My next job was to clean the dirt and blood from Earnest’s face. He was still quite agitated, but settled down when I spoke quietly and firmly to him. He sat still, as he has been conditioned to do, and allowed me to clean him up, which I did with warm water, wet towels and then with pre-moistened paper wipes. As I gently scrubbed away the dirt and death from his face, I thought about the instinct that had prompted him to pounce. He has not been trained as a hunter. Not in this life. He came to live with me when he was still a puppy after spending the first months of his life living quietly in a SoCal apartment, much loved by the man who had had him since birth, so loved that when that man realized that the rigors of his job would keep him from giving this little dog the attention he felt the pup deserved, he looked for another home with someone who had time to share with his beloved dog. That someone was me. Earnest has always been a peaceful and affectionate dog, responsive and aware, ready and willing to learn all that is necessary to live in a human household. He has become a dear friend, and I have always appreciated and encouraged his peaceful nature, praising him when he greets others with friendliness, hugging him when he offers kind kisses to other dogs.
Then suddenly, with stunning swiftness, he kills another creature. As I picked up that limp body, noticing the pink padded possum toes, the closed eyes beside a razor sharp nose, the strange grey fur interrupted by coarser longer hairs, I thought about the power of instinct, what it is to have a directive to kill bred in the bone. Scottish terriers, a breed that has its origins in the 15th or 16th century, were bred to kill vermin on farms and to drag rabbits, foxes, otters, and badgers from their dens. They were bred to kill. Even today, as a breed, Scottish terriers are known to be extraordinarily territorial, feisty, and rugged, ready to race wildly over rugged terrain – a reputation shared even by those who spend their days frolicking about fenced backyards, avoiding flowerbeds. No one mentions ‘killer instinct’ when talking about pets. Looking down on the dead possum, I couldn’t help but think that such centuries-old breeding still influences modern dogs who have never seen a moor or been on a foxhunt, and that thought sobered me.
Of course, I don’t want my beloved dog killing small creatures. I did not let him worry the carcass. I removed the body as quickly as possible. But as I have had other dogs in my life who also exhibited as suddenly and as powerfully such instinctual behaviors, I am not one to deny the power of instinct. I once shared my house with an even-tempered and quite distinguished English bulldog, also adopted, born and raised in NYC. He was a tender soul, gentle with kids, kind to cats, but when confronted by a wayward bull who had broken through a fence, he did just what bulldogs had been bred to do. Barking wildly, he raced under this enormous animal, grabbed hold of the loose neck skin, and while expertly avoiding rampaging hoofs, this pussycat of a dog managed to direct the bull out of the yard and back onto the high desert. After my dog moved adroitly aside, the bull took off at a gallop -- with my sweet Teddybear in hot pursuit, nipping at its heels. Watching him ‘at work,’ one would think such expert maneuvering was trained behavior, but he had never seen any bovine creature except from the window of a car. I certainly never expected such skilled rodeo dancing from this sedentary dog whose major physical activity up to that point had been ball-chasing and then only for brief intervals. He preferred lying quietly, watching the sun move across the floor. Give him a rawhide bone to chew and he was a happy camper.
Such behaviors as herding bulls or ferreting out and killing small animals may have been originally learned centuries ago by ancestors, but when these contemporary city-bred dogs exhibit such behaviors, one thinks instinct. B.F Skinner believed that all behavior is learned behavior, but seeing such sudden eruption of instinctual behavior, one has to wonder. Both the dogs I describe are domestic dogs, raised as pets, but belong to breeds that had hunting and herding traits selected centuries ago. Familiar only with city streets, Teddy, the bulldog, was seven-years-old when he first encountered that bull in Colorado. Earnest, my young terrier, has not been raised or encouraged to go after small animals. Both can be described as house pets, comfortable lying for hours on their mats, accustomed to eating meals provided twice a day, yet both exhibited unexpected behaviors certainly not learned in their lifetimes. These very specific and distinctive behaviors seem instinctual, bred in the bone.
I wonder, if dogs are born with an instinctual knowledge of behaviors learned in another age, and if that instinctual knowledge is at times so powerful it overwhelms more contemporary conditioning, what does that mean? What about humans? What powerful yet unrecognized instincts overwhelm us? Is war, for example, conditioned or instinctual behavior? If we were to recognize it as instinct born in an era with rules and circumstances that no longer apply in the contemporary world, might we more easily eliminate it?
Humans are animals who learned centuries ago that their survival might depend on guarding territory and energy stores, but does such behavior fit in today’s world where cooperation is needed for the survival both of human culture and the planet? If instinctual behaviors of dogs can be diminished and discouraged – and they can be – so then can the instinctual behaviors of humans, but first we may have to first admit we have these behaviors, negative and positive, bred in the bone, that we are not blank slates at birth, that our past touches, trains, and tames our future.
* * * *
Let us think again of Titian,
explain the exact nature of this fixation.
Shepherds, naked in winter
drunk on curves.
Okay, it’s imprudent to wait for God
and diamonds never burn.
Discontent makes a shambles
She came for asylum, became
skeletal, blind at dawn,
pummeled by odor
---from: drawing breath