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Shall We Roam?

Provides information on the intricate inner life of dogs. Recounts the author's observation of a husky named Misha and how dog secrets were revealed through a series of Misha's adventures. Misha's navigational ability; His management of city traffic; Clues from his ear movements; Excerpted from 'The Hidden Life of Dogs.'

I began observing dogs by accident. While friends spent six months in Europe, I took care of their husky, Misha. An agreeable two-year-old Siberian with long, thin legs and short, thick hair, Misha could jump most fences and travel freely. He jumped our fence the day I took him in. As Misha violated the leash law in our city I would receive complaints abou thim, and with the help of these complaints I was soon able to establish that he had developed a range of approximately 130 square miles. Much larger than the ranges of homeless dogs reported in Baltimore by the scientist Alan Beck, Misha's range more closely resembled the 200-500-square mile territories roamed by wolved. What was Misha doing?

Obviously, something unusual. Here was a dog who, despite his youth, could navigate flawlessly, finding his way to and from all corners of the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, by day and night. Here was a dog who could evade dangerous traffic and escape the dog officers and dognappers, who never fell through the ice on the Charles River, who never touched the poison baits set out for raccoons, who was never mauled by other dogs. Misha always came back from his journeys feeling fine, ready for a light meal and a rest before going out again. How did he do it?

For a while I looked for the answer in journals and books, but I found nothing: Despite a vast array of publications on dogs, virtually nobody, neither scientist nor layman, had ever bothered to ask what dogs do when left to themselves. At first, that science had ignored the question seemed amazing. But was it really? We tend to study animals for what they can teach us about ourselves or for facts that we can turn to our advantage. But dogs have shared our lives for 20,000 years. How then had we managed to learn so little about them that we could not answer the simplest question: What do they want?

Our ignorance becomes more blameworthy when we consider that no animal could be easier to study. Unlike wild animals, dogs are not afraid of us. To study them we need not invade their habitat or imprison them in ours--our world is their natural habitat and always was.

Furthermore, because their wild ancestors were not dogs at all but wolves, dogs have never even existed as a wild species. Hence, curled on the sofa beside me was a creature of mystery--an agreeable dog with a life of his own that he had no wish to conceal and that he was managing with all the competence of a wild animal, not with any help from human beings but in spite of them.

ONE EVENING HE GOT UP AND STRETCHED, preparatory to voyaging. First he braced his hind legs and stretched backward, head bowed, rump high, to pull tight the muscles of his shoulders. Then he raised his head and dropped his hips to stretch his spine and hind legs, even clenching his feet into fists so that the stretch went into his toes. Ready at last, he moved calmly toward the door so that, as usual, I could open it for him. As our eyes met, I had an inspiration: Misha himself would answer my questions. Right in front of me, a long-neglected gate to the animal kingdom seemed waiting to be opened. Misha held the key.

Who could resist the appeal of this notion? No money, no travel, no training, no special instruments were necessary to probe the mystery--one needed only a dog, a notebook, and a pencil. I didn't even regret my total lack of formal training to begin such a project. In fact, I didn't feel I'd be ignorant for long. I opened the door a crack. Out slipped Misha, with me right behind him, and thus our project began.

The first question, perhaps the most important, I was never able to answer. This was the question of Misha's navigational skills. Sometimes he seemed to travel without the use of landmarks, since once he had arrived at his destination, he might easily take another route home. Did he use the stars or the position of the sun? Did he see polarized light? Did he use odors floating in the air, as fish use the taste of currents in sea water?

I didn't know, and could learn nothing by watching his sure trot, his confident demeanor. To probe more deeply would have required an experiment--blindfolding him, say, and taking him to some distant release point. But that wasn't the nature of our relationship.

I did learn two things, though, about Misha's navigational ability. The first was that his skills were probably not innate, or not entirely so. If they had been, other huskies should have shared them. But I knew others who could not navigate. One was Misha's wife, Maria. When they were together, Misha established the route for both of them, and not easily, because she, young and enthusiastic, would go bounding ahead of him, often in the wrong direction, requiring him to overtake her. Then, by jumping at her, he would literally have to knock her in the shoulder to make her turn.

The second was that although he made his way faultlessly through the city, his technique didn't necessarily apply in the country, especially if he hadn't reached the starting point on his own. If I took the dogs with me when I went to visit relatives, and if the dogs then went voyaging, Misha wasn't always able to lead Maria back to my relatives' home. Perhaps he felt less sure of himself in unfamiliar surroundings. Whatever the reason, if both got lost in the country, they would use Maria's technique for getting home and wait on someone's doorstep for me to show up in the car.

Another important skill of Misha's was his management of traffic. No car so much as touched Misha, who, like a civil engineer, had divided the streets and their traffic into categories and had developed different strategies to deal with each. The worst and most dangerous areas were congestions of multidirectional traffic, and these Misha completely avoided. If he needed to be on the far side of one of them, he simply went around it. The second category was composed of a few limited-access highways where the heavy traffic was especially dangerous. Misha couldn't avoid the highways and still go where he wanted, so, adopting a humble attitude, he approached the cars with diplomacy and tact in an attempt to appease them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many dogs treat cars as if they were animate. Dogs who chase cars evidently see them as large, unruly ungulates badly in need of discipline and shepherding, and can't help trying to control them. But Misha didn't chase cars. He well understood that they could be tremendously dangerous, especially when they seemed to be acting angrily and willfully, as they did on the limited-access highways. So he offered them respect. At the edge of the highway Misha would stand humbly, his head and tail low, his eyes half shut, his ears politely folded.

But the moment the cars became few, Misha's humility would vanish. His ears and tail would rise and he would bound fearlessly among them, the very picture of confidence. Over the highway he would skip, and go happily on his way. Never while I was observing him did I hear a scream of tires. Sometimes, though, he would lose me beside a limited-access highway. I lacked his courage, also his speed and skill, and I usually had to wait much longer than he did before the traffic conditions met my requirements for crossing. If traffic separated us, Misha would wait for a while on the far side, but sooner or later he would assume that I had lost interest and would travel on. Later, when his traveling abated, he would find me waiting for him at home.

When crossing an intersecting street, Misha used a considerably more intelligent method than his human counterparts. Unlike us, he didn't cross at the corner. Instead, he would go about 20 feet from the corner, cross there, and return on the opposite sidewalk to continue his journey. At first I couldn't understand this maneuver, although Misha invariably used it. Then I saw its merits, and copied him thereafter. Why is Misha's method safer? Because at any point along the block, traffic comes from only two directions instead of four, as it does at the intersection. By crossing midblock, one reduces one's chances of being hit by a turning car. Since learning this technique from Misha, I have noticed almost all freeranging dogs do likewise.

In the residential streets, Misha's demeanor changed. Here he took no precaution about cars and never used a sidewalk, but instead moved daringly and purposefully up the middle of the street, eyes front, head and ears forward, tail up, the very picture of intent confidence. Even when he crossed an intersection, he did not alter his demeanor but kept scanning the street ahead. The trouble was that he couldn't see the cars speeding toward him on the cross street. Yet, amazingly, he always escaped them. How did he manage that?

I might never have learned if both his ears had been like the ears of most other huskies--stiff and upright. But they weren't. His left ear was soft at the tip when Misha was trotting along in a relaxed manner. When he was alert and tense, however, the tip would shoot up and stand stiff like that of his right ear.

One day, while following Misha down a side street on the bike I had taken to using for my dogological studies, I saw his left ear stiffen as he approached an intersection. As was his custom, his eyes never left the street ahead, but the nearer he got to the intersection, the more his two ears stiffened and rotated outward, pointing sideways, so that by the time he was ready to cross (which he always did without changing his speed or shifting his gaze), the cups of his ears were pointing up and down the cross street.

If a car was coming, he heard it. What was more, his hearing gave the speed of the car as well as its location, so that all Misha needed to do to avoid being hit was to pick up his pace or slow down, either to beat the car to the intersection or else to let it go across ahead of him. Scanning the street along which he was proceeding, never shifting his gaze to confirm what he heard coming from the sides, Misha would trot across the intersection smoothly, radiating coolness and self-confidence.

Again and again we did this, at least two or three nights a week for almost two years, not stopping even after Misha's owners came home to claim him, because by then Misha liked the work we were doing together and wanted to keep at it. Coming to collect me was not difficult for him--his community did not then have a leash law, so of an evening, after his owners let him out, he'd jump their fence and make his way across two cities and a maze of traffic to find me. Usually, he would arrive just after dark. By the light on our front porch I'd see him standing in the street, looking up at our windows like a captain looking for a sailor. One by one, dog secrets were revealed through a series of adventures, some of them dangerous, all of them interesting. Misha was Odysseus, and Cambridge was the winedark sea.

PHOTO: Two dogs

Excerpted from The Hidden Life of Dogs (Houghton Mifflin) by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Copyright 1993 by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.