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Knight: Every day should be a 'dog day'

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Jake-tie2
Jake-tie1

As the government shutdown vanishes for a few weeks, the lack of even superficial relationships on Capitol Hill makes one long for some positive parallel in constructive interactions.

Even connections that may be partly illusions.

Take dogs. For millennia, human beings across oceans and continents have had dogs. They helped with hunting. They helped with herding when farming developed. They helped with guarding when people set up homes.

We have needed them.

But, do we? Especially in the 21st century?

"Need" is a loaded word. "Want" is OK. (People NEED decent-paying jobs; we WANT nice bosses.)

Some eggheads — probably prospering on government Grants Studying the Obvious — conclude that dogs have evolved to become adept at shaping people's behavior. To them, dogs are just skilled liars.

Like politicians, you say?

No, no — SKILLED liars.

A guy named John Archer, an evolutionary psychologist ("So, Mr. Triceratops, how did the tar pits make you FEEL?"), comes close to dismissing dogs as furry parasites, according to John Homans' book "What's A Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy and Politics of Man's Best Friend."

In a 1997 paper, Archer wrote, "Pets can be considered to manipulate the human species."

Really. Is that like a Ted Cruz filibuster or "man's inhumanity to man," only with more panting?

"Archer suggests that the 'infant schema' of a dog's face — essentially, the high forehead, big eyes, short snout and floppy ears — might have evolved to take advantage of humans' innate responses [since] these features elicit a human caregiver's response," Homans writes.

Hmm. Maybe. But if a parent walked in to some pediatrician's office cradling an infant with ears like my British lab, I think the waiting room would empty faster than Democrats excusing themselves at an NRA reception.

Others speculate that our attraction to dogs is physiological.

"An increasing amount of evidence points to oxytocin — mammals' amazing hormone that triggers positive feelings in people, such as the mother-child bond — as integral to the human-canine relationship. A 2009 study concluded that oxytocin was released after interactions between people and their dogs — especially the more we looked our dogs in the eye.

"A dog's willingness to gaze at a human is also one of the basic differences between dogs and wolves," Homans writes.

That approaches a decent conclusion. If a big old ironwood tree could bat a couple of eyes at a lumberjack, maybe more furniture would be made of metal. (On the other hand, hunters seem to have no problem with deer, whose eyes are like the runway models of the animal kingdom.)

I think communications, however clumsy, is more on target. (My aunt once remarked that if fish could scream in pain, our diets would be much different.)

My 3-year-old lab, Jake, communicates. He's a pal, an eager, forgiving buddy who doesn't talk but still gets the message across. Maybe like Joe Biden with laryngitis.

Jake huffs playfully, groans in-close-to-vocalizing ways as he yawns, and only uses his "big boy bark" when he's startled or sees a dog on our yard.

He frequently cocks his head as if to say, "Wait-what? Really? Huh?" (You know, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg when Antonin Scalia talks.)

Jake paws his water dish, alerting me not just to the absence of water, but the lack of COLD water.

He stares me awake when it's time to rise and shine and pee.

And he politely begs like some fuzzy Oliver ("Please, sir... More?"), drool dripping like a punctuation mark.

When he's on the sofa with me, he puts his paw on my forearm like I need reassurance. And he's indulged me so often when I watch TV that he now watches on his own, mildly transfixed — as if he's struggling to make sense out of rapidly moving images, schedule grids, clicker mania — until an actual dog appears, when he darts to the set, nose near the screen, and whines like he's wishing he could save his tiny cousins from the light box — or scare them off.

Amazingly happy (some dogs quietly woof or slightly move their paws when they dream; Jake WAGS HIS TAIL when he sleeps), he's at least learned to mimic smiling by opening his mouth and locking eyes.

Jake can be a spoofer, too, greeting me at the door like he hasn't been out in HOURS although upon returning from a back-yard Squirrel Staredown I'm told he was in the yard just before I got home. And although he may have just finished a dog biscuit or a peanut butter-clogged Kong, a newcomer into the room often finds him dutifully staring at the cookie jar where treats are kept.

Manipulation works both ways, too. When I'm in the second half hour of a walk and Jake's piddling and rolling around rather than doing his doody, I say, "If you poop, we'll go for a ride in the car," and most of the time the dump occurs within minutes.

(OK, we also go for a short ride after we walk home, so he gets something, too, but still.)

The dog — my dog, Jake — is part of a mutually manipulative, positive relationship.

It's the mutual-ness, the connections, that makes it work.

If only Harry Reid had better eyes, or John Boehner had floppy ears. I'd love to see Aaron Schock rubbing Dick Durbin's belly.

About the Author
Bill Knight recently retired after a couple decades teaching journalism at Western Illinois University. Now, you might find him strolling through the streets of Elmwood with his wife and fellow writer, Terry Bibo, along with their son, Opie, and his beloved collie, Lassie.* *Actually this last bit isn’t true. Not to mention the fact that our writer got “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Lassie & Timmy” mixed up.