Sad but true, I spend more time with Luci, our family’s border collie mix, than even my wife and kids.
You see, Luci can’t be left alone for long because she becomes unhinged and chews doors and furniture, so she’s with me at home and work. I’m grateful for colleagues who tolerate her tailing me around the office.
A Jerry Seinfeld standup routine imagines his dog’s thoughts each time the comedian returns home. “He’s back again! It’s that guy!” Each reunion is as fresh as puppyhood, time reset as in the movie “Groundhog Day.”
Do our pets remember yesterday or imagine tomorrow?
My friend’s dog loves being in our house, but she’s a panting neurotic during the drive here. Why? “Because she doesn’t know where she’s going,” my friend explains, as if it’s obvious. Do our pets ever know where they’re going? Perhaps they think, “If I can just hold out ’til the car stops, I’ll be OK.”
When Luci sees me grab the old towels and the green dog shampoo, she tries to make herself invisible. Perhaps at that moment, reruns of baths play on her mind’s TV screen. Or maybe she’s struck with a wave of ill-defined dread, as emotionally intense as the joy of hearing the lid being lifted off her chow tin.
If Luci’s mood were determined by anticipating what’s to come, then she would experience our occasional separations with growing optimism, looking forward to sweet reunion. Of course that’s not what happens. Instead, her anxiety grows like an approaching storm, as if thinking, “Gad, it’s been over an hour. I don’t think that guy’s ever coming back!”
People proclaim to know what their pets are thinking. When her dog Wendell commits a crime such as stealing food off the countertop, my aunt says, “She knows she’s guilty. Just look at her,” as the dog skulks. Well, I figure Wendell knows his master is displaying dominance and disapproval, but guilt versus innocence? Nah. My aunt then punishes her dog by imprisoning him in the laundry room for an hour, as if Wendell will spend that time reflecting on his transgression and then emerge a contrite ex-con.
I’m not suggesting that our pets’ brains are pure stimulus-response, no more sophisticated than a knee tapped by the doctor’s rubber hammer. Except for our cat. Tilly processes one stimulus every seven seconds. I’ve timed it. If you clap your hands, precisely seven seconds later she turns her head toward the noise. We’ve opened the same sliding glass door for her for years, yet she still waits patiently by the immovable pane. Then when we slide open the opposite side, she looks dumbstruck, as if thinking, “Well, I’ll be darn!”
I need to believe there’s depth to these wonderful creatures. Decades ago, an adult informed me with conviction that dogs lick us because they like the salt on our skin. “What?” I’d said, crestfallen. “You mean it’s not a kiss?”
Still, I don’t believe our pets reflect or foresee more than a few minutes in each direction, which is why I envy them so much. As we humans replay an unpleasant remark heard yesterday, or fuss about an event to take place tomorrow, our pets lie nearby, living in the moment, thinking, “I’m glad that guy’s here.”