"The Social Lives of Dogs"

An excerpt from one of Salon's 10 favorite books of 2000.


Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
December 18, 2000 10:13PM (UTC)

Thus we were delighted to find that ice cream was not the only food he'd share in this very human manner: One evening, somewhat later, Steve was sitting at the kitchen table eating popcorn from a small bowl. Soon, despite his aversion to furniture, Sundog quietly clambered into the chair next to Steve's, seated himself, and glanced at the bowl. Steve understood, and handed a popped kernel to Sundog, who took it delicately. Then Steve ate a kernel while Sundog watched, and Sundog ate a kernel while Steve watched, and so they continued, a kernel for Sundog, a kernel for Steve, until the bowl was empty.

Again the sharing, not the food, was the object. We felt sure of this for two reasons, first because Sundog didn't especially like popcorn and under normal conditions -- if for instance we put popcorn in his bowl -- he wouldn't eat it, and second, because Sundog in his early years was far too well mannered ever to ask at mealtimes for snacks from the table. While we ate, he would lie quietly in the corner and never look at us, let alone nudge us or whine or beg for a handout. At dog dinnertime, however, when he heard the can opener or the kibbles in the bowl, he would rush to the kitchen dog-style, his nails scrabbling on the slippery floor. For popcorn, however, he did nothing of the kind. Instead, when he heard the popcorn popper, he would enter the kitchen with a slow, dignified walk, possibly because he had noticed that human beings don't run into the kitchen for their food, or possibly because the popcorn as such was not important to him. He wasn't coming to the kitchen to eat, he was coming to share.

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That sharing was his aim was confirmed beyond a doubt when we, the human beings, made a great mistake and spoiled everything. One night Steve was eating popcorn while reading a book. Sundog, with his usual quiet dignity, came into the kitchen to share as always, but that night Steve wanted to read without interruption, so when Sundog climbed into the chair and looked at Steve, Steve said, "No," and put several handfuls of popcorn on the floor.

Sundog stared, dismayed. Steve said, "No," again, more firmly. Sundog sat uncertainly for a moment, then, apparently ashamed, he lowered his ears and his head and came cringing down from the chair to walk straight past the popcorn. Without a glance at us he left the room.

Horrified that we had seriously hurt his feelings, we followed him, bringing the bowl of popcorn and calling him to return. We found him in Steve's office, curled miserably on the couch. We offered him popcorn but he turned his face away from the bowl. We saw that we had humiliated him. We saw that we had shown him, bitterly, that he really wasn't one of us after all, that we were people, that we controlled everything, that he was just a dog, that he had presumed beyond his station in trying to be like one of us. He wouldn't look at us, he wouldn't come to us, he wouldn't touch the popcorn, he never returned to the table to share no matter how we tried to tempt him, and for the rest of his life he never ate popcorn again.

--From "The Social Lives of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company," by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Jared Taylor Williams (Illustrator). ) 2000 Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Jared Taylor Williams (Illustrator). Used by permission.

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