Without any first-hand experience of a pup’s characteristic idiosyncrasies, I became thoroughly perplexed about how to control Moa’s overabundance of enthusiasm in the appropriate fashion in those initial days. I was completely clueless about why he was behaving in a certain manner, what was appeasing him and what was triggering a chain-reaction of misdemeanour. At times he used to appear as a thoroughly uncontrollable creature obsessed with chewing and chasing and nothing seemed to arrest his interest for more than a few milliseconds. Striking the proper balance between my works and giving due attention to him and his monumental mess-ups were rapidly becoming an impossible affair.
Vets ruled out any health issues. Neighbours told any Spitz-type dogs and their descendants are prone to temper tantrums. Google said, ‘it’s nothing but small-dog syndrome’. ‘Is Moa a misfit then, a wrong choice? Haven’t I taken him from the correct breeder? Is there something grossly wrong in his genetic pool? Or is there something wrong in my attitude itself? Am I expecting an animal to showcase civilized disposition? He is getting sufficient nutrition, I am taking him out for walks and playing with him as well whenever time permits, then what’s the rationale behind his non-stop stupendous dalliances bordering on the line of insanity (as perceived by me)’? It was then I decided to illuminate myself about dog’s behavioural aspects, the need for early socialization and training.
I picked up a relevant bestseller from the store and got myself inundated with information about puppyhood. I learnt how consistency is crucial in giving ‘orders’ and tried to apply those rules one by one, I learnt the ideal mode of imparting ‘sit’, ‘come’ and ‘stop’ commands along with ‘associative learning’ (rewarding a dog with treat, toy and fondling after them doing what we want), the vocabularies which I have already introduced in Moa’s dictionary but seldom resulted in desired execution. I understood it’s not Moa’s fault, it has got more to do with my failure of sticking to one particular command in correlation with one required action, my juggling between ‘sit’ and ‘sit down’, ‘shake hand’ and ‘hand shake’. Poor Moa! I was aggrieved to learn that I have confused this guy. This feeling augmented further when I have read that as and when he didn’t listen, my hyperactive demeanour worsened the situation as unknowingly, my energy got transpired into his system and he felt his ‘leader’ was not sure of the outcome and hence, not in control. In short, Moa got a leader not to be followed. Phew! In order to put a blanket over my goof-ups, I started following the training methods advocated by the book and the result within a week reinforced my belief that I was on the right track.
Moa has been a quick learner. He started responding to each of my commands (sometimes even aided just by my hand-signals) without batting an eyelid as the promise of goodies lured him and eventually it became a part of his reflex-action. As I started to slowly withdraw the rewards, as per the book’s proponent, Moa, after initial few disappointments of not getting the anticipated or equally enthralling rewards, also started to exhibit inconsistency, thereby challenging this operant conditioning paradigm. In short, he would respond mostly when he sniffed out the viability of a reward, rather than simply trying to earn it by burlesque imitation of a taught behaviour. ‘What’s going on?’ I wondered. This demonstration of canine intelligence was unexpected and even unmentioned in the book.
Another surprise jolted me when I realized Moa, with his skilled observation power and understanding of finer nuances of certain body-languages, started manipulating with our senses in order to achieve the result he wished. Quite a few times me and other members of the house were beguiled by his loud barking pointing at the direction of window (a great watchdog who never missed the slightest sound of footstep to alert us, by the way) and as we went to peep through to check who was coming, he quickly grabbed a biscuit from our a tea-table. Sometimes we laughed at it and sometimes we were outraged at being outsmarted with such effortless élan by an animal whose intelligence was not even comparable to human we once thought. I also noticed he decoded meanings of certain words in terms of what’s going to happen afterwards or rather he comprehended the ramifications of few words that were part of our regular vocabulary but never have been taught to him. He learnt to associate some words with the event of me taking him out for a walk (beyond his regular timings) even though I was just discussing such a possibility in a full sentence. Even before I have decided in my mind and right after such a proposition has been voiced, Moa used to position himself at the door with his tail gleefully wagging, with unfailing regularity.
These demonstrations were not overlapping with what has been written in the book like a Canine Gospel. We soon found Moa did not need strict adherence to one single word to follow certain commands, a ‘sit’ and ‘down’ and ‘sit down’ and waving of hands to the downward direction were pretty much interchangeable to the desired effect. It’s not that I haven’t maintained coherency in my teaching once again; just that if any other word was inadvertently uttered by other members of house or strangers who took a certain interest in him while he was enjoying a walk, he started responding to it as well. Then, I thought why should I constraint his verbal world in this specified regime if he has ability to learn more of them? But like as always, consistency was typically amiss when his ‘feats’ haven’t got substantiation with some alluring treats for the two latest consecutive occurrences. This quirky situation, when frustratingly reported to his vet cum canine psychologist, was explained in mock derision as ‘He will listen when he wants to listen!’ Professional behavioural training was advocated to make Moa obey us religiously at every possible opportunity.
However, I never wanted to robotically mould his sometimes-entertaining and sometimes-annoying actions into acceptable parameters defined by me or by any book or standards. It was a monotonous if not inhuman idea for me trying to make him behave like a puppet with strings attached in my hand. I wanted to let him be and at the same time I wished a certain level of maturity that did not make me look like a possessed person running after him to catch his next destructive act. Upon probing further, I came across several mutually-conflicting training literatures and realized that most of them overlooked dog’s cognition or borrowed from its basic edifice till the point it suited them.
Most of the professional training programs are devised in some such way that expose a dog to many environmental variants and the most obdurate lot will behave in a different way after the result of cumulative changes in conditioning will manifest, irrespective of how good the training actually is. As no training methods are scientifically tested and none of them has successfully established itself beyond all realms of doubts, it’s a ludicrous idea to think training alone will remove all unwelcome traits. Even if you think post-training you got Michelangelo of the Sedgewick family (as shown in the movie Beethoven IV) back instead of the devil (J) you sent for training, chances are high that a couple of factors attributed to this change more than the program itself, such as: paying more attention to the dog during the training course, not letting him get bored, not leaving him sit idle for a long time, socialization with other members of his species, the dog showing contentment as his excess energy is effectively harnessed in the process of physical activity and mental agility exercises and several such environmental and attitudinal changes.
My goal was different. I wanted to explore Moa’s Theory of Mind- his desires, beliefs, intents, fears and ambitions in order to strike a plausible harmonic symphony in our mutual existence. One question which always used to haunt me in this quest was: Does Moa carry any conscious sense of his self? Otherwise how does he negotiate with his surroundings day-in and day-out? He never behaved like a creature blindfolded by evolution, rather every day I noticed his instinctive responses to various situations and learning from those findings. On his first birthday, when the house was decorated with colourful balloons, upon encountering something strange for the first time in his life, he has shown boisterous retreat and strong reservations. I touched the balloons, kicked them in the air and Moa learnt in a jiffy that these were my ‘toys’! It was difficult to imagine how he perceived everything around with his exquisitely developed sensory niche but without any word to think or describe any of them. School standard zoology taught us that absence of language left animals bereft of consciousness. Going by the same logic, autistic humans weren’t blessed with consciousness either. But that is not the case. Devoid of a dog’s olfactory acuity and other skills, we are thoroughly impoverished to measure animal consciousness.
As I started studying dog and animal psychology in general and vis-à-vis mapped them with my personal experience, I also made myself conscious against the pitfalls of anthropomorphisms (to attribute human-like emotional understanding and persona in animals, extrapolating from our conventional wisdom and nurturing instincts). Moa sitting on the ground with his head tucked down between his two paws and giving me that ‘you promised something else’ look just before I am leaving for my work does not necessarily suggest an awful amount of depression from his end. He may be lazily luxuriating in the possible thought of next ingenious mischief that he can commit after my leaving. Or he may be just resting his mind deciphering a possible state of inertia from playfulness in my absence for some time. Or he is just being Moa, at ease with himself and his environments that assured him of security over a period of time. Be that as it may, there is an oceanic gap between the projections and our perceptions because our ability to comprehend their signals are vastly restricted and prejudiced owing to various straight-jacketed notions developed about our pets attributed by our conditionings and cognitive limitations.
With the abolition of ‘Big Brain’ myth in relation with animal intelligence (having found larger-than-human brains in dolphins, whales and elephants and larger neocortex, responsible for high-level thinking, cognition and speech in New Guinea’s echidna), it became apparent that many animals other than humans share the faculty of consciousness. Moa’s try to find the toy I just concealed trailing the scent of it exhibits his attention, intention as well as a vague awareness of the shape and hue of the toy. He cooperates more when he is content and shows a twinge of jealousy or at least obstinacy when more attention is being showered on the other dog recently adopted. That indicates a certain sense of fairness. How can an animal show a sense of deprivation unless he is profoundly aware of his individuality? Till sometime back, Moa used to vociferously bark at the mere sight of an old lady living right opposite our home. Is it a mere coincidence that he stopped it completely right after she lost her husband? Or has he smelled the scent of grief in the air? Somewhere I read that just because ants have cemeteries for their departed mates, it does not indicate they grief like we do at a loss. The dichotomy is not only it is not right, it’s not even wrong.
Biologists claim everywhere in nature there is an unprecedented suggestion that animals are aware of death’s irrevocable supremacy, yet undermines its relevance in their lives. Once internet was flooded with poignant images of an 11-year old Gorilla, Gana, at Germany’s Munster Zoo, clutching the lifeless body of her baby Claudio, as if she won’t let her go. Primatologists were not least shaken despite of the knee-jerk anthropomorphizing reaction it created amongst urbanites without much knowledge of wildlife. Extended mourning is very common amongst apes as they take time to nullify the other possibilities like sickness, temporary comatose and maybe it’s a nursing ritual they follow in the hope of redemption. There are innumerable citations of an elaborate death ritual in the elephant world. Grief-stricken elephants (with a brain similar to humans in terms of structure and complexity) are known not to leave their dear departed ones for hours and even visit the graves later.
Altruistic behaviour has been regularly confirmed in the world of birds and mammals. Noble laureate ethologist Konrad Lorentz explained, “A greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms that John Bowlby (developmental psychologist) has described in young human children in his famous book Infant Grief…the eyes sink deep into their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang...” There are ample exceptions too. For example, even though sea-lions are seen to wail pitifully when their companions are being targeted by whales, a lion, on the other hand, treats another lion’s fresh corpse just as a source of food with no apparent indication of emotion. The naked mole rats in underground tunnels show sophisticated corpse-management system, presumably prompted by hygienic concerns. We still are doubtful whether they go through intimate experience of some kind at such events.
The old lady, as mentioned earlier in the article, (whom Moa suddenly ‘favoured’ by not barking as before) also has a dachshund in her home and after the event of her husband’s death, I have found that their dog not exactly mourning, but perplexed nevertheless. I guess that’s what happens, all animals including humans share an inherent and collective inability to fathom death and they react mostly to the absence with a confused helplessness rather than really understanding what struck. It is highly probable Moa just got a hint of that helplessness without grasping what exactly transpired. But then, since her husband died as a result of suffering from lung cancer, it cannot be ruled out that at least their dachshund got an inkling of it. I also remember, another dog (who now roams at street but once was attached to this family) paid a visit to their house two days before this mishap. It was not his territory and that’s why I have noticed this aberration. After that incident I haven’t seen the dog loitering here till date.
Modern research reveals that the different metabolic wastes emanated from cancerous cells are easily distinguished by dogs from the breathing of a person and hence they can detect breast and lung cancer just like they smell out anything suspicious. There is persuasive evidence that some dogs can also provide epilepsy alerts to their parents with 100% accuracy. Some researchers also claim as dogs can detect miniscule changes in electromagnetic fields and the microscopic deformation of ground, they even can sense major natural disasters like an earthquake. This is an inconclusive assertion but the survival instincts of animals against any lurking danger in general cannot be overruled. My personal experience with Moa and Thubi (the dog adopted 7 months back from the time I am writing this article), in the event of an earthquake, had been in high dudgeon, with both of them displaying nothing erratic or uncharacteristic. On the contrary, there are some citations of animals moving towards higher ground in the wild and domestic pets showing signs of distress before commencement of a disaster like huge earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Whatever be the mystery behind this, the implication establishes the presence of highly well-endowed canine instincts. However, one can’t still find a stream of consciousness is running somewhere.
Coming back to the time when I have devoted myself in decoding Moa’s theory of mind and finding whether there was any method beneath this madness, several materials suggested one popular ‘Mirror Test’ for understanding whether my dog had a sense of individuality. When we look at the mirror, almost immediately we realize it’s our own reflection undergoing lateral inversion. I remember as a child whenever I used to cry, I used to find my comfort zone in front of the mirror as an amusing image was potent enough to send a message in my brain about the futility of it all. Shortly after this I was able to see the funny side of it and that definitely used to help me create a certain light-heartedness regarding the spot of my bother. It was almost tantamount to a certain degree of non-alignment between me and the image under strife, while me slowly trying to distance myself from the suffering soul on the glass! Looking at the mirror, I remember myself asking questions like ‘Is it me?’ or even ‘Is that you?’ or ‘Who are you?’
Moa, upon encountering his mirror image for the first time, barked at it and then bowed down like a play invitation to a stranger dog. Almost immediately he lost interest though. A mark on his forehead has not evoked much response either apart from him getting fidgety over the proceedings. As per the deductions written on the book, Moa exhibited no self-awareness. Asiatic elephants, dolphins, chimps and orang-utans tested positively at this Mirror Test by happily acknowledging their own reflections, hence they were claimed to be self-aware animals. But how can we decide upon such conclusion that is borne out of our own conscious perspective? That’s where doubt crept in my mind and I found this mirror test was not looking at dogs through a scientific lens as understanding of the dog’s perspective, the most important component, was apathetically missing. The primary sense stimulus for a dog is smell, not his vision. So it’s altogether very natural that they are much less bothered about visual events compared to primates. With about six million sensory receptor sites at our nose, we can at most manage to smell what’s cooking on our neighbour’s oven. Sitting at our drawing room, can we smell what’s our neighbour staying five buildings away cooking? No. Now, does that make us challenged in awareness countenance? And then, sometimes we fail to even smell our own coffee!
So compared to Moa, with over two hundred million sensory receptor sites on his nose, I smell next to nil. When I once was shown the T-shirt I used to wear as a kid, I recognized it as I have seen myself wearing it in several pictures in childhood album. Moa also recognizes the first cloth he was wrapped with once he came home, with minimal investigation from his nose. We are using different faculties to meet the same purpose. Even a lifetime wouldn’t be enough if I’m asked to spot my childhood dress from others while kept blindfolded. Moa can do it in a millisecond. But to react to such obvious deductions on awareness based upon one such observation would be only ridiculous. So we can comment on dog’s sense of self by asking them to identify their own scents or familiar scents rather than asking them to acknowledge their reflections and its variances. A dog with its dichromatic vision (can only see part of visual spectrum) contains about 20% cones in their central retina while our fovea contains 100% cones.
Interpretation of dog behaviours based on their wolf ancestry can only provide us such lopsided view of the canine world. Domestication since time immemorial has changed dogs. Like, they don’t follow the strict social pack-structure like their historical days, they always do not need dominant treatment from their parents to remind them ‘who’s the boss’ and they certainly don’t understand deception even though they are equipped with the learnt understanding of inferring the correlation between actions and goals, which, in our ripen senses, may appear as ‘manipulation’. Sadly, most of the dog books available in the market can be grandly misleading, partly scientific (which, in my experience, even more dangerous than being unscientific) or unwittingly sentimental. But if you have a probing mind, if you are genuinely in love with your Moa to the point of wishing to know what he is thinking, you will be illuminated to find there’s more to him than his fur.
A last word about dog’s self-awareness, according to Buddhism ‘I’ is interwoven with the rest of the world. I believe ‘canIne’ is interwoven with the rest of the world!