“But when he knew he heard Odysseus’s voice nearby, he did his best to wag his tail, nose down, with flattened ears, having no strength to move nearer his master. And the man looked away, wiping a salt tear from his cheek…
If this old hound could show the form he had when Lord Odysseus left him, going to Troy, you’d see him swift and strong…
But death and darkness in that instant closed the eyes of Argos, who had seen his master, Odysseus, after twenty years.”
Homer, The Odyssey
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One cannot but take notice of the dogs. I have a deep respect for horses; and cats—at least some of them—can be quite remarkable. But dogs must stand out among animals.
Let us abstract for now from the question of how it came to be that dogs relate to men in the astonishing way that they do. I think a very good case can be made that this points to intentionality in the natural order; but let us set that aside in favor of simply considering the way things are now, regardless of their origin.
In some very real and at times downright surprising ways, dogs know men. They note the slightest movements; they perceive subtle changes in mood; they infer what we are going to do next from what we’re doing now. And yes, their own passions can move in sympathy with ours. All this is obvious in experience.
It is not without reason that people can experience their pets as providing a companionship they at times might prefer to human companionship.
Odysseus’ dog recognizes him after twenty years, is glad to see him, and then dies, seemingly having waited for him. This is a better reception than Odysseus will receive from some people who knew him. This does not even really stretch the imagination. Dogs are amazing, especially in how they relate to humans.
It is noteworthy that dogs seem most to thrive through relating to persons who recognize and enact the human difference. Some dog training theory will bid—perhaps with good reason—men to play the role of the alpha dog in the pack. With no disrespect to the practicality of this approach, we might still notice a unique fittingness when a man plays the role of a man in relation to the dog. There is nothing like how a dog responds to the rationality of men.
Perhaps in this I err, but I will surmise that old Argos would not have died of a satisfied heart upon the return of an old alpha dog.
Rightly considered, the relation of dogs and men highlights two things: the amazing characteristics of these non-rational animals, as well as the more amazing difference of the rational animal. . . a difference that dogs themselves can perceive, even while they cannot understand.
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