It’s a truism that dogs’ responses to people are a reliable indicator of whether or not they’re trustworthy. Dogs are supposed to have a deep intuition, the ability to discern peoples’ motives and to see beyond the social veneer to the real person beneath. If your otherwise calm and friendly dog responds to someone with aggression or fear, they must be bad; if your dog approaches someone eagerly, smiling and wagging, they must be good.
Ayla often bounds joyfully up to strangers, eager to meet them and receive the affection she assumes will be forthcoming. I’ve been working hard to train this impulse out of her: I’m acutely aware that not everyone loves her as much as I do. Sometimes, though, she reacts to people fearfully and defensively. If there’s any pattern to her infrequent negative reactions to people, it’s that the people in question are, without exception, male. They tend to be wearing hats. She gets nervous around really deep, loud voices. But the thing that convinced me that her judgments about people aren’t necessarily sound is her great enthusiasm for one person in particular, someone whom I know for a fact is a deeply nefarious evildoer.
Many people engage in a type of magical thinking whereby dogs are invested with a preternatural ability to distinguish good from bad, to discern people’s underlying intent. I think it has to do with our desire to see our dogs as pure beings, untainted by culture. We long for a return to a fictive state of nature; we are wistful for a way of seeing and knowing that transcends the confusing and sometimes contradictory demands of our socialization. We feel that having dogs in our lives ameliorates some of the more pernicious effects of civilization: inauthenticity, the tendency to second-guess ourselves, to front and put on airs and try to be seen in a certain way. Dogs are unselfconscious about their true desires and intentions. Dogs don’t try to be what they’re not. Dogs are fully within the moment at all times. I think it’s a mistake, though, to confuse this innocence with deep wisdom and perspicacity.
Intuition is a slippery thing. As much as I believe, in a deep part of my pre-rational brain, that it’s the most reliable guide we have, it’s easily clouded and disrupted by other elements of our cognition. It would be extremely comforting to think that my dog operates as a kind of extension of my capacities, an external sixth-sense on whom I could rely for discernment. But, as things tend to be, it’s more complicated than that.