Observing my dog Ace over the past year – at the beach, in the mountains, in deserts, forests, city streets, suburban lawns and campgrounds all across the USA — I’ve noticed that he is much more interested in some forms of wildlife than he is in others.
Between our travels and the five years we shared before that, I’ve been able to chart the degree of fascination he seems to hold for different species of animals — from those that seem to enthrall him to those whose appearances produce a reaction more like ho-hum, been there, done that.
When I say “chart,” I am not using the term loosely:
Using a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being barely piquing his curiousity, 10 being the utmost peak of piqued — I have ranked Ace’s seeming degree of interest in cats, crabs, cows and other creatures. Keep in mind, every dog — based on his genes and environment — probably has a different scale of interest in other species. So your actual dog may vary.
I have no idea how much of Ace’s reaction is sight-based, as opposed to scent-based, but it seems he’s most excited about species he has never seen (or smelled) before, or only rarely sees (or smells), whereas as those that are a part of every day, squirrels for instance — abbreviated as SQ in the chart above — are worth little more than a yawn.
If, however, there are two squirrels, and they are chasing each other around a tree, or along a telephone line, making squirrel noises, then Ace’s interest rises to an 8.
He was slightly more interested in the white squirrels of Brevard, but that may be because I didn’t let him out of the car, or because he detected I was more interested in them.
Where we are staying now, in a residential neighborhood in Winston-Salem, N.C., there are tons of chipmunks — OK, not tons, but a whole lot — and I’m pretty sure Ace had never seen a chipmunk before. On Ace’s scale, chipmunks rate a 7. He doesn’t that get excited when he sees one, but when they suddenly disappear from view, going down a hole in the ground, his ears prick up, his head rises, he scouts around with a look of concern in his eyes. Then a minute later he seems to have forgotten about them.
Ducks rate a 2, probably because he sees them often — basically everytime he goes to visit my mother (mom rated a 2 with him, but since she’s gotten into the routine of giving him treats, she’s now a full 10).
Don’t get me wrong. He likes the ducks at Arbor Acres, but they don’t seem to stimulate him as much as they did the first time he saw them.
Baby ducks are another story.
He was fascinated — a 9 on the scale — by those my mother was harboring in her room a couple of years back, perhaps because they were babies, perhaps because they were in her room, or, again, maybe because we were so interested in them.
He seems to be very interested in all forms of babies, with the possible exception of human ones, who rate a quick sniff and only a 2 on the Scale of Interest.
Cats rate the maximum 10. While he has seen a lot, and co-resided temporarily with a couple — Miley, for one — his fascination with cats has never diminished.
That’s Maverick to the left, a cat in our neighborhood who Ace spent a good 15 minutes staring at on a recent afternoon.
No other animal species makes Ace perk up as much as a cat. They tend to avoid him (except for staring contests from afar). In our travels, we stayed with at least three. He befriended those who let him. Those who avoided him only made him more intrigued. The only thing more interesting than a cat in full view, it seems, is an almost hidden one whose, say, tail, is poking out from under a chair.
But I’d probably be wrong.
Rabbits rate an 8 with Ace.
He saw several while we were staying in our trailer in the Arizona desert, and lots more — though they seem a shorter and stubbier, slightly more fluffy variety — here in North Carolina.
I don’t know how skunks rate with Ace, and hope I never find out. I don’t know how bears rate, and would just as soon avoid learning that as well.
As for bugs, it depends on what they’re doing and where they are. A cricket in the house can rise to an 8 on his scale. An ant on the sidewalk rates a 1 or less. A bee or fly hovering around his face gets his attention, but is more an annoyance to be snapped at than a species to be studied.
Cows rate about a 4, while horses come in at an average of 6. Horses in a distant pasture aren’t too exciting to him, but one that’s up close merits his scrutiny. He was all but smitten with, and only slightly wary of, a horse named Goblin that we met in Maine.
Turtles rate a 9, in large part — and again I’m using my human brain to guess — because of their novelty and the way they move, taking a few steps, disappearing into their shells, sticking their heads out and taking a few steps more.
Crabs are a curiosity as well, rating a 5 when they are alive and moving, only a 2 when they’ve gone to the great beyond, leaving their earthly shells behind. Then they are but flotsam, part of the potpourri of beach muck that, while definitely worth a good long sniff, is otherwise like a bad summertime novel. After a chapter or less you move on.
That leaves humans, who in some ways are difficult to rank on the scale.
A baby human, to Ace, is like a crab — about a 5, worth sniffing but not lingering with. A baby’s cry must be checked out, but once it is, Ace no longer appreciates it. A human with a bag — no matter what’s in it — is a full 10.
Humans aged 5 to 12 rate a 7. Adult males rate an 8. Adult females rate a 9. Humans with treats rate a 15.
Homeless people rate an 11. I don’t know if it’s because of more interesting scents, or because they usually have bags. Maybe, too, it’s because they often sit on the sidewalk and dogs seem to appreciate it when humans are at their level.
In every town in our travels that we encountered homeless folk — and that was pretty much every town in our travels — Ace seemed to feel the need to at least say hi, if not take a seat or lay down next to them.
I hesitate to add to all my previous anthropomorphizations — assuming that’s a word, and I spelled it right — but permit me one more unscientific human interpretation of my dog’s behavior.
Most dogs experts will tell you compassion is not in a dog’s emotional repertoire. But this is what I like, and tend, to believe:
I think he can sense when somebody needs a friend.
(Photos by John Woestendiek; graphic by Joe Woestendiek)