A dog is staring at me. He’s seeking a cue that I know what he knows: It’s time for his dinner. So far as I can tell, dogs live mostly in the moment. They are present, and in that sense, mindful. We label them Canis lupus, but perhaps it should be Canis buddha. They are awake.
So far as I can also tell, dogs are unaware of their mortality, and why should they be if they are ever-present? But they do feel loss. A year ago, this dog before me — Oscar — had a companion, Max, an older dog. For eight years — since he was a puppy — Oscar had played and slept with Max; they were inseparable. Max died. Oscar sniffed at the body, but didn’t display anything recognizable as grief.
Nevertheless, a few days later I returned home to find that Oscar had a new companion. Next to him on his rug was a stuffed toy frog that years before, on a playful whim, I’d perched on a jade tree in the living room. Oscar had plucked the frog from a branch and was curled up beside it. I returned the frog to the limb. It became Oscar’s habit to retrieve the toy whenever I left him alone in the house. He’d never done so while Max lived. He didn’t chew the frog, merely slept with it like a child cuddling a teddy bear. Such behavior is a reason I hear the phrase “dumb animal” less than I used to. Though human superiority to other mammals remains evident — insofar as we measure and esteem it — the general attitude is not as cavalier as it was even a couple generations ago.
A decade ago, the Human Genome Project provided a hard numerical basis for understanding that we are more closely related to other life than our forbears imagined. Never mind apes or dogs — we share about half our genes with bananas.
I remember being intrigued in 1957 — at age 6 — when the first earthling sent into orbit was Laika, a Russian dog. I don’t recall if understood it was a one-way trip. Laika was probably born in 1954, and was picked up as a Moscow stray. She was a mongrel, an apparent mix of husky and terrier, with the space-traveling benefit of weighing only about 12 pounds. Soviet scientists selected strays for training because they thought such dogs might be inured to hunger and cold. Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky, overseer of the test dogs, noted that “Laika was quiet and charming.”
The dawn of the Space Age highlighted uncertainty about the impact of a rocket launch and subsequent zero gravity on living beings, so Laika and other dogs were assigned as true pioneers. To accustom them to confinement in the tiny compartment of a Sputnik, the Soviets housed them in smaller and smaller cages for up to 20 days. In the end they could sit, stand or lie down, but could not turn around. They went through centrifuge training to mimic the G-forces of a rocket blastoff, were exposed to noises they might expect, and were served a formulated gel intended as their ration in orbit.
On Oct. 31, 1957, three days ahead of launch, Laika was inserted into Sputnik 2, the second satellite ever launched, and connected to sensors for pulse, blood pressure and respiration. Before the trip to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Yazdovsky had taken Laika to play with his children. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he later wrote. A technician readying Sputnik for the mission recorded that, “After placing Laika in the container and before closing the hatch, we kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight.” Nevertheless, there was an agenda.
The satellite was incapable of retrieval, and Laika was supposed to be euthanized by a poisoned dose of the food gel prior to her oxygen running out. Instead, she apparently expired about six hours into the journey (the fourth orbit) due to overheating of the capsule. Scientists blamed the system failure on political pressure from Nikita Krushchev to launch a living creature into space while the West was still reeling from the October surprise of Sputnik 1. In a 2002 paper, Dimitri Malashenkov, one of those responsible for Sputnik 2, wrote that it was “practically impossible to create a reliable temperature control system in such limited time constraints.”
Laika’s death initiated a global debate about the use of animals in scientific research. In 1998, Oleg Gazenko, another of the Sputnik scientists, revealed his regret: “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. … We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.” At Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training center, a statue was installed to honor Laika: a dog atop a rocket. Her image has also appeared on postage stamps.
Six or seven years after Sputnik 2, I read a short story about a dog that was abandoned by its beloved master. The man left on a train trip and never returned, and the dog remained at the depot, waiting in vain. I was sitting on the living-room sofa under an end-table lamp, and I recall these details because I started to cry. I resisted tears — after all, I was an American male teen — but I couldn’t stop. My mother came in from the kitchen to see what was wrong. I held up the magazine, sniffling, and told her. She was incredulous, and actually mocked me. I was hurt that she would chide my sadness, and only later did it occur to me that perhaps she was irritated not because her son was being unmanly, but because I hadn’t cried over some of her misfortunes, hadn’t mustered for her what I could feel for a dog, and that particular dog wasn’t even real.
A Soviet space technician offering a farewell kiss to Laika, and our general warmth toward dogs, is grounded in their perceived innocence. The dictionary definition notes “freedom from sin or moral wrong … lack of knowledge or understanding.” Most humans intuitively realize that a healthy, socialized dog will hurt them only accidentally, and that our own power to hurt the dog is beyond the animal’s understanding. We have a severely asymmetric relationship. This morning I inadvertently stepped on Oscar’s paw. He yelped and cringed, expressing submission. Was I angry? Was I reaffirming alpha male dominance? I doubt he grasps the notion that I am simply a klutz. I reflexively apologized — in a language he doesn’t speak — and bent to pet him. The latter move he can translate, and was mollified, tail wagging. In a few seconds he was apparently out of good graces, then back in, and all instantly forgotten. For a dog, that’s life it seems — a moment lived and gone with no baggage.
Mark Twain wrote, “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” The subtext is trustworthiness. As we ripen, groping through life, people violate our trust so often and dependably, in matters great and small, that we soon offer and receive advice like that given by Pistol to his fellow men-at-arms in Shakespeare’s “Henry V”: “Trust none; for oaths are straws, men’s faiths are wafer-cakes …”
Still, it’s cumbersome to be always on guard, expecting little reward for our perceived forbearance, ever prepared to sigh in resignation at the shortcomings of our brethren. Instead, we defer and deflect, and the motto is engraved on United States currency: “In God we trust.” One of the chief charms of religious belief may be this psychological shift of basic trust to the supernatural: If all else fails … . My favorite joke: “What did the agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac do? He lay awake all night wondering if there is a Dog.”
We tend to anthropomorphize our companion animals. For example, when the dog licks your face, it’s deemed a “kiss,” an expression of affection. In reality, biologists say, the dog is sampling your current disposition with tongue and nose, and would happily do the same to your butt. It’s gathering social intelligence. If the dog soils the carpet when home alone, it’s probably not a calculated rebuke to your thoughtless absence. The more you unfairly project humanity onto the canine, the less you can trust it, because the more it is like a person in your mind, the less trustworthy it is — like a person. If you believe the dog is given to punishing you for perceived injustice, and engages in purposeful retribution, what prevents him from one day ripping out your throat? Think Cujo. The inevitable alternative to trust is fear.
Ultimately, dogs are at our mercy. We’ve created a physical/social habitat allowing them to survive and prosper, and most would expire if human intervention were removed. Many wild species face extinction due to our behavior, but dogs will be around as long as we are, because trust is a precious commodity. We trust them because they are present; they have no conception of mortality, taking life purely as it comes with no hidden agendas.
Still, I wonder: Did Laika respond to the kiss? Did she trust?
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground,” “Letters from Side Lake” and other books.