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Lessons From Man’s Best Friend

As the possibility of a new government shutdown appears this winter, 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; with herding when farming developed; 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 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?”

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?

Homans writes, "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,"

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' hormone triggering positive feelings in people, such as the mother-child bond — as key to the human-canine relationship. One study concluded that oxytocin was released after interactions between people and their dogs — especially the more we looked our dogs in the eye.

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

That approaches a decent conclusion. If an 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 help make them 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 his point 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 as 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 a dog appears, when he darts to the set, nose near the screen, and whines like he's wishing he could save his tiny cousins in the little light box.

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 ride after we walk home, so he gets something, too, but still.)

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.  

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.