Dog's Best Friend

The dog-wolf next door

Dog Shuns Her Human Companion

Our Jack Russell terrier decides I no longer exist—temporarily.

I think it fair to say that part of the pleasure we experience in the company of dogs derives from their ability constantly to surprise and amaze us with what they know and do.  So it was that as I prepared for a prolonged period away from home, I wondered how Toodles, the diminutive, mango snorfling, broken-coated Jack Russell terrier would take my sudden disappearance from her life.*

Toodles, the little Jack Russell terrier shunned her big biped.
Toodles expects to play fetch whenever she's not playing grab.
Photo by Mark Derr

She was accustomed to Gina leaving for short trips, but I had been with her since I brought her to Miami Beach from Maryland eighteen months ago.  I was her play guy, her constant companion.  I assumed that absent  a corpse, Toodles like other dogs and animals who seem to recognize death, would have no reason to conceive of me or any other human or non-human animal to whom they were bonded, as “dead” or gone forever.  Indeed, one wonders whether dogs have conceptions of death or prolonged absence at all—that is, how do they imagine or conceive such states?

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Absence of a corpse seems to leave room for hope and expectation for a return in dogs, as in people.  Years ago, when we would leave our leopard curs with my parents for two to three weeks, we would put one of my t-shirts on the ‘guest’ bed and there Marlow would stay for the duration, rising only to relieve himself and eat.  Arguably he had an expectation that we would return for him and for the shirt because we had done so before, although that ‘expectation’ might simply have been a stoical waiting.  Clio headed right to the kitchen where she parked herself to snag the food my mother routinely dropped (accidentally or on purpose).

It seems fair to assume that faced with a dead body, most dogs recognize an altered state—or non-state—of being.  But does the dog see death the way humans do, I ask, knowing that not even all humans see death the same way?  Gina has a friend whose brother died on his farm when his post setter kicked a fence post into him.  When he was found several days later, his Catahoula leopard dogs were watching over him, guarding him from scavengers.  Their behavior indicated they knew something was wrong; but if they knew what it was, they did not know what to do about it except to wait beside him. 

In part, I am asking whether and how dogs can project themselves into the future?  They project themselves somewhat ahead when it comes to solving a problem, like how do I get that ball that is in the hanging bucket?  If they have not done it before, they have to develop a strategy, and that presumably carries with it the ability to anticipate the effect of certain actions.    But I do not think that is their strong suit.  Dogs are associative thinkers—mutter the word “walk” or “go” or “bath”, for example, or watch your dogs’ response to something new in their yard or along their regular walking route. 

Dogs share with wolves an uncanny—to us—ability to locate themselves relative to the other members of their family or pack even when they are widely scattered in rough country.  They can and do get lost but generally they are more aware of the here and now than we are, whereas their ability for future planning appears limited.

 Those were my thoughts, as I prepared to catch an early flight last Monday morning for what was to be a six-week long absence.  I usually go barefoot through the house, but that morning I came down the stairs wearing shoes.  Hearing me on the stairs, Toodles, who had been toodling about in her usual fashion, suddenly looked stressed.  She went rigid, and it appeared that she was commencing one of what we call her “neurological” episodes.  But she recovered her equilibrium in the car on the way to the airport, except that, seatbelted into the passenger seat behind me, she ignored me. When we arrived, she actively shunned me. 

There is no other word for it.  Toodles turned her head away if I tried to talk to her.  She pulled back and turned away if I tried to pet her and otherwise pointedly and deliberately ignored me. While we waited for a wheel chair to take me to the gate, Toodles made a big fuss over a stranger who wanted to be her friend. Me, she ignored for more than an hour, refusing even to recognize me when she and Gina started back to the car.  This tireless licker had no goodbye lick for me. 

The surgery was delayed for a variety of reasons, and I came home after one rather than six weeks.  Toodles came with Gina in the car to fetch me.  While I loaded my satchel and pack into the back of the wagon, Gina put Toodlles on her leash and let her out to greet me.  No way, Toodles decided.  She stood propped against my leg as if it were a post, watching traffic slide by and studiously refusing to acknowledge me.  Back in the car, she licked my hand once in a desultory manner and then continued ignoring me even after we had retired for the night. 

At 4 or so the next morning, I got up and Toodles followed me downstairs, but again, she seemed not really to see me.  She did deign to get on the sofa with me, where I was working on my laptop.  At 5, without any real reason, she suddenly woke up, looked at me, and greeted me as if she hadn’t seen me since forever.  She squealed, yipped, wiggled, wormed, and generally showed her joy at my presence.  And then, just as inexplicably, she went back to sleep. 

When she woke, she was back to business as usual with the guy who gives her mangoes, makes her food, and plays with her throughout the day.

I’ve been around dogs all my life. I’ve seen a lot of dogs and heard a lot of dog stories.  But this active shunning is a new one.  Toodles greets everyone she meets like a long lost friend—everyone except me after this trip.  When Gina leaves, Toodles sometimes tries to restrain her—separation anxiety we are working to overcome. {See video of usual Toodles greeting.) She doesn’t respond that way when I leave to do errands, nor am I overly demonstrative when I return.

How did she know this time was different?  Did she recognize my clothes going in the suitcase rather than Gina’s?  Was the sound of my shoes on the stairs early in the morning a loud warning?  What does “something different is happening” mean to her?  Put another way did Toodles have an advance sense of a long temporal and spatial separation? 

That she felt she was being abandoned, I have little doubt.  Perhaps she was angry, although Toodles is seldom reticent about her anger.  Her behavior was like a pre-emptive strike:  “You’re leaving me?  O, yea.  Well, I don’t know you.  I put you out of my existence.” I’m willing to admit that I am incorrect in my interpretation and that she is just a superb drama queen. But her actions were too pointed, deliberate, and real to be put on like a costume and discarded at will.  Her shunning of me was deliberate, I am certain, but what was the source of her reaction and where and how did she learn to express it in such a classic fashion?

*Snorffle” is formed by combining “snuffle,””scarf” and “shovel” and is used around here to describe a particular style of rutting for food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Derr is the author of How the Dog Became the Dog, Dog's Best Friend, and A Dog's History of America.

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