Hector in the hammock pretending to be human

Hector in the hammock pretending to be human

‘Anthropomorphism’ is a very difficult word to pronounce, so I hope nobody tackles me on the subject after the cocktail hour. Or anytime at all really, because people get very heated on the subject. When your dog has polished off a stolen six-pack of eggs and he’s slinking around refusing to meet your eye and you say, “Ah! He knows he’s been a naughty boy”, they will yell at you.

These Anthropodeniers – and yes, it is a word – don’t credit animals with any inner life at all. “He’s not feeling guilty,” they cry, getting redder and redder in the face. “Guilt and shame are ‘higher complex emotions’. He is simply frightened of being punished. It’s a learned response from the last time you went ape-shit”. etc etc.

Well OK, I get what they are saying. It’s very easy to ascribe emotions to our dogs that they probably don’t have. I was wondering, only today, whether Hector was bored, when it occurred to me that probably he doesn’t get bored (like me) at all. He’s more like a laptop that has gone into standby/screensaver mode; with a kind of instinctual pragmatism he goes to ‘sleep’ until booted up into instant bright alertness by a word like ‘walkies’ or the sound of a fridge door being opened.

But if I imagine he is bored, I’m going to take him out and throw him a stick. If I imagine he is lonely, stuck in his crate while I am at a party, I am going to make my excuses and leave. So my anthropomorphism, even if it is ‘bad science’ or sentimentalism, is also a kind of empathy and it works in Hector’s favour.

Sometimes I watch Hector twitching and yelping in his sleep and of course I speculate about the fields of his dreams and the creatures he might be chasing or fighting there. Who wouldn’t? You’d have to be practically inhuman not to project your human-ness onto your animal.

There are limits, of course. A friend of a friend has a Pug and they go to Pug parties, apparently, where the dogs are bibbed and tuckered up as cheeky Bellhops, Nurses, Petit Matelots. So far, thank goodness, I have resisted such loopiness.

Which is not to say I haven’t been tempted. I wanted to put Hector in a Pork Pie hat to illustrate my last post. (I didn’t mention the word out loud in case he got his hopes up.) I couldn’t find one. And when I see black Labs with red paisley neckerchiefs I always think “nice!” – until the inevitable associations impinge. ie. men with a taste for single malts, with garages full of vintage cars, with ancient Nortons that they want to take you on the back of… No-oo!

I suppose, the truth is, I feel a little guilty about it all. (She says – exercising her often regrettable capacity for ‘higher complex emotion’.) Week after week, putting thoughts into Hector’s mind, and words into his mouth, turning him into a ‘character’, roping him into the vacated roles of partners, dead or gone, and children, scattered. I do feel as if I am sinning, somehow, against the purity and integrity of his animal essence.

In my defence, I blame my pedigree. I have been bred on a diet of Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows, Beatrix Potter, Mickey Mouse and Animal Farm.

And Hector is still a mystery to me. (“What’s your horoscope, Hector?”, “Hey, I’m a Labrador, I’m biddable, affectionate and loyal.”)

That’s why I’m guided, ultimately, by his tail. Upbeat, down-beat, no-beat, drooping, wagging, round and around like a Catherine Wheel when he meets a favourite doggy friend or Huw. Does that mean he is happy as we know it? Or simply animally excited?

“Are you happy, Hector?”
“Woof”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that, as your Dad used to say when he was losing an arguement, ‘it’s semantics, just semantics…'”
“OK. In that case, shall we bury this bone of contention and head down to the beach?”
“Woof woof”
“Sorted”