First, a disclaimer: I adore dogs. I was raised with them, I’ve helped raise a few of my own, and I’m generally of the mind that life is far better when shared with them. At times when, for one reason or another, I haven’t been able to own a dog—like now—I’ve still sought out canine companionship, either by working as a dog-walker, volunteering at shelters, or just haunting the dog runs at local parks. My husband has wryly observed that I’m on a first-name basis with all the pooches at our neighborhood sandlot—although I often don’t recognize their owners.
Dog-crazy as I am, there’s still a particular kind of dog fandom I’ve never bought into: the idea of dogs as enlightened beings, whose inherent knowledge and understanding surpass that of humans. If bookstore shelves are any indication, this ideology is flourishing; a quick scan of the pet section at Barnes & Noble, or a search on Amazon.com , yields dozens of titles that celebrate “dog wisdom.” Most have been published in the last two or three years.
I’m not talking about gift books here—those collections of adorable puppy photographs, accompanied by harmless bits of “dog sense,” like “Don’t be afraid to get your paws dirty,” or, “Scratch where it itches.” Nor am I talking about the hugely popular new books known as pet memoirs. I have no great enthusiasm for the border collie sagas of Jon Katz, or John Grogan’s runaway bestseller Marley & Me, but I have no real truck with them, either. My own experiences with dogs have led me to acknowledge that training them, living with them, and learning to communicate with them can indeed be hugely rewarding—even life-changing. And stories about doggy trials and tribulations are awfully entertaining.
No, the books that rub my fur the wrong way are the ones with titles like Zen Dogs and Angel Dogs: Divine Messengers of Love. Such tomes (and yes, these are real examples) posit that our hairy, stick-chewing sidekicks are actually fonts of untapped sagacity, whose deep profundity can save us from our own anxious, misguided lives. Authors Kate Solisti-Mattelon and Lynda Niemeier put it this way in their book, Conversations With Dog: An Uncommon Dogalog of Canine Wisdom:
- We are all hungry for wisdom, universal truths, deeper understanding of the purpose of life, and guidance about living balanced lives in harmony with our own purpose and the rhythms of the planet. For years I have been telling people that lying at our feet, curled up at the foot of our beds, or munching in our pastures, are beings who can teach us everything we are seeking. We have only to learn how to open ourselves to hear what they have to tell us.
Solisti-Mattelon and Niemeier—who, by the way, have also co-authored two other books, Conversations With Cat and Conversations With Horse—go on to say: “In English, dog spelled backwards is god. The coincidence is not lost on many of us.”
Well, call me obtuse, but it’s lost on me. Sure, Fido may know the secret of life, but isn’t it more likely that in our “hunger for wisdom and universal truth,” we humans tend to see potential salvation in all kinds of places—including the eyes of our loving, loyal, and conveniently mute housemates? The authors seem to imply that, since dogs live lives unburdened by the hollow vanities and material desires of their human companions, they dwell on a higher plane than we do. Again, that may be so—but I’ll wager that it’s dogs’ lower level of consciousness that makes them carefree. Most dogs’ lives revolve around a few things: food, sleep, sex, attention from their owners, interaction with other dogs, and whatever smells interesting. If they had to worry about mortgages and car payments, HMOs, in-laws, the next presidential election, and getting their kids into the right schools, they’d likely be just as stressed as we are.
While most books that ascribe a deep inner knowledge to dogs are simply annoying (to me, at least), a few are so ludicrous that they border on the hallucinatory. In Timothy Velner’s book, Blue Wisdom: A Dog Named Blue Shares Daily, Simple Wisdom, he describes an interaction between his young daughter and the family dog:
- Lucy came home crying because she was not selected to the soccer team. Blue sat by Lucy’s side, and gently said, “In life you will encounter many unfortunate events, but nothing is ever as bad as it seems…After all, what is the worst that can happen to you in life? Death? Everything dies. Death is part of life. Everything else is simply an event that allows you to realize your potential. And if you live with that purpose in mind you will never be disappointed.”
This is just one of many pronouncements that Blue makes throughout the book, and Velner (who is identified as an attorney in his author bio—mind-altering drugs are not mentioned) records them as though he is simply taking dictation. The envelope is pushed even further in Llyn de Danaan’s Koans for the Inner Dog: A Guide to Canine Enlightenment. Here, the doggy declarations have formal attributions:
- It is never true that the bark is worse than the bite. A bite is always worse and is spiritually dangerous for the biter. —Foxy, Akita poet and painter
Believe it or not, I think projecting such nonsense onto dogs is worse than laughable. I think it can actually be harmful (at least, to dogs). After all, how can we hope to train dogs properly—to teach them to avoid oncoming cars, and refrain from biting passing strangers—if we’ve decided they’re our spiritual superiors? Regardless of what innate wisdom they do or don’t possess, dogs that are able to peacefully coexist (and just plain exist) in our anthropocentric world do so by following certain rules. Since it’s up to us to teach them those rules, we need to remember who’s in charge.
At the end of the day, I suppose that as long as people do their best to raise happy, healthy dogs, it’s none of my business what they believe. But I stop myself from wondering about Herbert Brokering, whose book Dog Psalms: Prayers My Dogs Have Taught Me interprets canines thusly:
- I am dog…the tides of the oceans are in me. I wiggle as I ride waves, hear love calls of ancient forests, feel the kiss of a wisp of wind. I have a spirit that runs through all times.
But what I really want to know is, do his dogs come when they’re called?