Canonize, verb [with object]
officially declare to be a saint
From Latin canon for catalog of saints
First known use: 14th century
From Latin caninus for canine tooth
First known use: 15th century
–Oxford Dictionaries Online
If canonization is veneration, and canine all things dog, then caninization is a term we desperately need, meaning:
1 officially declare [someone, canine or otherwise] to be in the pantheon of canine saints
2 the process of remaking society along canine lines
Yesterday I witnessed a deeply moving exchange between a small dog, perhaps a Yorkshire terrier, aka Yorkie, standing at most ten inches from the ground at the shoulder, and a medium large dog of mixed breed, somewhat resembling the black and white Border Collie, that alert and playful, yet highly responsible and hard-working guardian so vital in the herding of sheep. When I first glimpsed them, the taller dog was staring off into the distance at something, oblivious to the tiny dog. But the smaller dog, a female, wanted desperately to play. She stood up again and again on her hind legs, gently touching the larger dog with her paws on each side of his muzzle, both to steady herself in this standing position and to get the attention of her would-be friend, as if trying to look him directly in the eye.
Eventually, this tactic succeeded, and the larger dog responded. The dogs went into play pose, dipping their stomachs down to touch the ground, with front legs stretched straight out and hind quarters still fully upright. And they were off. Eventually, the larger dog found the play so much fun, in fact, that he was inspired to try to make a connection of a different kind. The stimulation was just too much.
One could see the interest in the taller dog’s eyes and extreme gentleness of his paw as he lifted it to touch the back of the little dog. He made subtle movements to get into position, but each time she moved ever so slightly aside, suggesting with increasingly ingenious, always good humored messages, that they might continue playing instead. I can’t say I remember too often at all seeing such a kind and gentle exchange between two humans–in any kind of interaction.
This behavior continued for quite a while, nature being the force it is. And yet, the little dog was just as determined to pursue her interest in fun and games. Other dogs came by and the two dogs mingled with them and ran off in opposite directions, or sat still, taking in the rest of the setting. Then, after a few minutes, they found one another again, as if finished socializing with others they liked but with whom they did not have the same special connection. The larger dog gave it one more try and the tiny one reminded him that her interest (and maybe ability, given her size) lay in the other enjoyments they could pursue together–but certainly with him. At this point, he dropped the request and gave in, abandoning himself completely to what she suggested. From this time on, the two were the picture of pure bliss. They were still lost in joy as I finally had to turn to leave.
In the past I realize I’ve mostly observed the behavior of dogs one at a time. Admiration, appreciation, and yes, even caninization of particular dogs has been a mainstay of life as long as I can remember. I was already accustomed to the furtive pleasure of people-watching in a large city, and the more open enjoyment of watching dogs too, but dog-watching has taken on new fascination here. In the dog park right around the corner from my temporary home in Rome, dogs are allowed to run free and do what they choose.
Contrary to caricature, these dogs’ patterns of seeking out others, both canine and human, and deciding on activities to pursue, is not as predictable as it might seem, an indiscriminate orgy of physical impulse knowing no bounds. Rather, it involves a subtle and complex–even sophisticated–emotional choreography. Each dog has his or her unique personality. And the canine capacity for loyalty, heroism, kindness, and courage is a given for any dog lover or reader of the dog stories I grew up on, by authors like Albert Payson Terhune. Great fiction writers and real world observers, these animal anthropologists, or better yet, canine-apologists, remind us that the animal kingdom is also our kingdom. The behavior of dogs, in whose midst we are so lucky to be born, live out our lives, and die, is thus a window into understanding and even realizing more fully our own natures.
How do we make decisions like the ones reached in the touching exchange between the little Yorkie and the Border Collie mix? My interpretation of the drama I witnessed can be hastily dispatched, of course, with the easy epithet of anthropomorphism. I impute human motives and understanding to creatures who lack our same degree of self-consciousness and are driven instead by purely biological imperatives and brute competition.
I think we would be better off questioning this biological fallacy. Can we really explain all aspects of creaturely experience with such dispatch? Are we certain that this isn’t the real anthropomorphism? Reading canine behavior as reducible at all moments to immediate impulse and the survival instinct could be less telling about a dog’s life than about the deficiencies of our own imagination in these times. Are we becoming tone deaf to intricacies we should be training ourselves to hear?
It’s not that I am arguing for canonization of dogs, exactly. I suppose they too have their all-too-human faults. Not always do they resemble the two I saw, with their carefully orchestrated and elaborate conversation that somehow liberated them for a truly intimate delirium. But it might be time to consider the benefits of a little caninization in our own lives.