It was twilight, so it was hard to tell exactly what the two dark lumps on the road were. Cruising at seventy miles an hour on the interstate, tucked between a station wagon and a semi, I was contentedly driving home from a herding dog trial. But as the black shapes got closer, my state of serenity shifted. They were dogs. Live dogs, at least for the moment. Straight out of a Walt Disney movie, an old Golden Retriever and an adolescent Heeler mix were trotting in and out of the highway, oblivious to the danger. Years ago I had watched a dog hit head-on by a car, and I'd give a lot to get the image out of my mind. It seemed inevitable that it was going to happen again.
I pulled off the road and parked behind another truck. Friends from the trial who were driving ahead of me had also seen the dogs. We exchanged terrified looks and ran back toward the dogs on our bank of the stream of traffic, the dogs across the lanes as if across a flooding river. They looked friendly, used to people, perhaps even happy to see something with legs instead of tires. Traffic was moving fast across all four lanes. Visibility was poor. The traffic noise was deafening; there was no way the dogs could have heard us speak to them. At just the wrong time, the dogs started ambling across the road to us. We threw out our arms like traffic cops and lunged forward to stop them. They stopped, a second before a Miller Beer truck would have hit them. For a moment we stood there frozen, terrified. The responsibility of doing just the right thing, of somehow interfering in a way that would save their lives rather than ensure their deaths weighed like a stone in our bellies.
We 'called' to them at a break in the traffic, bending over in a play bow and turning our bodies away to encourage them to come to us. Then we would turn and stop them like traffic cops when the cars in the next lane loomed over the hill, coming so fast, I was sure they'd be killed. This silent dance of life and death continued, our bodies turning back and forth, our only means of communicating through the noise of the traffic. It all seemed to happen at the speed of light, the dogs oblivious to the danger, moving forward toward us, then stopping, then backing up as we moved our own bodies to thread them through the traffic.
But that, plus a lot of good luck, was enough. Just by shifting forward with our arms out, we could stop the dogs, and by shifting backward and turning away, we could get them to move toward us. No leash, no collars, no control but the effect of our bodies, communicating 'come' and 'stop' with the turn of a torso. I still don't understand how they made it. But they did. I will forever be grateful for the responsiveness of a dog to the right visual signals.
All dogs are brilliant at perceiving the slightest movement that we make, and they assume that each tiny motion has meaning. So do we humans, if you think about it. Remember that minuscule turn of the head that caught your attention when you were dating? Think about how little someone's lips have to move to change a sweet smile into a smirk. How far does an eyebrow have to rise to change the message we read from the face it's on - a tenth of an inch?
You'd think that we would automatically generalize this common knowledge to our interactions with our dogs. But we don't. We are often oblivious to how we're moving around our dogs. It seems to be very human not to know what we're doing with our body, unconscious of where our hands are or that we just tilted our head. We radiate random signals like some crazed semaphore flag, while our dogs watch in confusion, their eyes rolling around in circles like cartoon dogs.
These visual signals, like all the rest of our actions, have a profound influence on what our dogs do. Who dogs are and how they behave are partly defined by who we humans are and how we ourselves behave. Domestic dogs, by definition, share their lives with another species: us. And so this is a book for dog lovers, but it's not only a book about dogs. It's also a book about people. It's a book about how we're the same as our dogs and how we're different from them.
Our species shares so much with dogs. If you look across the vast range of all animal life, from beetles to bears, humans and dogs are more alike than we are different. Like dogs, we make milk for our young and raise them in a pack. Our babies have lots to learn while growing up; we hunt cooperatively; we play silly games even as adults; we snore; we scratch and blink and yawn on sunny afternoons. Look at what Pam Brown, a New Zealand poet, had to say about people and dogs in the book Bond for Life:
Humankind is drawn to dogs because they are so like ourselves - bumbling, affectionate, confused, easily disappointed, eager to be amused, grateful for kindness and the least attention.
These similarities allow the members of two different species to live together intimately, sharing food, recreation, and even bearing young together. Lots of animals live closely linked to others, but our level of connection with dogs is profound. Most of us exercise with our dogs, play with our dogs, eat at the same time as our dogs (and sometimes the same food), and sleep with our dogs. Some of us still depend on our dogs for our work. Sheep ranchers in Wyoming and dairy farmers in Wisconsin need their dogs as much as or more than they do machinery or high-tech feeding systems. We know that dogs enrich the lives of many of us, providing comfort and joy to millions around the world. Studies even show that they decrease the probability of a second heart attack. We don't put up with shedding and barking and carrying pooper-scoopers on walks for nothing.
And look what we've done for dogs. Canis lupus familiaris, the domestic dog, is now one of the most successful mammals on earth, thanks to hitching his star to ours. It's been estimated that there are about four hundred million dogs in the world. Many American dogs are eating organic food, going to canine chiropractors and doggy day-care centers, and chewing on millions of dollars a year in toys. Now that's a successful species.
But we also have our differences. We humans don't relish rolling in cow pies. Nor do we, for the most part, eat the placentas of our newborns. We don't greet one another, thank heaven, by sniffing one another's rumps. While dogs live in a world of scents, we think of ourselves as chemically illiterate. Partly because of those differences, humans and dogs often miscommunicate, and the consequences range from mildly irritating to life threatening.
Some of this miscommunication stems from an owner's not understanding dog behavior and how animals learn, and I encourage all dog lovers to read lots of good books about dog training. Training dogs turns out not to be intuitively obvious, and the more you learn, the easier and more fun it will be.
Some of this miscommunication, though, results not just from ignorance about how to train a dog but from fundamental differences between the behavior of two species. After all, dogs aren't the only animal in the relationship. We humans at the other end of the leash are animals, too, with our own biological baggage of behavior that came along on our evolutionary train ride. We don't come to dog training as blank slates, any more than dogs do. Dogs and dog lovers alike have been shaped by our separate evolutionary backgrounds, and what each of us bring to the relationship starts with the heritage of our natural history. Although our similarities create a bond that's remarkable, we are each speaking our own native 'language,' and a lot gets lost in the translation.
Patricia McConnell Ph.D., is an adjunct assistant professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Her company, Dog's Best Friend Ltd., specializes in family dog training and treating aggression in dogs.
Excerpted from The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
Copyright 2002 by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.
Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.