When it comes to furry pets, I always thought of myself as a cat-person.
Throughout most of my adult life, there was always a cat in my household, I really like cats, and – right as the saying goes – I envy them for some of their traits. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I wish I was a cat, but admittedly there were times when I played with the idea.
When I was little, I spent a couple of weeks at my grandparents’ every summer, and those were the happiest times of my life. They had a small farmstead in the middle of nowhere, and sure enough, they had both a cat and a dog.
I never took much notice of the dog – in fact, all I remember is that it was a wire-haired fox terrier, and that he spend most of the day with my grandfather, including when they would sit together at the table and share the meal. Curiously, though, I don’t remember ever having seen that dog on a lead.
The cat, on the other hand, was a fascinating animal.
For one, it could move around without making any noise – and yet fast and with unfathomable precision. It could climb trees, much faster and higher than I could, and then jump from there onto the roof, walk up to the very top and look out over the entire garden.
For another, the cat could hide in plain sight, melting in with the surroundings by choosing exactly the right spot to sit and doze – and then suddenly jump up and shoot through the flower bed like a bullet, and come back with a bird in its fangs.
It could catch a fly mid-air, by simply reaching out with its paw in a single, lightning-fast movement – without as much as turning the head – and instantly return to the same relaxed position it held half a second earlier. Like magic.
And then, it would often cuddle up purring on my lap or sleep by my feet – a soft-touch, comforting kind of being in general, one that could bring a little boy to sleep, or at least day-dream, which was a habit of mine back then. We became good friends, the cat and I.
So, my inclination towards feline companions was formed very early – and I never imagined having a dog. Even when my daughter started to plant that idea into my head, I always thought of it as her dog. Obviously, there would be some responsibilities for me in it, but ultimately it would be her pet.
At the end of last summer, we brought home a small chocolate-brown Labrador Retriever puppy.
She wasn’t so much bigger than a cat at the time, but twice as heavy, with a stronger, much more muscular body – and four disproportionately large paws.
We called her Masha, after the Russian cartoon character – a tongue-in-cheek allusion to what might be coming.
And come it did – with me, inescapably, in the role of the bear.
Since then, I’ve learned more about this little dog than I ever knew about cats in my life. And it turns out, I’m not so much a cat-person after all.
Some of the lessons I learned:
Dogs have excellent hearing.
Masha can hear a thunderstorm coming long before there are any clouds on the horizon. And since she doesn’t like thunderstorms, she would walk me home and sure enough it will start raining at the moment when we reach the front door.
She can hear me across a football field when I speak normally like I would to a human standing right next to me – there is no need whatsoever to raise my voice.
For an animal with such sensitive hearing, any loud noise is painful. Therefore, our rule is that when she is close, I speak to her only in a very soft, high-pitched tone, barely above a whisper – or sometimes I don’t speak at all.
Silence. That’s loud enough.
And yet, most of the time she will know what I want to tell her, and very often she can read my mind before I even make an attempt to communicate.
The point is that dogs don’t really understand human language. They can certainly differentiate the noises we make to some extent, but they are much better yet at reading our body language – including the unconscious part that slips out without us being aware of it.
This mind-reading capability became apparent again a couple of days ago, when the two of us were hiking through the forest in the midday heat. I became quite thirsty. Of course I had my water bottle, but didn’t want to stop just yet but rather wait for a more shadowy spot for a break.
Masha looked at me a couple of times and suddenly seemed very busy, as if she was tracking something – nose up in the air, looking around, zick-zacking from one wayside to the other…and then, after about two hundred meters, she started leading me hastily sideways into a hollow.
And sure enough – it was partially filled with water. There she stopped, looking up at me, grinning proudly – not drinking herself, but actually waiting for me to take a sip.
So Masha, like probably most dogs, can find water – even underground. It’s not always drinkable, of course, but still an utterly useful survival skill when you’re many miles away from the next tap.
And being far away does happen very often, because Masha likes those long hikes through the vast forests around us.
For long distances, her preferred gait is a medium trot – that is, the front and hind legs on opposite sides of the body move synchronously. This is the most energy-efficient way for a dog to move around, and she can keep walking that way for many miles.
It is though a little faster than a normal human walking speed, so in order to keep up with her I need to walk very fast and even synchronize my breathing. And above all I need really good all-terrain walking shoes.
Vision isn’t the strongest of Masha’s senses – especially when things are stationary and/or further away. She can detect very small movements even at great distances, but that doesn’t mean she will recognize what moves, and if things don’t move she will need additional information.
There are two ways for her to get this information.
One is my superior eyesight – I can see many things that are indiscernible for her eyes, especially at a distance, like landmarks for orientation. I can recognize people when they are still far away, and can tell if they are looking our way, or coming towards us.
Her other option is her sense of smell, which is to her like eye vision is to me.
Invisible things, easy to see
So, I walk with her into an abandoned pasture the other day, and at the entrance I ask her to wait. Then I walk over a hill, and when I’m sure she cannot see me anymore, I hide three balls.
I hide them carefully, digging one into the ground, placing another between two rocks and a third in a group of bushes. Walking back, I check several times that they really are invisible.
Next, I ask Masha to find the balls. When she comes over the hill, she walks right up to the first ball and digs it up and brings it to me. Released from the retrieve, again she just walks right to the next ball between the two rocks, struggling a little to get it out.
What on earth guides her? She’s not sniffing around or searching in any way, just walks straight up to the hidden balls.
I watch closely, and then I can see it: she doesn’t actually search for the balls, she simply follows my foot steps, that invisible trail I left on the ground when I hid them. How…naive of me, and so typically human – I only hid the balls from myself, but not from her.
So what was meant to be a ”search” game, became a relatively simple retrieve.
To make it a little more exiting and fun for her, I throw the balls into the lake.
Water is second-nature to Masha, and fetching stuff from the lake has become her favorite pastime. She’s a good and enduring swimmer, so there is nothing to worry about.
Except…that shake when she comes out of the water – then she will be nearly dry, and I will be wet. So I’ve started to ask her to deliver the retrieve first, and then shake off the water after I’ve managed to get a few steps away. That’s quite a challenge.
Some people say you have to dominate the dog at all times. The dog shall do as it is told, and nothing else. I must admit that I find it hard to relate to that.
Masha and I are two very different beings, and what brings us together is mutual respect, attentiveness, understanding and trust. We both make an effort to read each others mind – because we both want to understand and cooperate.
Leadership doesn’t mean domination to me, but rather means to show Masha what she can do, and to help her doing it.
We’re a team, we do things together that we both want. Neither of us pulls on the lead. Neither of us barks at the other. We play, we learn and we work together.
And certainly, there’s also love involved – so I want her to have a happy and interesting life.
Today is Masha’s first birthday. The little puppy has grown into a strong, fairly large and yet friendly and caring dog. We have good reasons to be proud of her, and we wish her all the best for the future.
And for those who will once meet her, some advice:
- Be happy, be gentle – and you will be rewarded
- Don’t shout, don’t command – ask nicely and pay
- Running away means you want to be chased – and she is faster than you
- Be prepared – she can be wet, and so will you be