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My dog supports anthropomorphism

  • November 20th, 2017

A report (linked through Flipboard) on research into brain activity associated with breath control asserts:
“Humans’ ability to control and regulate their brain is unique: e.g., controlling emotions, deciding to stay awake despite being tired, or suppressing thoughts. These abilities are not trivial, nor do humans share them with many animals. Breathing is similar: animals do not alter their breathing speed volitionally; their breathing normally only changes in response to running, resting, etc.

It is said that one negation disproves a theory. My current hunting companion, Lottie-dog aged 10 years, proves that at least one animal can and does alter her breathing volitionally.

When we hunt, panting is a default routine whenever we stop moving. Sometimes it is because she has been working hard (she has only three legs so climbing can be tough for her) but generally it appears to be to lose heat, not for oxygen. So panting is normal after movement on any warm day. Panting can be noisy. It can seem overwhelmingly loud deep in the windless bush.

But if we are both listening hard, trying to hear whether  a deer we’ve disturbed is sneaking away, she closes her mouth and stops panting. She will do that if I ask her to even if she hot or has just run back to me (often when she has scouted the vicinity and is satisfied there is nothing of interest close in).

I say “shush”, and show I am listening deliberately. She will stop panting for up to 10 second periods with quick catch up panting in between. She can try to suppress the noise even in the unavoidable panting phases, dropping her head near the ground and licking her lips.

She may join in listening,  flicking her ears up or swivelling her head to concentrate, if she knows I am concentrating on sound, stopping her panting to do so. She will do that even if she has not been been showing interest in the surroundings. But when it is to humour me it is for more brief intervals. She lets me know when she thinks I am displaying my frequent abysmal (to her) understanding of whose scent is in the air, and what is going on around us. By lying down and looking in the opposite direction.

I did not try to teach her to silence her breathing. I did not teach her to listen while I was overtly listening. Many years ago she just started showing that understanding of what we were doing together.

But now she is getting tired. Her back has stiffened after years of asymetric thrust from one rear leg. She will still come out for hours of walking and watching. Her eager eyes follow every move in preparation. But once it is clear that I have running shoes instead of boots, or if I look to be heading for a motor-bike not a quad she can ride on with me, or if I grab my mountain bike, the head turns away in embarrassment. She pretends to have not noticed I’m heading out, just in case I call her to come as a command. She does not want to exhaust herself running the 10-20 km that was once so exciting and that she could still do, but only at the cost of days of pain to follow.

So now she is showing me how many emotions and capacities we share, and  what lies in store for me. I too will give up the full days of hunting. She knows I’m compromising now. She seems to be no longer surprised or frustrated that I leave a deer we can both see too far away across a deep gully.

I’ve already stopped trying to carry a carcase. I may have another dog life left, so she will not be the last. But she may be the next to last. But perhaps my next dog will not get enough shared hunting time to learn to listen with me, and to control her breathing. Perhaps it will not be as smart as Lottie. But it will be far more agile than me. I will not have the energy to hide from the next dog the way I could from Lottie in our bamboozle game. I’d get away by climbing a cliff she would have to find a way around. While she was working out how to catch up I’d make a confusing scent trail, then hide.

The next dog will not have to learn to trust me to lift her safely down cliff drops. But the next dog will have to make more allowances for me.  It will do that, uncomplainingly.

This post has become unapologetically anthropomorphic.  We share so  much more than  scientists allow.



  • Daniel Silva
  • November 20th, 2017
  • 7:40 pm


  • Ted Money
  • November 23rd, 2017
  • 9:11 pm

Fantastic. A lifetime with dogs had me agreeing again and again.

  • powderburns
  • December 7th, 2017
  • 6:47 pm

Nice. Its seems to me that we have biological memory. We evolved over so many millions of years probably side by side with dogs. The modern ego doesn’t like that idea. That some thoughts are in our blood, in our primitive uncontrollable brain. It gives you pause to think that most of our history we have forgotten. But perhaps our dogs haven’t.

  • Tauhei Notts
  • January 9th, 2018
  • 11:34 am

Stephen, your holiday must be over by now.
We want some more of your comments.

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