If Stella is aware of the forces sweeping her world, she shows no sign. My dog is on the floor in front of the couch, ignoring the kittens we adopted recently, partly to entertain her while we’re at work. Her big brown soulful eyes are tilted up at me in constant implicit question.
Stella is an elegant creature, with a high-gloss black coat and the runway model’s trick of looking simultaneously gorgeous and ridiculous. She is not, as a friend says, an intellectual, though I hasten to add, as any parent would, that she’s of above-average intelligence, having learned the basic commands in the space of a week. Not that, as an excitable animal in seemingly perpetual puppyhood, she always follows them. While highly vocal, with a booming baritone bark and a complex secret language of whines and growls, she’s not notably articulate. There’s usually a thought-bubble hovering over her, sometimes describing an unambiguous desire—“Want chicken!”—but often containing murkier information. The closed captioning doesn’t really work very well. Is she depressed? Angry at us for taking her back from the country? Jealous of the fact that the cats get to climb on the furniture? She’s staring at me, waiting for me to figure it out.
Stella is mostly a Labrador—certainly in her goofball ways—but her splotchy purple tongue, curling scimitar tail, and brownish undercoat suggest Chow blood, and sometimes I think there’s a hint of Staffordshire terrier (the dread pit bull) in her face. She’s a mutt, though that’s a word that’s used much less now than it used to be. Stella is also the nexus of several imaginative vectors. She was a birthday present and little sister for our son, Charles; an echo of my childhood dog, also a Lab and mother of many mutt puppies who happily slept outside and hardly knew a leash; and a signifier of my occasional aspiration for a country life. From my point of view, she lives in a haze of nostalgia.
Stella gets enough time in the country to want more, and sometimes, despite the walks and runs and trips to the Tompkins Square dog run, I feel that she’s just passing time till she gets back there. Guilt, along with plastic bags of dog poop, is pretty much a constant in an urban canine-human relationship. Is this any kind of life for a dog? It is a vicarious, low-level existential crisis—what does she need, what is she?—that her imploring eyes seem designed to produce.
The dog’s eyes were designed to induce human concern, of course. A dog’s attentiveness to humans is one of the central differences between a dog and a wolf, probably the determinative one. “Dogs look at people,” says James Serpell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “You can boil it down to something as simple as gaze patterns. With a hand-bred wolf, there are issues getting their attention. Whereas a dog is constantly monitoring the owner for clues on how to behave and what to do.” A dog develops attachments to specific humans, in ways that wolves won’t. Whereas a wolf will try to solve a difficult problem itself (they are, apparently, brilliant at unlocking gates), a dog will quickly give up and look to its human to figure things out.
Serpell, a soft-spoken, sandy-haired Britisher in blue jeans, works in a slightly rickety Victorian on the outskirts of the UPenn campus in Philadelphia. He’s head of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, which is underfunded in the current economic climate. The center has looked into how it might tap the Leona Helmsley fortune but without luck so far. Serpell’s current work involves guide dogs. A small percentage of trained seeing-eye dogs lose their motivation to work after a year or so—“They develop a kind of learned helplessness,” Serpell says. He’s trying to understand whether it’s some breakdown in the interaction between dog and owner or something intrinsic in the dogs themselves.
If learned helplessness sounds like an urban condition, it may be because the dog is more and more an urban species. Even in the suburbs, the dog’s unleashed, unfenced, carefree outdoor life is largely at an end. The dogs are in the house, even in the bed. (The doghouse is now mostly for husbands.) There are no rules to this evolving, increasingly intimate arrangement, and it can give rise to a kind of canine identity crisis. Outside of its country context, the dog plays an ever more human role. Which can make things very confusing. “We’ve seen a linear explosion in pet populations in Western countries over the past 40 years,” Serpell tells me, and notes a correlation with the depressing statistics in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. “People are living more isolated lives, are having fewer children, their marriages aren’t lasting. All these things sort of break down a social network and happen to exactly coincide with the growth in pet populations. I think that what’s happening is simply that we’re allowing animals to fill the gap in our lives.”