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At Long Last Love
An interview with Jeffrey Masson

This is one of the first interviews (if not the very first interview) ever to appear in the pages of Bark. It was originally published in Bark’s third issue in fall 1997—back when Bark was still printed in black-and-white on newsprint—when Jeffrey Masson first released his book Dogs Never Lie About Love.

On the day of our interview, Jeffrey Masson’s lovely Berkeley home was a bustle of activity, with friends and family popping in and out, the baby, the three dogs and the cats. There had been a wedding only days earlier and Masson was preparing for a major book tour. We were very grateful that he’d found time to squeeze us in. As we settled in for our talk, the phone rang——his agent calling to talk about Masson’s appearance on Dateline the previous night. “I’ve got to go, I’m being interviewed by the Berkeley Bark,” Masson said, cutting short talk of national TV to give this interview.

Your title is Dogs Never Lie About Love. It reminds me of a Fats Waller song, “Be sure it’s true when you say I love you, it’s a sin to tell a lie.” To me it has always been an odd lyric, because how do you lie about love, or how do you not lie about love——our emotions are so complex. What exactly do you mean by this title?

It was suggested to me by my trainer, a wonderful guy at Guide Dogs for the Blind——Mike Delosi. He said you’re gonna laugh, but I just thought of the best title your book——Dogs Never Lie About Love. Laugh!, it’s perfect! And it really is the thesis of the book, that dogs are incapable of any kid of deceit when it comes to their emotions. They don’t hide them from others and don’t hide them from themselves. We sometimes don’t know what we’re thinking and feeling and certainly often attempt to prevent others from knowing what we’re feeling. Nobody doubts this. But dogs are so upfront about their feelings. They can’t, they just can’t...

They don’t mind being the fool.

That’s right. This is who they are. They don’t think, “If I’m showing my joie de vivre they’ll think I’m unsophisticated and naive. What they’re feeling is who they are. And I think that love is really the master emotion for dogs. They really seem to have an endless supply, an endless capacity to love that just astonishes me.

You say in your introduction that you were originally attracted to the observation of wild animals because you felt that somehow the domestic dog was contaminated by association with humans. Have you changed your mind about this?

Well, I don’t really know. It’s fascinating to me that dogs feel as much as they feel and that we can read them so easily. So the question is, why can we read dogs so easily, why are they so transparent to us and we to them? There’s no other animal like that. We don’t know what a bear is feeling. You know when they’re angry, but you don’t know when they’re sad and disappointed and nostalgic and homesick and all these things that we have in common with dogs. So the question arises, did canines learn it from us or is it just some miracle of parallelism. Or is it that all animals share these things and we just can’t read them. I haven’t discovered the answer to that. I suspect one could. If you were to live with wolves long enough you might be able to say it’s clear that wolves feel the same things that dogs feel, therefore they didn’t get it from us.

Didn’t some of your studies of the wild animals, for instance elephants in the zoo, show that they have a rapport with their people?

Not like dogs, possibly, but not even cats. I have two cats here and I love them but they really don’t have that same intimate constant interaction with us that dogs have. Horses don’t, parrots don’t, no animal does.

It begs the question … Was is there from the beginning, and that’s why we got together with them?

That is an interesting question. But it’d be awfully hard to answer. I think if you knew enough about wolves, if we discovered that wolves show the same emotions with other wolves, then we could say it’s the nature of the beast——it’s not us. But I suspect that it is us. Because dogs are so eager to please us and understand us. When I first got my three dogs, I thought——I can’t do this. It’s just too much, three big dogs walking around Berkeley, how am I going to get them out of the car and into this park without putting each one on a leash. I can’t do it. And lo and behold it was really easy after a while. They figured out what I want from them and they give it to me. It took time, and I didn’t train them. It’s just that they watched me and observed me long enough to figure that “Oh, he want us to do this! Ok, I get it, I can do that.” And that’s amazing! Cats don’t do that, they may know what you want, they just don’t care.

In fact, some part of them may know what you want and do …

...the opposite. And a dog will never do that. Very rarely will a dog do what he knows you don’t want him to do. Very rarely.

My dog is very willful. If he doesn’t want to do what I want him to do he won’t look at me. He pretends he can’t hear me.

Hysterical deafness in dogs.

I find your last book (When Elephants Weep) and this book almost radical because I think it’s been anathema for intellectuals to discuss emotional states in animals. Even though anyone who has ever lived with animals or worked with them in a lab could observe that.

The people who work with them in labs have a vested interest in denying that they feel. Because if you say that you think that a dog can feel pain and can suffer as much, if not more than we can, then what kind of person inflicts that pain? It’s hard. The honest ones will say yes, that animals do suffer but animal testing helps mankind. OK, I don’t agree, but you can live with that. What I don’t like is when they say animals don’t feel anything. I don’t see how they say that about a dog. I mean maybe with a rat, I don’t believe if for a minute, but I can understand someone saying he can’t see emotion in rats.

I think it’s easy for people to denigrate their own observations because of what experts say.

You have to look at what vested interest experts have. In the segment of Dateline I just did they had to have a critic talk about my book so they get Dr. Hart who’s the head of the behavioral clinic at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and he said, “Masson is totally wrong——everything a dog does is pure instinct.” And that is the cliché——that’s what they were taught and it’s very hard to get them to move away from that. You could say that about every human emotion. If a mother saves a child who’s drowning——is that instinct or love?

I expect that there are people who have those theories about humans.

I’m sure that there are. But most people who would say that about a dog would not say it about a human being. Why would a dog have an instinct to save a human being anyway? It can hardly be instinct, and there are literally thousands of stories of dogs that have saved people.

I like something you said in your introduction. You asked, “Why is a lab scientist a more reliable observer?” Most people take it for granted that scientific method is objective and that the scientist must necessarily be an objective observer.

We’ve been taught that. They say, well you’re telling us a story and that’s just an anecdote. Anecdotal evidence. What do they think they have when they’re in the laboratory? It’s just another story. And if you have enough of them, if you’ve collected a thousand similar stories, isn’t that data?

You go over how you selected your dogs and what you were looking for and I was struck that all three were females. Did that make a difference to you?

Well, my publisher was very annoyed about that. He wanted me to have a male dog. And it’s true, it would have been interesting to compare. It just so happened that all three of the ones I wanted turned out to be females. So I’m sorry, I’d like to know whether, for example, males are more aggressive than females. These three dogs are just not aggressive. They have never gotten into a fight with each other or another dog. They’re not perfect dogs by any means, little Simi gives this horrible Grrr to every dog she meets. But she’s never actually gotten into a fight, and I wonder if she were a he, would he get into fights?

They’re all so individual.

That’s true too. Certainly there are male dogs that we encounter that would never fight. And there are certain females that we meet that would. But no dog has ever fought with mine. My theory is that males will not fight with females unless they’re trained to fight. But if we’re just walking around and they do something offensive, males will forgive it right away. And females don’t seem to fight much between themselves.

My dog has a lot of propriety and he expects other dogs to be … dignified. He gives females a lot of slack, but not males.

I think that dogs can be very dignified and there’s a difference in a dog who is not and one who is. It’s an interesting quality. In a lot of the working dogs, I have the sense that they feel that there’s a way to do things and an improper way. I was hoping to get a Border Collie for that reason, but I also hear that they’re hyper. They’ve got to be doing stuff. I’m spending three, four hours a day out with my dogs, so they get plenty of things to do. I didn’t think I would spend quite that much time, but with a little baby it’s fun. I like being out anyway and since it turns out to be my research …

What a nice life. Are these your first dogs in a while?

The last dog I had was a long time ago, about six years ago. I had moved into someone’s house who left the dog behind. An old German Shepherd. And I really bonded with him, I was amazed, but it was in the last year of his life. And before that, in my previous marriage, we had a Standard Poodle for 15 years——I loved that dog! And before that it was as a child. So there haven’t been that many dogs in my life.

I haven’t really had a dog since childhood. My dog now, I feel very conscious of him and have a close bond. And I think that he’s taught me a great deal about human nature, too. I wonder what your dogs have taught you.

For me, that’s how the book came to have this thesis. I really do believe that dogs feel more intensely, more purely, more passionately with less ambivalence than I do. I can’t speak for you, or anyone else, but for me they definitely do. And I want to learn from them, and I do learn from them. How to live in the moment——dogs are very, very good at that. They’re really like little gurus. All these gurus claim to live in the moment, but don’t really do it. Dogs do it. They really live in the moment, and they don’t compare things. I still have a bad habit that I picked up from my parents of comparing one thing to another, one place to another, one person to another. Dogs never do that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the landfill in Berkeley, that tacky little beach opposite where we always go. But it has the world’s ugliest beach! And I took my parents there once and they said, “Jeff how can you even walk on this beach, remember when we were in the South of France and Cannes and do you remember the Italian Riviera?” And I said yeah, this is really tacky …. My dogs——they love it! They’ve been to the most beautiful beaches in the world up in Oregon and here … they don’t care! For them, it’s the moment that counts, they’re with the person they love, they’re chasing sticks, they’re jumping in the water, they’re perfectly happy——they never make those comparisons. So, those are the things I’ve learned from them. Also, I haven’t learned it, but they’re very good at forgiving. That, I’m not so sure I want to learn, but they can do it. I mean you can, I never have, but people hit dogs and a minute later the dog will lick their hand, I mean a minute later! I guess some dogs less than others, some dogs probably will remember and hold a grudge. But most dogs don’t hold grudges, they really don’t.

There is an interesting story in your book about a police dog stopping his master who’s unjustly beating a guy.

It’s a Vicki Hearne story and I believe it. It’s utterly fascinating! I wish I had observed it, I’d love to know what was going through that dog’s mind.

That’s a very complex thing!

Very complex. If that’s true it shows an extraordinary … if it’s true you don’t see it very often, that’s for sure. I asked the police here, “Does a dog ever stop a thief or a shoplifter?” No, they wouldn’t do that, they don’t care, they don’t share our values. But obviously this person had overstepped some canine value. I think it’s an utterly fascinating concept. I’ve never observed that. That’s Vicki Hearne’s. She’s very unsentimental, that was one of the few sentimental stories in her book. She’s a big trainer and I’ve seen a lot of training now and I’m not into it, it’s not my thing.

I believe she’s written about circus animal training. I just saw a film, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which featured a lion trainer, whose attitude toward the lions was adversarial, one of fear ….

Never turn your back, show who’s boss. A lot of dog training is like that too.

The interesting thing about the film is that the lion trainer had a protégé whose attitude was not adversarial, she built a rapport with the lions. The elder trainer had a very grudging respect for his young apprentice——well, it seems to work but someday she’s going to be sorry.

Right, it’s that way with dog training, also. I went to visit one of the legends of training, a guy named Sapir Weiss, have you heard of him? He’s an Israeli paratrooper and he’s trained dogs to carry dynamite. And he was amazing, I have to admit. I walked in and we started arguing right away. He doesn’t believe in emotion, nothing——it’s all training, it’s all conditioning. He says, “It’s all about who’s boss, and I’m the big boss and they know it and I have a way of letting them know this right away.” And I said I didn’t believe it. He said, “You know, I’ll prove it to you.” He said, “Are these three dogs very attached to you? I’m going to walk with them and you call them back to you and I guarantee you they won’t come.” I said no way. And they walked right by me and I called “Sasha, Simi, Rani,” and they looked at me like, “I’m sorry I can’t come”——they wouldn’t budge. I said, “What is this, is it a magic act?” He said, “I convey I’m the boss and they know it, I know how to communicate that to dogs. You don’t hear a single dog in my kennel of ninety dogs barking, do you? That’s because I let them know I won’t tolerate it.” It’s very impressive—I still don’t like it …. He had a dog, a fabulous Schutzhund but the dog seemed miserable, he never goes out, does everything Sapir says and looks at him in constant apprehension.

It’s hard to know how the dog feels about that, but for me, I don’t want to have that kind of relationship.

That’s a good point. I can’t say, but in my opinion, the dog would rather have a more equal kind of relationship. I can’t answer that. But I don’t want that with them, and I’m not going to train them to go blow up trains with dynamite so …. On the other hand I also went through Ian Dunbar’s training with the puppies and that didn’t work so well. I finally decided that the best training was no training—you hang out long enough with the dogs and they figure out what you want and they do it. My dogs come, they stop for traffic, they do the important things. I taught them the command “Leave It” when they’re eating horrible garbage. They do that.

My dog hasn’t got that one down.

Well, when I tell them stay they’re not going to do it, and I’m sure I could train them to do that but it would mean breaking their will to some extent, and I’m just not prepared to do that.

Yes, I don’t relish that authoritarian relationship, consequently my dog is not the perfect obedient dog.

But I think it allows them to be more of who they are. This is also the problem with guide dogs for the blind, I mean I’m very impressed with what they do and obviously it’s wonderful work and it’s wonderful for the blind people, I wonder how wonderful it is for the dog. You know this is not something the dogs would choose to do on their own, given the choice.

Well, you know I think there are some individual dogs who must want to.

Maybe, they take pride in it, yeah.

Like herding and working dogs, a lot of them really love to work and they do take pride, and that’s a big part of life.

But it’s not all of life … pleasure is also part. They’re not big on pleasure at Guide Dogs for the Blind. The dogs have a certain amount of time when they play but my dogs basically play all day. They don’t work and I think it makes them very happy. It’s very hard to judge. Who’s to say who’s a happier dog.

Your dogs have a good life.

They have a very good life.

What say you about leashes?

Berkeley must be the best city in the world to have a dog because we don’t have a leash law on the street. The police don’t always know it but I went to City Hall and got a little piece of paper with the ordinance that says if a dog is obedience trained and is under voice control then it shall be deemed to be upon a leash. The few times that the police have stopped me, I live across the street from the Berkeley Police Station, I’ve just shown it to them and they’ve been very nice about it. Most of the time I don’t get stopped, and I walk around Berkeley with my three dogs off leash, and I really like that. It’s just different, it really is different. It makes me feel that we are more equal. They can stop and sniff things, they can deviate a little bit. I mean, they still basically go where I want to go, it’s not equal in that way, but they’re free and I really like it.

On the other hand there is a leash law in the parks.

Yes there is, and I just don’t obey it. If a ranger tells me to leash them, I do. Most people don’t care. When we go to Inspiration Point for walks, most dogs are off-leash and people are very happy about it. But, at least once a walk, somebody will come to me and say, “Those dogs are supposed to be on a leash!” And the dogs aren’t doing anything, and I ask them, “Can you explain to me how they’re bothering you?” “It’s a law!” “Well you’re right, but they don’t seem to be harming anybody, and they’re getting so much pleasure, do you really want me to leash them? “Yes, I do!” You always get a few, but for research it was interesting to hear that.

Do you ever take your dogs on leash? Because it’s a very different experience.

I really don’t like to do it. Sometimes outside of Berkeley you have to. We went on a camping trip and they were very unpleasant sometimes if the dogs were off-leash so we took them on-leash in the camping grounds. I just hate it!

I think that dogs are more aggressive on-leash.

Definitely.

I’ve read lots of training books, and there are many different theories. Some feel that the dogs become more territorial on your behalf on lead.

I don’t understand it. Another thing I don’t get … my dogs go completely nuts when they’re in the car and we pass a car with another dog or pass another dog on the street. All three of them. Walking down the street they pay no attention.

Not even when the other dog is behind a fence?

Behind a fence, yes. Behind the fence they hate.

I once saw a baseball game when the pitcher hit the batter with a fast ball. The batter stormed the pitcher’s mound in an attitude of “Let me at ‘em.” But both players kept their arms at their sides, shoulders back. Not until teammates came to restrain them did they really start flailing. When they were safely restrained from hurting each other, the killer came out. I see this behavior in dogs behind fences. They can engage in a little aggression because they really can’t do anything.

Maybe you’re right. If they pass each other on the street they could hurt each other, but they can’t in the car or behind a fence. Interesting. But the car thing, I don’t like it and I’ve begged them to stop, but it doesn’t do the slightest good. Not the slightest good.

You were initially not interested in studying dogs—they were perhaps contaminated by their association with humans. Have you also found that you see the wildness in dogs?

Oh yes! That’s the miracle to me, that we are living on intimate terms with a wild animal. It really is, it’s a wolf. There not that much difference between wolves and dogs, and it’s a very humbling experience. Suddenly your dog does something or howls and you feel my God, this is a wild animal and it has accepted me and we are living together! And no other animal gives you that … well cats a bit too, because they really are tigers. But dogs even more, and it’s just such a miracle to me. I can’t get over it.

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Photo: Corinna Koning

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