And Viva? A dingo, Viva was like a dog, but more so. What the dogs did inconspicuously, Viva did dramatically. As a result, like the early anthropologist’s best informant, she showed me many unexpected things I might otherwise have missed – for instance, the fact that dogs feel differently about their front feet and their hind feet. Once when water from a hose flowed around her, she picked up her front feet one by one to shake them while ignoring her hind feet, which stood in water to the ankles. Viva also used her hind feet like hands to manipulate things.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in The Hidden Life of Dogs
Reminds me of my dog a few years back, a mongrel foundling who developed a reddish-gold coat as she grew, a luxuriantly feathery half-curl tail and a properly wolfish snout – and coincidentally came to be named Dingo. She was plucky and opportunistic, and as quick-witted as any other Taiwan street dog, and her caution in the presence of the untested was exemplary. Like Viva, above, she was fastidious about what she touched with her front paws. As she cantered about on or off the leash I never once saw her tread on a manhole cover or anything resembling one on the surface of the road or sidewalk.
Dingo was devoted to me, I assumed, but I probably misunderstood her. What she wanted more than anything was surely the company of other dogs, a crew to run with and to doze with. As the available human, I was what Elizabeth Marshall Thomas calls “a cynomorphic substitute”. (Think “anthropomorphic”, in doggish equivalent.) In their enthusiastic, optimistic way, dogs make the best of their compromised position amongst us, but to be at their best they need other dogs.
Dogs who live in each other’s company are calm and pragmatic, never showing the desperate need to make known their needs and feelings or to communicate their observations, as some hysterical dogs who know only the company of our species are likely to do. Dogs who live in each other’s company know they are understood.
Marshall Thomas describes how her eight dogs, mostly huskies in a community three generations deep, settled into a convivial social equilibrium, and as they did so gradually lost interest in humans and their concerns. They had each other, and were apparently fulfilled, and there was no longer any need to work on that fiction of the special relationship with some or other primate, herself included. Which conjures up the image of another dog I knew a little: a high-born Catahoula named Handsome who headed a pack of hounds tasked with driving feral bulls down from the lava-strewn slopes of Mauna Loa. On one occasion I watched him, deaf to the commands and pleas of his humans, as he downed tools and jogged off into the distance at a quarter slant, following his nose and probably on the trail of a wild boar. Duty called and compromise was out of the question. He didn’t return for several hours.
Marshall Thomas also relates how, one autumn, she began spending time among the dogs in the extensive pen at the back of the house – learning to live among their kind just as they had once learned to live among hers, and for the first time experiencing immobility as peace, not boredom.
When dogs feel serene and pleased with life, they do nothing. So there on the hillside, nothing was what we did. There we were, within fifty feet of my house, yet in a world that had nothing to do with my house, nothing to do with my species, and nothing to do with my life.
In the late afternoon sun we sat in the dust, or lay on our chests resting on our elbows, evenly spaced on the hilltop, all looking quietly down among the trees to see what moved there. No birds sang, just insects. Off in the silent, drying woods a tree would now and then drop something – a pod perhaps, or a leaf – and we would listen to it scratching down. While the shadows grew long we lay calmly, feeling the moment, the calmness, the warm light of the red sun – each of us happy enough with the others, unworried, each of us quiet and serene.