Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Headaches and Heartaches of Dogs

I just finished reading 'My Dog Tulip', by J.R. Ackerley - an endearing book on the ins and outs of Ackerley's dog, Tulip. It is a book that only ardent dog lovers can read, filled as it is with details of Tulip's anatomy and physiology, described though in an eloquent, poetic style (interspersed with occasional irritation or impatience with those who failed to understand the magnificence of this beast who could do no wrong).

Over the years, frustrated by the limitations that urban life imposed upon the large female alsation, Ackerley began walking her in the woods and leaving her to her instincts. This seems to have enriched their relationship all the more and he ends the book with a general thought about the fate of dogs and how little we know or think about their needs. For instance, how many of us would know whether dogs suffered from headaches?

I have wondered about this occasionally and have also wondered whether dogs might suffer from toothaches and how they might communicate this to us. I quote a couple of more general passages from this book, descriptive and thought provoking:

"This is our goal, our haven. Here, where the silver trees rise in their thousands from a rolling sea of bracken, Tulip turns into the wild beast she resembles. Especially at this early hour the beautiful, remote place must reek of its small denizens, and the scent of the recent passage of rabbits and squirrels, or the sound of the nervous beating of their nearby hidden hearts, throws her into a fever of excitement. The bracken is shoulder high, but soon she is leaping over it. Round and round she goes, rhythmically rising and falling, like a little painted horse in a roundabout, her fore legs flexed for pouncing, her tall ears pricked and focussed, for she has located a rabbit in a bush. Useless to go after it, she has learnt that; the rabbit simply dives out the other side and is lost. Her new technique is cleverer and more strenuous. She must be everywhere at once. She must engirdle the crafty, timid creature and confuse it with her swiftness so that it knows not which way to turn. And barking is unwisdom, she has discovered that too, for although it may add to the general terrorizing effect of her tactic, it also hinders her own hearing of the tiny, furtive movement in the midst of the bush. Silently, therefore, or with only a muted whimpering of emotion, she rises and falls, effortlessly, falls and rises, like a dolphin out of the green sea among the silver masts, herself the colour of their bark, battling her wits with those of her prey. The rabbit can bear no more and makes its dart; in a flash, with a yelp, she is after it, streaking down the narrow track. Rabbits are agile and clever. This one flies, bounds, doubles, then bounces like a ball and shoots off at right angles. But Tulip is clever too. She knows now where the burrows lie and is not to be hoodwinked. The rabbit has fled downhill to the right; she sheers off to the left, and a tiny scream pierces the quiet morning and my heart. Alas, Tulip has killed! I push through the undergrowth to the scene of death. She is recumbent, at breakfast. Casting an anxious glance over her shoulder at my approach, she gets up and removes her bag to a safer distance. I follow. She rises again, the limp thing in her jaws, and confronts me defiantly."

Along more general lines, Ackerely writes about Tulip's wooers:

"Indeed, now that I was a spectator merely, observing with detachment, I thought of them more deeply and regretted that I had added to canine social difficulties by my persecution of their fellows in the past. Not that I truly cared for them. Whatever breed or non-breed they might be, they seemed too preposterous or indistinct beside the wild beauty of my imperial bitch; but I saw how amiable and well-mannered they mostly were, in a way how sad, above all how nervous with their air of surreptitious guilt, and meeting the mild, worried brown eyes that often studied me and my friendly hand with doubt, I realized clearly, perhaps for the first time, what strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they are expected unquestioningly to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or "put to sleep" without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid seige to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed--did they suffer from headaches? Infinite pains I now took to reassure them, and sometimes succeeded. They perceived, after all, that, surprisingly enough, I did not mean to bully them or interfere; they saw too what a comradely relationship existed between myself and Tulip, whom I was always stooping down to caress and praise; in the end they would come confidently to meet me and put their cold noses against my hand."

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