Charlie the Dog or The Dood—our undersized, but athletic Goldendoodle—spent his first four-and-a-half years enthralled by squirrels and hooked on the game of chasing them. Despite Charlie’s speed and nearly 5,000 attempts to catch these wily rodents, he never succeeded. (Out of humanitarian impulse I saw to it that no chase would begin unless Charlie spotted the wild thing a long lead.) He overran one or two indecisive enough to have been stymied by the wealth of good getaway options, and he often came very close even on the long shots. But because every nearby tree trunk, climbing vine, gate post, picnic table, and banister of the crowded landscape offered squirrels a convenient avenue of escape, they prevailed. Afterward, the critters chattered and gloated while perched on tree branches and fence rails.
Dogs have their own developmental timeline. In the fullness of his years, Charlie the Dog, in a fit of inspiration and on his own, reinvented stalking. With his gaze focused and head held still and forward, proceeding footstep over silent footstep like a cheetah, he evened the odds for a time and made for many more close encounters, even when squirrels started with the advantage of distance. I had to admit that at this point, to me, Charlie’s chasing game began to seem less playful and more tactical. It seemed a bit more like purposeful predation or professional sports than like exuberant, spontaneous play.
The game reverted to the status quo when the local squirrels grasped the new rules and stepped up their evasive tactics. In response, The Dood mostly gave up the long-distance chases. He usually offered only perfunctory pursuit even when the targets munched tantalizingly nearby. He had discovered a principle that many competitors live by: when the contest grows stale and unwinnable, players stop playing the impossible game.
So I thought that Charlie the Dog had said goodbye to all that chasing. But then, during a recent beach vacation, new species, new setting, new tactics, and reformulated rules revived the game of pursuit.
Here’s where it happened, how it happened, and with whom.
On Atlantic beaches from Rhode Island to Brazil, shore-dwellers called ghost crabs inhabit the strandline by the zillions. These crustaceans get their name from their ability to disappear quickly into burrows they dig three or four feet deep into the sand.
I once played what seemed like a game with a ghost crab on one of these beaches. I tossed a day-glo tennis ball, and for several minutes, as a rule, the ghost crab scurried off to catch it. Whether this was a real game or not is hard to say. I may more likely have been recruiting territorial behaviors that the crab reacted to accordingly. Or I may be selling the crustacean’s repertoire short. Gordon Burghardt, the renowned ethologist of play, has detected play behavior in a surprising variety of species other than mammals. The one thing I know surely is that the species-gulf that yawns between the crab and me makes his play signals obscure and my impression suspect.
But here’s where Charlie the Dog comes back in to the story. On a visit to the beach, he, too, played what he clearly regarded as a game with this small, furtive and, therefore (from his point of view), not entirely un-squirrel-like, and happily, apparently willing creature. The game was afoot once again.
This game proved simple. Charlie rushed the crab, barking his distinctively high-pitched “play with me” bark, and the crab squared off, swiveled, and fixed his opponent with compound-eyes and waved his large claw. Then Charlie retreated, rushed behind, barked his high pitched play-bark, and waited for the crab to re-orient and wave his claw. Charlie could no more resist a cross-species play narrative than could his human friends. The crab, likely interpreting the encounter as a ritualized male display, made no effort to withdraw into its burrow. Charlie, no terrier, for his part didn’t seem to understand predation.
The game, amusing to us humans, and absorbing fun for Charlie, lasted several minutes until the dog came too close for comfort and the crab grabbed a nostril. That was a mistake. With a squeak and a toss of the head Charlie sent the crab airborne and then caught it exactly the way he catches a tennis ball, and with a little of the usual galumphing thrown in.
The difference between a crab and a tennis ball though is that a tennis ball doesn’t crunch when caught.
Charlie tentatively pawed at the ex-crab for a full five minutes, turned it over and prodded it, occasionally barking his play-bark. At length, barking turned to whimpering. And Charlie brought his former playmate to us, laid it in the sand at our feet, whined imploringly, and barked his play bark once or twice. It seemed to us, from our human viewpoint, that he was mourning, not the crab as such, but the loss of the responsive game.
Thereafter, we allowed Charlie to dig into the deep burrows where the crabs hid safely. But now certain of the unhappy result, we no longer allowed him to face off with ghost crabs for more than a few seconds. Frenzied digging, for dogs, however, is exuberant play, and almost as much fun as chasing as it comprises its own kind of hot pursuit.