Meet the Epicurean Dog
I learned I like dogs. Her Royal Highness Princess Wife … she’s not a big fan of man’s best friend … but she likes cats. It’s not so much that she dislikes dogs but that she doesn’t understand them. Like every other human being, she fears what she doesn’t understand. Dogs exhibit one teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy behavior she can’t get past that prevents her from ever appreciating all the more essential behaviors of dogs, the behaviors that justify the title of “man’s best friend.” It’s that dogs are coprophagist. Meaning … dogs eat poop. And it’s a shame that this one little quirk in dogs, coprophagy, prevents her from knowing the loyalty, nobility and loving nature, the larger nature of a dog.
Years ago I had a Rottweiler named Jake. Jake, although huge and beautiful, was not an extraordinary sort of dog. In fact, around the house he was sort of lazy and boring, just a sleeping and eating machine. But when I took him out to the fields he became animated and full of life. Jake would romp, run and play. I would cringe when I saw him frolicking on the far side of the pasture then stop in his tracks and stare at a piece of ground. I knew he had found a cow patty. Jake didn’t eat the poop, only about 16 percent of dogs do on a regular basis, but he would lower his face to it and rub his jowls through it up to his ears. Then, once he was all poop faced, would come a charging through the field back to me. He would sit on his haunches before me and smile with pride in as much as a dog is capable of smiling with pride. I found this disgusting.
Then I read a book on dogs and learned that when a dog rubs his face in poop he believes he is being the best dog he possibly can be, that he is doing his part, fulfilling a mission, contributing to the common well-being of all he holds dear. Back before dogs were dogs and were more wolf than dog, wild animals living in the social order of the pack, they depended on a high level of cooperation to survive. When a lone dog wandered some distance from the pack and stumbled upon a pile of antelope poop, the dog would rub his face in it and run back to the pack. In doing so he was telling the other dogs in the pack, “Hey! I found poop!” which meant they were close to the antelope that left it … or … “Hey! I found lunch!” And all the other dogs in the pack would say good job and take off in pursuit of the antelope that left the poop. I learned a dog rubbing his face in poop is participating, contributing to a doggie version of cooperative civilization.
After learning this, even though I was still disgusted by the poop smeared all over my dog’s face, I came to appreciate Jake’s efforts. In his own way, he was taking care of the thing he loved most … me. And it became impossible for me not to kneel and make my big brown eyes level with his bigger brown eyes, take his poopy jowls in my hand and say, “Good dog,” because I understood.
Her Royal Highness Princess Wife’s reaction to a dogs propensity for eating poop is illustrative of an intra-species form of ethnocentrism … fearing that which we don’t understand. This fear has real world consequences. Her reaction toward dogs begets a reaction from dogs.
When we are out walking and come across some little dog leashed in someone’s front yard, the little yapper always yaps directly at her but not at me. Last year, we were strolling down a country road and this huge dog charged from some farmer’s front porch and went straight for her and ignored me. Last month we were rambling in the neighborhood and came upon a woman walking a large dog on a leash. The dog began to bark and leapt against the restraints of the leash trying to get to her, but again, acted like I didn’t exist. The dog tugged so hard on the leash he pulled the woman walking him to the ground. My wife’s fear and misunderstanding of dogs often leads to wars with dogs who fear and misunderstand her fears.
And such is our world. Our fears shape us and create the environment in which we must live. The foreign, the different, those who pray differently, speak differently, dress differently, court a mate differently or those who eat poop scares the bejesus out of us. As do tattoos and piercings, skin color, dialect, political persuasion, long hair or shaved heads … whatever is different from ourselves … our reactions to these things elicit reactions. And sometimes these reactions, these fears, lead to conflict.
I do not judge my wife harshly for her fear of dogs. There was a time I would have. I once believed that a person’s reaction to a dog, and conversely, a dog’s reaction to a person, was a measurement of a person’s wholesomeness. But it isn’t true. It is merely a measurement of a person’s understanding of dogs, a thing that with just a bit of effort can be enhanced and bettered.
I don’t pretend to understand why it is that dogs eat poop. Just as I don’t pretend to understand why it is some people eat while sitting on the floor or consider water bugs a delicacy. The big thing I wish to understand is why it is a dog can be so loyal and loving to me. If I can learn this I will have learned a lot … and this … is all I have learned today.
James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org