Canine observer delves into the 'hidden' lives of man's best friends It's a dog's life Patrick A. McGuire

December 12, 1993|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas once spent 18 hours in a remote corner of the Arctic Circle's Baffin Island, doing nothing but watching a wolf sleep. The high point was when the wolf woke up and yawned.

If that doesn't sound boring, perhaps you have a future as an anthropologist.

"No, it wasn't boring at all, I was thrilled," says Ms. Thomas, the best-selling author of "The Hidden Life of Dogs," an elegantly written book of personal observations about canines that, in four months, has sold almost half a million copies.

The 18 hours on Baffin Island were just a small piece of the more than 100,000 hours Ms. Thomas spent watching wolves, dingoes and mostly her own family dogs over a 12-year period beginning in 1969. And lest there be any concern that her book is simply another dry collection of scientific data, she dispels it in her first sentence.

"This is a book about dog consciousness," she writes, and in the remaining 148 pages of crisp, unsentimental narrative, talks of "dog values" and her belief that dogs think, feel, fall in love, keep secrets and even smile.

An acclaimed novelist and non-fiction writer who has observed elephants in Namibia and lions and hyenas in the Kalahari desert, Ms. Thomas is a self-trained anthropologist without a formal scientific background. She seems unfazed that some scientists charge her with anthropomorphism -- using human qualities to explain animal behavior.

"The value of her book is that it's on the best-seller list," sniffs Dr. Katherine Houpt, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University. "She can talk all she wants about dog consciousness . . . it's difficult to prove it."

Educated observer

Yet, says Ms. Thomas, she has never claimed to be a scientist, just an educated observer.

"I just want to know what any old dog will do -- what is its story, what is it thinking, what is its world, what is it making of its world?" she says during a recent promotional tour in Washington.

"The kind of thing I'm looking at is not measurable at all. Therefore 'measuring' scientists have a problem with it. Why they do I have no idea. I feel there's lots and lots of people out there who have dogs who know perfectly well that what I'm saying is true."

Although her formal education is in English -- she graduated from Radcliffe and has a master's degree from George Washington University -- Ms. Thomas traces her endless fascination with animal behavior to her New England childhood.

"We had dogs and cats when I was young, and the cats had their own life," she says. "They were just plain old cats down in the basement yowling. The yowls would come up through the hot-air system, and it was very wonderful and spooky to picture them down there living this life of theirs. What were they doing? It was so great to think of their secret, hidden lives."

While several people have written about the inner life of cats, she found that no one had done any in-depth look at domesticated dogs. "We tend to study animals for what they can teach us about ourselves," she wrote, noting that for all the effort of past dog researchers, "we could not answer the simplest question: What do dogs want?"

Thus, in 1969 she decided to start recording her observations about her own dogs.

"Dogs are accessible," she explains. "They are there with you all the time, and if they're interacting with each other they're doing that right under your nose and they'll do it for their whole lifetime. There isn't any other animal except a cat you could watch with that intensity."

She ultimately focused on a group of 11 dogs -- five males and six females, starting with a husky named Misha who belonged to friends. She followed Misha for miles each day as he went roaming, (in pre-leash-law days) observing where he went, what he did and whom he did it with.

A canine couple

Based on her observations of Misha and Maria, his eventual wife (she uses terms like husband, wife, marriage and children in talking of dogs and their families) she began understanding their actions. She found, for instance that Misha had developed definite strategies for dealing with traffic. He would cross a street not at the corner of an intersection, but would walk to the middle of a block where traffic could be observed more easily.

She also noted that when Misha and another dog met and jostled each other it seemed to be their way of feeling each other's mass -- sizing each other up. She observed that dogs probably urinate on mailboxes and fireplugs and street signs to erase the scent of other dogs and to mark their way. She found that dogs like to roam -- not to accomplish any particular task but simply to see the world.

But the most significant observation of her "dogological studies" was coming to grips with her ultimate question.

What dogs really want

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