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Man’s best friend has loyally accompanied us through the ages, as evidenced by their depiction in ...
2020-03-09 09:00:00
Painted Dogs

Our dog behaviour expert has decided to check what the old masters knew about dogs.

Read in 6 minutes

Dogs, except for the older and ailing ones, tend to be naturally quite agile. The more that is happening around them, the more restless they are, vigilantly watching the situation. Sounds and movements, especially right next to them, make dogs more alert. It is very likely that their survival instinct and learned reactions allow them to avoid unpleasant experiences when among many people: being poked, stepped on or shoved. It is exactly thanks to their excessive alertness that dogs prefer to sleep in groups, close to one another, which allows them to rest while somebody else keeps watch.

I would like to propose a game. There are many videos on the internet in which real and homegrown experts explain the emotions and behaviour of dogs. We will, however, try to reach further out, to art from a few centuries ago, and look at dogs in paintings.

I have found many works of art where dogs interact with humans. Interestingly, in many cases they are shown lying down, which means that either the painter had a great memory, or he understood the dog’s body language well and remembered the emotions experienced while capturing this scene. For a dog is an agile animal and it is not possible for it to stay in one position for several hours while being painted. Perhaps people had better observation skills in pre-internet times? Or perhaps we were closer to nature itself then than we are now?

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Briton Rivière, Temptation, 19th century

The painting shows a young man leaning down over a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. The dog is wearing a ribbon, so it was either just given to somebody as a present or it belongs to some little girl who, because it’s a holiday, perhaps a Sunday, decided to decorate her pet. It would have been better if the owner paid as much attention to the safety of her dog as she did to its looks. The dog is unaccompanied, the stranger is trying to take advantage of the situation and take the dog with him (to sell, for his own child or perhaps for breeding. We can probably exclude other options such as scientific research or dog soup). Most likely he will succeed in stealing the dog because Cavaliers are trusting and friendly animals, but we can also see that this particular quadruped won’t be lured away so easily. The dog in the picture has lowered its ears, you can see the whites of its eyes, its back paws are dropped down to the ground, even though the front of its body really wants to reach for the snack on offer.

Briton Rivière, “Temptation”, 19th century
Briton Rivière, “Temptation”, 19th century

Most likely the dog already has found a new owner.

So what is it in the end: will the dog be tempted or not?

I would also like to highlight what the man is doing. His position is very dangerous – dogs hate when people approach them frontally, lean down, stretch their hands and look them straight in the eyes. In dog language this signals danger, and if the man tried to do the same thing with a less socialized dog, he could lose half his face. Seriously.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Marguerite Gérard, A Family in an Interior Playing with a Dog, 18th–19th century

The painting shows a woman from higher society, her family and a dog. The animal seems to be relaxed, the positioning of its body doesn’t suggest it is going through a trauma, but let us not forget that this is a painting and not a photograph. What is wrong here? The dog is wearing a cape that also covers the vicinity of the animal’s ears. It has a huge feather on the right-hand side of its head and a pennant flaps above it (they must have had a terrible draught there).

Marguerite Gérard, ”A Family in an Interior Playing with a Dog”, 18th–19th century
Marguerite Gérard, ”A Family in an Interior Playing with a Dog”, 18th–19th century

All of this would make many a dog anxious, you have my word. Animals have incredibly heightened senses. Anything in the vicinity of their eyes, ears or paws makes dogs uncomfortable and takes their sense of security away, because it disrupts their perception and could slow down their escape in case of an attack. Unless this dog has been trained from a puppy and is used to dressing up, all it wants to do now is to tear this cape off with its teeth and hide under the sideboard visible in the background.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Follower of Jacob Jordaens, Peasant Family Dining, 17th century

The painting shows a man and a woman, two children and a dog. The grown-ups are busy talking, the children are eating and growing, while the dog tries to get some treats from the table. Nobody pays it any attention, which is strange, because the man in the foreground should feel the dog’s paw on his thigh while the animal is attempting to reach the tabletop. This behaviour should be immediately put to an end with the regular “no” or a gentle push away from the table. If the dog manages to get the food, especially in the presence of humans, then it will very quickly learn that this kind of behaviour pays off. This is operant conditioning: a behaviour results in either a punishment or a reward. In the scene in the painting, a wonderful reward awaits the dog: warm food. And there is no punishment – the man does not try to shoo the animal away, he doesn’t shout at it. We can be 100% certain that the dog will repeat this behaviour, and you can’t even blame it. For the dog, this is good – it found food, which means it won’t be hungry. And nobody taught it that food on the table is for humans and a dog has no right to go for it.

Jacob Jordaens, “Peasant Family Dining”, 17th century
Jacob Jordaens, “Peasant Family Dining”, 17th century

If indeed the couple from the painting have no problem with this little thief, I would suggest taking the meat off the bone, which could otherwise damage the walls of the dog’s gastrointestinal tract. And, most importantly – the fewer spices, the better! They can upset dogs’ digestive systems and damage their internal organs.

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Obedient Dog after David de Noter, 19th century

This painting shows a really obedient doggie, in accordance with the title. Despite temptations, it is sitting nicely in one spot (it doesn’t even look impatient!) and staring at its lady. In fact, it is highly likely that the dog is looking not at her, but at a treat that it is about to receive. Which it earned, fair and square! Many dogs that don’t practice self-control with their owners would jump off the chair and have a look at the food lying on the carpet. This is not an easy task, and it is possible that the lady from the painting does have an idea as to how to train a dog, or at least follows her intuition and understands what rules a dog’s nature…

David de Noter, “Obedient Dog”, 19th century
David de Noter, “Obedient Dog”, 19th century

If the white dog was not trained in self-control, it would surely quite quickly bade farewell to its life – there are several kilograms of dark and white grapes on the carpet, and this fruit, both fresh and dried, is toxic to dogs. Two grapes per kilogram of a dog’s body weight is enough to poison it. So our protagonist might suffer kidney problems after having as few as 10 berries. Food from the table would also be harmful to it. A wise dog and a super owner there! Five out of five for this pair!

Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak
Illustration by Kazimierz Wiśniak

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Holy Family with a Little Bird, 17th century

On the Museu del Prado website we can read the following: “A domestic scene filled with tenderness showing the Virgin Mary winding a skein of thread and watching the Christ Child who leans on Saint Joseph while he plays with a little bird and a dog [...].” What Jesus deserves is a time-out, and not tender gazes. First, for tormenting animals, and second, for teaching the dog bad habits. Little Jesus will redeem himself some 30 years later, but the adults’ behaviour is unpedagogical. Even if they don’t encourage the child to play this way, they surely don’t discourage him, which in fact means consent. The little boy baits the bird with the dog; the bird clasped in the little fist surely does not find this situation comfortable. Such a small being is easily damaged, especially when held by the hand of a small child still lacking in coordination. What’s more, such games would very quickly develop a habit of chasing birds in the dog, and that is a straight road to tragedy. The dog might try to pursue flying creatures, to catch them and kill them, and while doing that, it might get itself under a horse’s hooves or a cart’s wheels. It might also target chickens scurrying around the house, so in a short time this seemingly innocent game would turn against the Holy Family, and, as a result, they might need to go without their chicken soup on Sunday. It’s better not to let a child play the way little Jesus does.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Holy Family with a Little Bird”, 17th century
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Holy Family with a Little Bird”, 17th century

 

Translated from the Polish by Anna Błasiak

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