The Hidden Life of Dogs

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Novelist and anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas lived with a dozen or more dogs in ways most dog owners do not: by letting the dogs be themselves and by trying to understand what dogs want. Rather than train the dogs to human standards, she observed them closely to learn their standards and to understand dog consciousness. THE HIDDEN LIFE OF DOGS is her beautifully written commentary on some of the things she learned.

Misha, a husky, jumps high fences and roams the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and as Thomas receives complaints and calls from those who encounter him, she is able to estimate that his free ranging territory exceeds 200 square miles, similar to that of wolves in the wild. Thomas, riding her bicycle, follows Misha on numerous night wanderings, eventually concluding that he is not out to hunt for food or companionship; he likes to circle around other dogs he meets to establish his dominance and then trots on his way.

From observations about streetwise Misha, the commentary moves to wolves which Thomas observed over a period of months on the Arctic island of Baffin. Her observations about dominance and canid behavior and the significance of wolf dens are clear, unsentimental, and thought-provoking.

Later, when Thomas is with twelve or so dogs in a rural area of Virginia, she finds that they too have dug a tunnel into the earth, resembling a wolf den. Thomas spends long hours with the dogs, acting as they do and learning a kind of canine peace quite unfamiliar to easily bored primates.

“What do dogs want? They want each other. Human beings are merely a cynomorphic substitute,” concludes Thomas, though since dogs have been living with humans for thirty thousand years they need humans too.