Mark Alizart on whether we have a psychic connection to our dogs
We've been best friends for more than 12,000 years, so have our brains evolved in tandem? Mark Alizart seems to thinks so. He speaks to Andy Martin about his new book, Dogs
He makes no noise and no movement. No alarm is going off. But the instant Mark Alizart opens his eyes in the morning, his dog is right there, licking his hand.
It's not even as if the dog - a two-year old, black-and-white, curly-haired Spanish water dog - sleeps in the same room. But as soon as the human is awake, the dog is too. His alarm goes off. It's the kind of thing Jung referred to as "synchronicity", two hearts beating as one: a collective unconscious or brain fusion. And, says Alizart in his revelatory new book, Dogs, this is just what has occurred in the course of our evolution: "Everything indicates that we have one brain between us, that our brain is never complete unless it is paired with a dog's."
Alizart's previous dog, a beagle, was called Martin Luther. But the dog died when he was only six months of a mystery virus. Alizart was in mourning for a year, paralysed by grief.
"I couldn't find relief in books or films, only in looking at other dogs," he says. Alizart was brought up in London and had fancied becoming the next Stephen Hawking. But he failed miserably at his science exams. So he moved to Paris and went to the Lycee Henri IV. This time he failed in philosophy. He was a failure in both English and French. "I failed everything," he says, disarmingly. Somehow he ended up working in contemporary art - only artists would have him. And a dog. The dog didn't mind if he was a failure. And then he lost the dog. So he resolved to write a book about dogs, to fill the void that threatened to consume him.
If you're looking for a book on how to train your dog, don't bother reading Dogs. This is a book about the meaning of dogs. It's the "Dog Vinci Code", explaining exactly why dogs secretly rule the world. It is no coincidence that his current dog is called Master Eckhart, named after the great medieval mystic.
We met at the British Library, Alizart and I. Our dogs stayed home. I just hoped Waffle (my dog) was being good for a change: he generally wreaks revenge for being left behind.
"Dogs definitely feel guilt," Alizart says. "If you do, they do. When I watch my dog I can actually see him thinking about it sometimes: shall I or shan't I make a lunge for that tasty titbit? I can see it in his eyes, he knows."
Who would have a dog? It's the kind of question that gets asked after your dog has just chewed up your favourite cushion or got into yet another fight with a passing spaniel. Why do I even have a dog? If you pause to consider this longer than it takes Waffle to wolf down a sandwich he has just stolen from picnickers in the park, you might conclude something like the following: the dog is a "happy imbecile". You get to enjoy the joy, the irrepressible enthusiasm, of the dog. The dog effortlessly achieves that semi-sacred zen-like state that eludes most of us most of the time, of living "for the moment".
But you'd be wrong. It's true, dogs don't worry too much about taxes, although if you worry, they worry. But, says Alizart, they are "the masters of time".
Whereas we are governed mainly by the visual and aural senses, they are governed by the olfactory. They have bigger noses, in the main. But the point about having a sensitive nose that is usually close to the ground and snorting up pungent scents of all kinds is that you (the dog) are conscious of the past, of who passed by here not so long ago, leaving a trace. Every scent is like a clue. A bloodhound (or Lassie or Rin Tin Tin) on the trail of some miscreant or hunting for the missing owner of a sock is reconstructing a crime in his head.
Likewise, the dog is always up for the next thing (be it walk or dinner or someone coming home). No one who has seen a dog mourning the passing of a human or another dog can say that a dog is invariably content with the present and the way things are right now. If they are capable of even more pleasure than we would normally have chasing after an old tennis ball, conversely they are also capable of more pain. Sadly, they are not immune to hopes and fears and memories.
I think my father kept a dog (always a boxer dog) mainly in order to have conversations. The dog would listen patiently, sometimes cocking his head. The response was not necessarily audible, but it didn't matter because my father (towards the end of his life) couldn't hear that much anyway. So what are we doing when we talk to dogs? We are basically talking to ourselves, says the dog behaviourist Alexandra Horowitz, in Our Dogs, Ourselves. There is something like a prohibition on talking to ourselves in public, at least. Isn't it a sign of madness? But the dog gives you an excuse for getting your thoughts out there, even if it's only the eternally hopeful "Good boy!"
As she very reasonably argues, we shouldn't be seen - despite the letter of the law - as "owning" our dogs. They are too independently minded for that. We have responsibility for them, yes.
And we should clean up after them too, no argument there. But it cannot be right for a divorce judge to say (as one in fact does), that seeking custody rights of Barney, a rescue dog, is equivalent to "a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp".
Maybe it would be truer to say that it's the other way around and dogs own us. They are the great manipulators. We are an integral part of their environment. And just as a dog will go round and round, shuffling and nosing to get a comfy cushion just right (even though they can equally well curl up on a wooden floor), so too they try to lick us into shape, a shape that suits them. We don't train them, they train us - to do their bidding.
Our association - our collaboration - with dogs goes back to the Neolithic, when some wolves found it better to try to get along with Homo sapiens rather than eat them, and we realised it was fun to have them around. We have developed a symbiotic relationship. Now we can register the best friend as an "emotional support dog" (and thereby take the dog on a plane, so long as they sit on your lap). What Alizart shows is that, over the aeons, human brains and dog brains have converged and evolved in tandem. We have a dog brain, just as the dog has a human brain.
Alizart is not that into cats. "I don't want to revive the war between cats and dogs. Cats tolerate us. That's very different. Dogs put a leg or two into our world." He says that "dogs are nature's communists". I don't know how good Waffle would be about sharing his dinner - not very I suspect - but he is very willing to share his life with me, to "band together". Excluding writing, a dog will generally have a go at whatever you're doing. I've known one very good surfing dog, better at riding a wave than most humans (having four legs is a distinct advantage).
Not all dogs like getting wet. One old dog of mine always steered scrupulously around puddles and when it came to bath time became a quivering wreck. I never tried him on a surfboard. He'd probably have been happier doing what I know a friend of mine is doing: going for a 3k run with her dog. Maybe we learned jogging from dogs.
I know a woman who recently tried putting her husband in the dog's crate. Or rather, he got in there of his own accord. He could just about squeeze in. She helped him out by closing the door. He didn't mind. It was cosy and comforting. Snoopy dreamed of being a First World War fighter ace.
Who has not seen a dog curled up fast asleep in a basket or hogging the sofa and thought: I want to be a dog?
Dogs: A Philosophical Guide to Our Best Friends by Mark Alizart is published by Polity Press, £12.99. Andy Martin is author of With Child: Lee Child and the Readers of Jack Reacher, also published by Polity