remorse, specifically, but I have seen dogs, cats, and even birds display what looked like clear nonverbal equivalents of “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that” after they’d hurt or scared someone. I suspect my social cats of genuine empathy.

Masson discusses the possibility that dogs also feel gratitude. I suspect dogs and cats of feeling gratitude, as well as empathy…and in this context I’ll even share a true story about a hen. 

Regular readers may remember that, eight or nine years ago, I adopted a shelter cat I called Dusty, who disgraced herself and was banished from the Cat Sanctuary after eating one of the chicks being brought up by a Game hen who was boarding there at the time. 

The other cats, even the giant kitten Graybelle, had been thoroughly cowed by the bigger of two Game hens, Lindsey. The smaller hen Rachelle had, however, been injured before she and her eggs had been brought to the Cat Sanctuary, and hadn’t been able to intimidate the cats. Rachelle had an interesting social life in that (a) she had never been at all friendly with humans, and (b) even before her injury she’d always been smaller than Lindsey, who was generally the dominant hen in what had been a large chicken family, but (c) she was dominant over Lindsey. 

So Dusty grabbed a chick, and while the chick was struggling and crying I ran after Dusty and tried to bribe her to release the chick with a treat. Dusty refused to be bribed; she killed the chick and ate part of it before I could grab her. I chose to display anger to all the resident animals and let everyone watch as I yelled at Dusty, shook her, and clipped all her claws down to the quick. Dusty scratched and bit during this punitive pedicure. I ignored her defensive reactions and put her on a short leash until someone hauled her away. 

The next day, when I delivered their feed, the baby chicks came to me in their usual friendly confiding way. Rachelle gave them her usual warning cluck, and then she looked at my arm; she saw the scratches Dusty had inflicted on me. She approached more closely than she'd ever approached a human before. I expected to be henpecked, because young and undomesticated chickens, attracted to the dark red color of dried blood or cooked meat, will usually bite at a scratch on human skin. 

Instead of biting at the scratches Rachelle ran her beak along one of them in a gentle, even caressing way, as if to say that she remembered how that scratch had happened. From that day forward Rachelle was my friend. Not a cuddly pet—I’ve never known a Game chicken who was anybody’s cuddly pet—but, in a dignified adult-to-adult way, my friend. She started to listen to my words; she stopped warning her chicks not to get close to me. (No, most chickens wouldn’t have had that much memory. Most chickens in North America have been systematically bred for extreme stupidity. Game chickens are one of the breeds that have not.) It was very hard for me to construe Rachelle's behavior as anything but expressing gratitude.

In a coda to the chapter on dog “dignity” Masson reports that the dog Sasha is “listening for some idea of what it is that I mean” by the word “soon.” Skeptical but not altogether unable to believe the claim that the owl Wesley had formed some concept of what his human meant by words referring to future time, I’ve tried, for myself, telling my cats things like “at dinnertime” or “soon” or “tonight, about sundown.” I think they’re learning these words. Then again, Ivy, a beloved Listening Cat, didn’t understand or trust the word “soon” enough to avoid going too far from home to meet me…

Masson discusses dogs’ aggressive behavior at some length. Dogs both play-fight and fight in earnest; “they can smell and feel the difference.” (In this chapter he mentions his cats liking “to rake their paws down the sides of my legs" as a form of play-fighting behavior. I’d classify this as territorial behavior; cats scent-mark everything in a variety of ways indicating their relationship to places, objects, and people, and my cat Polly, the only Cat Sanctuary cat who’s ever done this, was unmistakably saying, “I’m the Queen of the Cat Sanctuary now, and this is my human.”) The chapter ends with a fascinating, though somewhat hard to believe, report of a police dog who “attacked—not the woman, but his policeman partner, and took his club away” when a Bad Cop applied the club to a female suspect for no good reason.

The chapter about sadness in dogs is a sad read. Humans who have dogs put down “swear that the dogs know what is coming, and that the dogs seem to be forgiving them.” For humans who’ve ever considered our own demises and talked with loved ones about our choices regarding life support and suchlike, it’s not hard to believe that our pets may know and forgive us for making the kind of hard decisions we may have made for ourselves, or our parents, spouses, etc., may have made for themselves. There is also little doubt that animals other than humans feel that certain changes, other than painful disabilities, might make their lives not worth living—but the stories that illuminate those changes aren’t pleasant to read. Brace yourself.

Masson’s discussion of dogs’ dreams, their play, their relationships with cats and wolves, are inconclusive, but they contain several interesting dog stories.  

Finally…this book doesn’t end with its “conclusion” chapter. It contains another 53, count them, 53 pages of suggestions for further reading. Many of the books listed are likely to be familiar to readers. Most will be enjoyed, and Masson is generous with the pleasure of reading stories reported as true about animals, whether they’ve been reported in Experimental Neurology or published in books as successful as The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.

Anyone who enjoys this web site’s “animal” posts and links will enjoy Dogs Never Lie About Love. It's a Fair Trade Book; buy it here for $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, and we'll send $1 to Masson or a charity of his choice. You could fit another of Masson's books into the package for a total of $15 (on a postal order) or $16 (online), and Masson or his charity would get $2.