Dog Culture

The notion that culture is specifically human– that animals may have instincts and typical behaviors, but do not transmit them through some animal pedagogy– may be brandished by people claiming a hard-headed approach to reality, but “instinct,” when you get down to it, is not much more material than the soul.* Where are the neural correlates of nesting behavior, of seasonal migration, of pecking orders? I can agree that anthropomorphism isn’t a good way to talk about animal minds, that it makes us talk like missionary ethnographers, but when I critique something, I like to have something better to put in its place. For now, unfortunately, the cupboard is bare.

When theory fails, go back to description, which is where I was early this morning when this train of thought started down the track. I was watching Mila, to whom I am connected by affective bonds and sometimes a blue leash, go about her business in the neighborhood. She sniffs; goes, impelled by some deductive process I can’t follow, from one sniffing spot to the next; and moves on. The tree trunks, rocks, and lintels that boy dogs have peed on get most of her attention. But every now and then she picks a spot, positions her hindquarters at an angle, and applies a little jet of pee; then takes up her walking again.

It was the little jets that got my attention. Pardon me if this is vulgar, but when I pee, I am taking care of a physical need– an animal need, some might say. I have liquid in my bladder and I want it out. A satisfactory pee is one that empties the bladder entirely. If something interrupts me halfway through– someone coming in or the phone ringing– it’s not at all comfortable to postpone the second part of the program. An animal action, in the sense I’m designating now, is a behavior that aims at meeting a need and is accomplished when the need is met.

But Mila makes her bladder stop when she’s posted just enough to let other dogs know she’s been there, and goes on her way to drop another of her liquid Easter eggs halfway down the block. This is semiotic behavior, a kind of communication, achieved by modifying– even frustrating– the animal behavior which it takes as its raw material. Dogs have culture, all right. It’s not animal. It’s a culture they perform for each other’s benefit. Shaking hands, standing on their hind legs, wearing cute little hats, are not dog culture but an imposition from ours that other dogs must find meaningless. Maybe this dog culture has something instinctive at its base– there we are again with the hot potato of “instinct”– but the ability to interrupt and control an animal process in order to do something generically unrelated to that process is culture. (I wonder if an objective description of human culture would differ much from that.)

Brillat-Savarin said: “Les animaux se repaissent; l’homme mange; l’homme d’esprit seul sait manger.” I trust the distinctions he’s drawing by the verbs more than I do the distinctions drawn by the nouns.


* Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals: “It is notorious how powerful is the force of habit…. This applies to the nerves of motion and sensation, as well as to those connected with the act of thinking. That some physical change is produced in the nerve-cells or nerves which are habitually used can hardly be doubted, for otherwise it is impossible to understand how the tendency to certain acquired movements is inherited.” “Otherwise it is impossible to understand”: in other words, I don’t understand it, but I have only one hypothesis to go on.