Sunday, July 24, 2011

Do Dogs Laugh?

This is how sad Bear was


            When I tickle and play the game of "hand" with my dog, he laughs. The game consists of scratching his armpits while he tries to gently bite my fingers.  I roll him around as he kicks with his back feet and tries to grasp my wrist with his front feet.  It's a game that pits his strength against my strength.  He would never bite to hurt me while playing this game.  I calibrate my strength so that each of us wins.  Bear wins when his teeth grip some part of my hand.  I win when I roll him over on his back and tickle his armpits.  We go back and forth.  Bear's laugh consists of his tongue hanging out while the back of his mouth rises, showing his teeth.  He pants quickly with the breathy sound of "hah hah hah hah."  When I first realized that he was laughing, it was a discovery, a revelation.
          A couple weeks ago we decided that we couldn't afford the expense of grooming two small poodles.  When Fox rescued Bear from the puppy mill, we had no idea that these dogs were so high maintenance.  Their hair grows at astounding speed.  We had to start doing it ourselves.
            Fox is Number One groomer.  I act as support.  I hold, restrain, turn, calm the dogs, and massage Fox's back.
            We started with Gabriel.  He's smaller and more pliant.  Fox worked for almost three hours.  There wasn't much that I could do.  Sometimes I needed to hold Gabe so Fox could work on his delicate parts.  After a long struggle, the job was done.
            It wasn't a work of genius.  Gabriel sported a Punk Poodle-do, all spikes, cowlicks and occasional bald spots.  Fox gave a mighty effort.  It would get better.
            I noticed afterward that Bear looked depressed.  He sat with his chin on his paws.  His eyes radiated sadness.  He didn't want to play.  He wasn't interested in eating a treat.  He was completely inert.  It scared me.  I'd never seen him this way.
            I realized with a flash that he was depressed because Gabriel had gotten a grooming, and he had not.  When Gabe was released from his grooming harness he ran all over the place, doing flips and rolls, rubbing his face on his bed and his toys.
            Gabriel hated the process of being groomed but he loved the result.  He felt great!  He was cooler and lighter.  He didn't pee all over his tummy hair when he lifted his leg.  There were other benefits which I shall not mention here.  As Gabe raced around the coach he was telling the world, "Hey, I feel great!"
            Bear was devastated.  It was painfully obvious.  He remained depressed through the next day.  We got too busy to do his grooming.  We had problems.  On the following day it was finally Bear's turn.
            Months ago, during our early attempts at grooming Bear, we had terrible battles.  It wasn't his fault.  The people in his natal puppy mill were brutal. The sight of grooming implements became a signal for torture.
            Getting Bear to accept grooming has been a long process.  We use a muzzle. We've been bitten but we'll live.  Bear is a seven pound teacup poodle.  He's very strong but the bite is more about terror than pain.  When he explodes, when he reaches that berserker biting state, he's like T-Rex, he's scary.  It's a release of atavistic savagery.  Fox and I have had to conquer our fear of this little dog as much as he's had to conquer his fear of scissors and clippers.
            It's getting easier all the time.  Bear understands how good he'll feel when the grooming is finished.  He WANTS to be groomed, but still, we approach the event cautiously.
            The question inevitably occurs: does Bear envision a future outcome?  Does he prognosticate, does he understand that if he submits to "X" the result will be "Y"?
            My best surmise is that he understands the relationship between cause and effect.  He knows it's in his best interest to submit gracefully to grooming in order to have the result of feeling cooler and cleaner.  He has become cooperative and almost docile.  We aren't ready to give up the muzzle yet, but we're making progress.
            Before I met Bear I had no idea that other species could have such nuanced and subtle emotions.  I lived in a narrow anthropocentric world.  All around me the rich perceptions of other animals filled the air while I remained oblivious.  That has changed.  I am now part of a larger conversation.
            Somewhere, years ago, I read or saw a philosopher discussing the difference between human beings and animals.  "Man is the only creature capable of tears and laughter," he said.
            He was full of smug arrogant crap.  Animals laugh.  Animals weep.  Animals do things of which we have only a vague snippet of awareness.  The philosopher would have been closer to the mark if he had said, "Only human beings can turn this planet into a pile of rubble fit for cockroaches."
            I might have taken him seriously if he had been more honest and less sentimental.
            By the way, Fox is becoming an accomplished dog groomer.  Bear and Gabriel no longer sport "Punk Poodle-do's".  They're sleek gorgeous exemplars of the breed of itsy bitsy poodles.

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