What the Dogs Know: A Guide Dog's Primer

Think of a dog’s language. Its ours of course—ball, rope, shoe. But for a dog there’s a proto-sign, a dog sign, rich in smells and motions, and pale colors, quick as the sparrow in grass. I think dogs have words before they meet us. For “grouse” it may be something moist or theatrical for dogs are feeling machines as well as hunters. 


As I bonded with Cork I thought about canine lingo. Boarding her first airplane I wondered what her language was turning out? If dogs have commands they in turn have words, ones we cannot know. Smell would necessarily be a big part of the lexicon. 


US Airways, “Dash 8” aircraft… 


For Corky it carried odors of fish bladders and burnt feathers. The smells of human fear. Every person on that plane was quietly scared. Upright stick figures stared at magazines amid stinks of decaying linen and rotten apples. She lay at my feet and I thought that while dogs don’t have preceptive nouns they have a canine genome—a long, hieratic, true dictionary of olfactory resonance. Their smell language is always truthful.


I would spend the rest of my days thinking about this business of dog truth and visceral language. As we walked together through cities like San Francisco I thought over and over about her stink dictionary and her complicated sidelong vision. I began to understand that when a dog sees something they see it for what it is, not what they believe it is. Smell is their confirmatory and simultaneous truth detector. Human beings merely imagine what they’re seeing, playing facts against a rolodex of memories. Dogs don’t have to do this. Their perceptual and optic language is better than ours. 


You learn this about a dog’s language when a dog regularly saves you. We were in the laboratory of real life. 


In one of his notebooks Leonardo DaVinci wrote: “Man has great power of speech, but the greater part thereof is empty and deceitful. The animals have little, but that little is useful and true; and better is a small and certain thing than a great falsehood.” DaVinci was correct about human speech and deceit, and nearly right about animals having a truer lingo, but as an ophtho-centric Renaissance man he couldn’t have guessed how much language the animals have.  

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