Coming home in the early morning from the wet market is a social occasion in our street.
As it’s nice and cool, all the dogs are out, so of course we all have to say hello.
Last week, the huskies were in their garden, and Pica was at her gate, dancing on tiptoes with excitement. As Pica and I are extra-special friends, I always say a quick hello to her, and then I pet her pals Hugo and Enzo. Being nice, sensitive dogs, the boys then go off and do their own thing while Pica and I “catch up” on some nice gossip.
When Polo joined their family, there was simply one more sweet furry thing in the petting queue. Not any more! Now that Polo is all grown up, he has his own ideas.
Pica and I were chatting happily when Polo suddenly jumped in, literally shoving his pal out of the way. Despite his hulking size, Polo is young – still a puppy really – and therefore I took the jumping around as thoughtlessness.
It’s not easy to stroke two huge dogs but I’m tall and have good reach. Stretching out, I patted Polo with one hand and Pica with the other. But no! Polo shoved again, clearly determined to cut poor Pica out.
I didn’t think much about it, taking it as one of those things. But then, a day or two later, I was coming back with some hawker stall breakfast when Momo woofed at me. She is holidaying with our neighbouring Pugs, and in the weeks she been there, she’s become firm friends with Roxie, Tara and Lily.
Momo is nine years old, a petite black beauty, and a sweetie but she’s rather pathetic at the moment because she’s got a sore front paw. When she arrived, she hopped everywhere but now it’s healing, she’s beginning to walk on it again.
When she called me over for a visit, Momo was standing firm on all four paws. We had a nice chin rub, her favourite, when Lily rushed out. Tongue lolling, big brown eyes shining, Lily leaned in, asking for her share of the love.
As they’re small, double chin rubs are no problem. So, I was patting both when Momo looked up, glanced at Lily thoughtfully, and then she stepped back, raised her sore paw and whined. Honestly, it was the best piece of pathos I’ve seen in ages. She couldn’t have said, “Pat me and only me” if she’d held up a sign.
To my eye, Polo and Momo were jealous and wanted to hog the attention. However, animal emotions are a field of study that is notorious for being challenging.
The most obvious problem is that we can’t be sure of what we’re seeing. After thousands of years of living side by side, we still have communication problems with man’s best friend. We often become confused by the messages sent by barks, whines, tails and paws.
Even in animals that are supposedly closely related to us, body language is often a false friend. For example, a chimpanzee baring its teeth is not necessarily smiling; experienced animal behaviourists say the grin can be a sign of fear, and is also used to threaten others.
When studying human emotions, we can ask each other, “How do you feel?” We may not always get the truth from every person, but there are scientific methods that will ensure quality results over time. With animals, it’s always a guess.
Despite that, there are lots of studies that delve into animal emotions. Some experts think that animals are restricted to basic emotions such as anger, disgust, trust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. They believe that complex emotions such as envy, pride, greed, and jealousy are beyond animals.
I think that’s nonsense. In my view, animals are very much like us, in that individual differences are paramount. My cat Target is nervy and generous, whereas Guido is placid and totally selfish when it comes to his food. As for Swooner, his emotions are so complex, he’s a study all by himself.
But given I’m biased, I thought I’d get more input. So this morning I visited Pica’s mum for coffee and ratted Polo out.
Not only did she agree with my take on the situation but the lady wasn’t at all surprised.
“Polo is a bully,” she said uncompromisingly. “I’ve seen him make that World Wrestling Federation move, the one where they body-slam their opponents. I’ve had to rescue poor Pica who was flat out underneath him, totally squashed.”
On the way home, I lucked out and found Lily’s mum in her garden. She was patting all the dogs and, to my amusement, Momo was lying on her back, putting on her cutest doggy centrefold pose. When that only secured her part of the attention, she stood up – and limped! At which point she got some “Awww” and extra attention.
Lily’s mum was completely behind the idea that dogs are jealous. “The dogs take up positions on the sofa, trying to monopolise me,” she laughed. “And Lily will just climb up and lie on top of me.”
It seems pretty clear that, in our street at least, canine jealousy is not just alive and kicking, but the dogs adopt different strategies to get their own way. Polo uses the direct brute-force approach and Momo is mistress of the cunning ruse.