We see many things in our dogs’ eyes, the windows of their souls. They are also mirrors of the human soul, since every pair of dog’s eyes reflects—for better and for worse—how well that dog has been treated by our own kind. Dogs read our eyes and are attentive ethologists of human behavior, action, emotion and intuition. A change in tone of voice can make a dog tremble in fear or dance and yap for joy. Such ability to read human behavior, intentions and emotions was naturally selected for as dogs domesticated themselves and adapted to life with Homo sapiens, the “killer ape.”
Civilizing the Killer Ape
I like the hypothesis proposed by some anthropologists, ethologists and evolutionary biologists that wolves domesticated humans, turning, through example, our killer-ape ancestors into more socially cohesive and better organized hunting bands and communities. But I prefer the view of mutual cooperation and an actual coevolution of killer ape and wolf. The bolder, less fearful and gentle wolves who could tolerate close proximity to these half-human killer apes, staying close to human settlements and encampments, interbred and turned themselves into dogs to become our best nonhuman friend as well as home, family—and much later—livestock protector.
These half-human killer apes were never to be fully trusted, however, since when they were very hungry, or warring between themselves, they would often engage in cannibalism, as today, people still kill and eat dogs for sustenance and “good medicine.” (See James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough.).
Just as not every dog is fully domesticated, in that some can still turn feral, and others turn on their masters, so the wolf has failed to fully domesticate and civilize the killer ape. We still wage war with our own kind, and ignore the biological wisdom and prescience of such injunctions as do no harm, resist evil and treat others as we would have them treat us. All good dogs know this, and show it in their eyes and behavior. (But they have not forgotten how and where to bite!)
The secure, well-loved and understood dog is more often an extrovert than an ambivert wary of strangers. Secure, well-loved and understood wolves, in contrast (with few exceptions, some of whom become more easy-going around new people and in new places as they grow older, as did Tiny in her early teens), are more often ambiverts or introverts. They are fearful when meeting unfamiliar people. Differences in individual, breed and species autonomic tuning (as mentioned earlier) also account for differences in disease resistance, temperament and learning ability.
The Canid Conscience
But regardless of these dog and wolf differences and similarities, divergences and convergences of their evolutionary biology, at the spirit-core of their being they are identical. The dogs and wolves and other wild canids whom I have raised since soon after birth and shared my life with have had the same deep heart’s essence that I saw in their eyes and which they expressed in their gestures and demeanor toward me: trust, tenderness, empathy, playfulness and full awareness (not simply conditioned obedience) social boundaries and acceptable—and unacceptable—behaviors. I call this ”canid conscience,” which in many respects is far better developed than the conscience of many of our own kind—a far less gentle species indeed.
Good dogs can see and respond to our own deep heart’s core of love and devotion because it is from this center of our own being that we embrace and celebrate theirs. That is what Franz Kafka in his essay, Investigation of a Dog, meant, I believe, when he wrote: “All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all awareness, is contained in the dog.” And this is why the ancient Egyptians believed that dogs were our guide in the afterlife—they were such good guides and loyal companions in real life. Embodying finer qualities of feeling and sensibility than the relatively irresponsible and emotionally challenged average human, dogs are worthy of being looked up to with awe and gratitude. We should help others of our own kind feel and know that in the deep heart’s core of all good dogs and wild wolves lies the source of an abiding affection that we, in moments of grace and communion, may share.