by Marc Bekoff (University of Chicago £19.50)
A few years ago, my daughter Eleanor went for a walk with her boyfriend Tom, who’d been staying with us. They took our much-loved golden retriever, Fergus.
When they came back, Fergus padded urgently into the kitchen to find my wife, Jane. He looked at her solemnly, nudged her with his wet nose, then turned tail and led her purposefully to the bottom of the stairs.
We don’t allow Fergus upstairs, but he stood there, gazing up and whimpering gently. Jane got the message and ran to find Eleanor, in her bedroom, distraught.
On the walk, Tom had abruptly ended the relationship. It was, effectively, Fergus who broke the news to Jane.
We have a great deal of anecdotal evidence that dogs can be remarkably sensitive creatures, in tune with the needs and moods of their human owners. But Marc Bekoff, a professor of evolutionary biology, has gone a step further, explaining not just what dogs do, but why they do it.
For example, we have always vaguely wondered why our other dog, a poodle-schnauzer cross called Finnegan, usually turns round and round before he settles to do a poo.
Remarkably, many dogs, obeying some kind of primal instinct, line up with the Earth’s magnetic field before they do their business.
As for their energetic sniffing of places where other dogs have urinated, again Bekoff offers some fascinating insight.
They can tell whether the earlier dog was male or female, young or old, and can even pick up its sexual urges.
He estimates that the average dog will spend at least a third of its walk taking in ‘most odiferous scents’ and leaving its own.
‘You might,’ he asserts, ‘compare it to texting. Dogs are getting the previous messages left by others, and peeing is, perhaps, a way of replying. Forcing dogs to walk when they are “texting” is like pulling a smartphone from a teenager’s hand.’
Dogs are able to communicate basic emotions, such as joy, love, anger, fear, grief, anxiety and even depression. We know that they can suffer from post-traumatic stress and exhibit signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, often in response to the way the humans around them are behaving.
CANINE CONFIDENTIAL: WHY DOGS DO WHAT THEY DO by Marc Bekoff
If your dog does appear stressed, Bekoff might have a musical solution. Rather splendidly, he cites research which indicates that ‘soft rock and reggae’ have a soothing effect on highly-strung dogs.
Bekoff suggests that dogs also experience forms of more complex emotions, such as jealousy, guilt, shame, embarrassment, pride and empathy.
While he cautions against the tendency to anthropomorphise the canine world, you don’t need to be a Walt Disney animator to recognise an almost human level of empathy in a lovely story he tells about a dog called Ruby, who helped another dog, Wicket, cross a frozen stream.
Wicket was afraid to go on her own, so Ruby, who had already made it across, went back and, after ten unsuccessful attempts, convinced Wicket to follow her over the ice. Of course, the temptation to see what some dogs do as being ‘almost human’ stems from the assumption that they are inferior to us in every way. They’re not.
That sense of smell, for instance, is around 40 times more highly evolved than our own.
The real fascination of this book, however, lies not so much in what dogs do better than us, but in the virtues they have that we always considered to be ours alone.
Bekoff offers several examples of a doggie sense of humour and I particular like the story of a five-year-old Bernese mountain dog called Benson who likes to walk up to his owner, look her in the eyes, and, after a comedy beat, issue a loud burp.