Teddy’s gaze can be fairly crafty. If I settle to read a newspaper, he’ll stare at me unnervingly until I do his bidding (which is usually one of two things: play or move so he can snuggle down). At times his gaze freaks me out. I feel I can pretty much guess what he’s thinking but as for what he’s feeling? I’m not so sure.
I was interested to read an article in the New York Times about the way dogs look at humans. We attribute all sorts of emotions to that gaze. An old piece of research found that when you give a human-raised dog and a human-raised wolf a sealed container of food, the wolf will persist in trying to get it open. The dog will look to the human as if cleverly asking for help. Is that about cognition, different species or the special bond between human and dog?
A new piece of research gave the animals a solvable puzzle – they could open the container of food if they persisted. The wolves persisted. The dogs looked, again, to the humans. But in a pilot study, an 8-week-old (untrained) puppy was able to solve the problem.
“We teach our dogs to be stupid,” says one doctor, in conclusion. Hmmm. We teach our dogs not to act on their instincts – not to chase a squirrel and run in the road, not to bite a child who is pulling their tail – which is really rather clever. We’ve taught our dogs to rely on us. And that’s what I must remember when I really want to read that final paragraph but Teddy’s ‘asking’ – with a stare so intense that it’s burning holes through the newsprint – to play.