Sunday, February 10, 2008

Bad Dog!

No one looks guiltier or more repentant than a misbehaving dog.

As we drove up the hill it was raining just hard enough to keep the wipers from squeaking at their lowest speed. And it was still daylight -- albeit cloudy --so it was easy to see the crime scene unfolding before us.

To our left a police car was stopped in a driveway angled in a way that suggested rapid rather than careful parking. The roof lights were unlit but the engine was still running.

"COPS" - In Wethersfield.

Since there were no cars behind us I slowed down so that we could rubberneck -- but remained alert in order to rapidly flee the scene in case of danger.

As we looked down the short private path we could clearly see all the involved participants, and easily tell by their respective body languages what each one's role was in the unfolding story.

The policeman had assumed the neutral but poised attitude of the investigating officer -- head up and alert, right hand hovering near his weapon, knees slightly flexed, body balanced and ready to move in any direction. He had aligned himself so that all of the antagonists were within his normal range of vision.

The apparent complainant stood to the officer's left at a forty-five degree angle and was looking at him while pointing at the two suspected malfeasants who completed the triangle to the right. A second woman stood towards the back and to the left of the scene.

And the criminals stood side-by-side seemingly looking at both the accuser and the enforcer simultaneously -- eight legs shaking, two bodies attempting to recede into themselves, and four eyes dolefully pleading for hands-on forgiveness.

One was a Saint Bernard like dog. The other was of unknown, or perhaps severely mixed lineage. Both were full of fear, knowing they were about to hear the ultimate canine condemnation, "Bad dog!"

Nicole Marie, the Labrador Retriever/Irish Setter mix that used to live in our house was a frequent practitioner of this penitent pose -- most famously after she removed a wall-mounted telephone from its five-foot high perch while she was home alone during a thunderstorm. Her shoulder and haunches would droop, her eyes would (I swear) fill with moisture, and she somehow lowered her head so that she looked as she was gazing up at us from beneath the earth.

People I've known have also described their own dog's attempts to sink into the floor in shame.

Sinners in the hands of an angry God, about to be cast helplessly into the pits of hell -- all because of something that seemed like such a good idea at the time.

But some dogs, while they may outwardly look as if they are experiencing the same degree of fear and trembling, seem to be actually determining their moral behavior using a process developed by Philosopher Jeremy Bentham* called the Hedonic Calculus -- sort of an ethical cost/benefit analysis.

Several years ago we were friends with a couple named Carolyn and Dick, and their dog Bone. Bone was some form of fifty-pound mongrel -- as tall and thin as his name would suggest.

One winter night Mars and I were over at Carolyn and Dick's house for dinner and between the main course and dessert Dick, an amateur astronomer, suggested that we all go outside to look at the stars. The after dinner course was to be assorted cookies which Carolyn arranged nicely on a serving tray before joining us outside. Bone was not invited out.

After a while we went inside to warm up and discovered a partially eaten plate of home baked goods being ignored by a shamefaced dog. Bone was scolded and made to stay in the corner while we sampled some of the remaining, untouched sweet goodies. After about ten minutes he was released from his "time out" and we four humans returned to the outdoors and the cold, cloudless sky.

This time we came back in to find the remainder of the cookie supply decimated, and Bone dutifully sitting in the corner with his back to us.

One minute for one cookie. They may not be able to think -- but some of them sure can calculate.


*Jeremy Bentham's will requested that his body be preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet and kept on public display in the main building of the Union College in London.

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