To anybody who spends a lot of time with animals, the march of science sometimes seems to lag common sense. Some years ago, I read an article in the New York Times about behavioral psychologists—university researchers with PhDs—who announced that after long study and many experiments, they’d concluded that dogs have emotions recognizably like our own.
I phoned my friend Randy, a veterinarian. Did this finding strike him as newsworthy? It did not.
“A [bleeping] dog,” he said “is emotions with a nose.”
Indeed, most dog lovers would say that dogs are rather more emotional than humans, mainly because the only feeling they sometimes hide is fear. Want to see joyous excitement? Pick up your dog’s leash and walk to the door. Dejection? Put it down and exit without him.
Whenever he’s left “alone” with the other 20-odd animals on our place, Jesse the Great Pyrenees acts as stricken as if he fears we’re never coming back. As for empathy, he’s often better at reading my wife’s moods than I am. Mine too. Any time I’m angry or frustrated about something, I’m getting a big white nose in my hand. Otherwise, he’s as stubborn and independent-minded as most of his livestock-guarding breed.
Fearless too. Best not to mess with a calf on Jesse’s watch. I once saw him throw a coyote about three feet, and then pick up and carry my neighbor’s baby goat back to its mama. Between him and his consort Maggie, we feel awfully safe around here. Although accepting of strangers, I believe they’d defend us with everything that’s in them.
The altruism of dogs, however, is something we’ve bred into them over thousands of years. Among the oldest products of human genetic engineering, dogs are pretty much what we’ve made them. Observing breeds of dog (not to mention pigeons) was one of the things that started Darwin thinking.
Other domestic animals exhibit cross-species empathy too. When I first learned to ride, my quarter horse Rusty got frightened by something and bolted. I lost a stirrup and decided to do an emergency dismount before I got thrown.
I was lying on my face in a winter wheat field, making sure I could still wiggle my toes, when I felt a tickling sensation on the back of my neck — Rusty’s whiskers. Instead of galloping back to the barn without me, he’d come back to make sure I was OK.
No philanthropist, on other occasions Rusty had untied himself and trotted home without me. The difference seemed to be his concern for my well-being.