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Canine Neuropsychiatry Featured

A Rottweiler’s multiverse

Before you judge the breed, think again

My name is Kaiser, and I am a Rottweiler who lives in Chennai. The person writing this on my behalf is dad, the leader of our pack. I am of German and Serbian stock, and my origins go back to Rottweil in Germany, a town founded by Romans in a cattle-herding region. I owe my large head and snout to the mastiffs I was bred from, and my intent watchfulness to my role as a guardian. Indeed, butchers would hang their purses around our necks to keep them safe.

To my family, I am an affectionate goofball, prone to sit on their feet unmindful of my size. I calm down to the meaningful Malayalam song Manushyan Madhangalai Shrishtichu by K.J. Yesudas, written by Vayalar Rama Varma for the movie Achanum Bappayum. That together with my penchant for tearing newspapers and disliking men in uniform has led dad to conclude that I must have been a left-leaning, chai-sipping newshound in my last birth (notice the oxymoron).

My greatest joy is my morning walk with dad, our “me time”. Because I am hyperactive (dad says ADHD), I am sensitive to my environment — joggers, people who look me in the eye, whirring cycles and mopeds, people sporting helmets, umbrellas, head-covers, my list is long. My usual response is to charge in the general direction of the offender, and after a few surprises (torn sleeves, falling men and himself included), dad muzzles and harnesses me for these excursions.

Here are a few classes of humans I meet every day.

The dogo-philic: they love us and want to play, little realising that I, Kaiser (that’s German for Emperor), do not care for trifles.

The dogo-phobic: I can spot them a mile away, but they cross the road to avoid us; no fun but no trouble either.

The dog-agnostic: folks who don’t seem to recognise “the dog walking”. Here I am, 45 kg, deep-chested, big-headed, putting on my best swagger, and they walk right into us, preoccupied with their phones, companions, or thoughts. Being agnostic of me is not really wise, methinks!

The dog-walkers: Unlike us, many of these folks are not purposeful walkers; they amble, stop to socialise, hang around street corners. I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said “Golf is a good walk spoilt!”. Now let’s paraphrase that, shall we? And of their dogs, the wise ignore me, the foolish bark, and the insane wail!

The talkers: “It’s good to talk,” says a popular telephony brand, but some take that slogan too seriously. When folks want to chat or socialise, I can be quite upfront about my disapproval. Those who don’t give up are greeted with a leap in their direction, which never fails to get them scurrying along.

The term multiverse was coined by American philosopher William James in 1895 to refer to the confusing moral meaning of natural phenomena. As a much misunderstood breed, I have described my multiverse to you. Despite my many redeeming qualities, the world views me with trepidation, not understanding that my responses are wired into me, through nature and nurture, by my evolved status as a guardian breed, created for humankind, by humankind, of humankind. Before you judge me and my fellow-Rotties, think again!

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Canine Neuropsychiatry Featured

Lessons from a bullmastiff

The writer is all praise for the pet he brought home as a puppy and who is now a loyal companion.

About a year ago, I became the fortunate owner of a Bullmastiff. An eternal dog-lover, I acquired my first dog, a Beagle, when I was 11 years old. Over time, in my journey to middle age, I have experienced life with three other (all long-lived) dogs — a Labrador, German Shepherd and Basset Hound. En route, thanks too in part to my professional predilections, I have developed an interest in dog behaviour and temperament. My focus on the mastiffs as a generic breed, followed my search for a guard dog, one that could innately discriminate friend from foe, and innocuous experience from potential danger. My search ended when my sister found a home-bred Bullmastiff litter on Facebook, culminating in a frantic drive to Bengaluru with my 9-year-old son, to choose our puppy. Thus began our tryst with a mastiff.

Widely described as “reliable, devoted, reserved, protective, alert, docile, loyal, calm, powerful, courageous and loving,” the Bullmastiff shares the characteristics of the Molosser dogs used by gamekeepers to guard the old English estates. Indeed, its progenitor, the English Mastiff, while alert and formidable, was thought to be too slow and plodding to take on the poacher and his dog, the lurcher. By crossing the English Mastiff with the Old English Bulldog (now extinct) in the late 19th Century, the compact, muscular and agile Bullmastiff came into being.

Legend has it that it was introduced at a fair, when a man challenged those present to try and outrun his dog; the man who tried, failed gloriously in his attempt, being brought down thrice by the Bullmastiff. Only one of about 13 mastiff breeds, the tallest being the Great Dane and the largest the English Mastiff (Argentina, Brazil, North America, parts of Europe and Eurasia, Tibet, all being represented in the mastiff family), the Bullmastiff is a large domestic dog with a solid build and a short muzzle.

I was inclined to choose a male puppy, having never brought up a female dog. Surprisingly, the advice I received from the breeder was to choose a female, as I would not, as a first time Mastiff owner (albeit experienced dog lover), cope with a male. I was also advised to build a dominant relationship with my dog, an egalitarian relationship being unsustainable with this breed.

“This is not a Labrador that you are taking home” said the gentleman repeatedly, with genuine concern. As it happens, Layla the Enchantress (as we named her), chose us and we were soon on our way home. In the car, all of two months old, she was composed in a way that was hard to believe. We would stop ever so often to give her a drink of water and/or a loo break, on the six-hour drive to Chennai, and she cooperated as if she had done it many times before, not soiling the car once, nary a whimper. Arriving home, we soon settled into a routine of feeds, exercise, toilet training and play.

Over a few days, Layla settled into our home having explored every nook and corner. In weeks, we could see why she was the “Gamekeepers’ Guard Dog”. Every sound was attended too, every person considered an intruder until introduced, every shadow a reason for suspicion. Indeed, late one night when she was asleep inside a bedroom, our son quietly brought in his friend for a natter. Any illusion of having cheated young Layla was destroyed in minutes, as she emerged from her apparent slumber, growling, the hair over her spine erect (distinctly coloured too), and proceeded to search the house until she had identified the intruder’s location and barked at him, until introduced properly. Indeed, the mastiff will not attack an intruder; instead it will rush towards him barking (a formidable sight), corner him and continue to bark until reassured.

Our morning walks are a daily highlight and eagerly anticipated. Within minutes of setting off, Layla “will do her jobs”, ensuring the remainder of the walk is a holy communion between man and beast. Indeed, by the time she was four months old, I had her walking “off leash” on the footpaths alongside the arterial roads near our home. Not once has she lost her composure, even when we come across another excited dog. Not once has she attempted to leave my side, except when I have meandered from my usual path into unfamiliar territory. Not once has she attempted to lead me; instead in classic pack animal behaviour, she waits at doorways, gates, even pathway dividers, for me to lead the way, acknowledging my pack leadership. Not once have I had to strike her, raising my voice, even an angry glance being enough for her to alter her behaviour suitably.

It is not that she has not tried to push the envelope, that being the predilection of this breed. Everyone is tested for their ability to “stand up”. For those who fail the test, Layla is the pack leader, and they must therefore follow her. The few who succeed are rewarded with loyalty and obedience that is par compare. Only one person, though, is given the privilege of being the “master”, and accorded unquestioning obedience and unbridled affection. From knowing which piece of furniture to occupy and which ones to avoid; begging for a scrap of food with immense dignity, yet never grabbing it from the table, even unattended; sitting still in a public place with amazing grace, surrounded by a hundred curious strangers, the Mastiff demonstrates a poise that is both awe-inspiring and endearing.

Many dog breeds have superior intelligence and can be trained to perform a range of often astonishing tasks. What intrigues me about the mastiff is its “sixth sense”, the instinct to modulate its behaviour in accordance with the human species; to have a place for everyone in its heart, and for everyone to have a place in its social pecking order. The innate power to discriminate between different human beings, their relevance to context and intentions.

Of course, the Mastiff is not alone in being able to do this. Among snakes, the King Cobra is thought to share this unique sixth sense. Indeed, herpetologist Romulus Whitaker describes rather eloquently, an incident during the making of his documentary, when he got too close to a King Cobra, who proceeded to warn him by rushing in his direction without biting and when the offence was repeated, proceeded to bite his behind. Whitaker credited being alive to his thick jeans. Other examples of the “superior intellect” this 12-18 feet long king of snakes possesses, are permitting its trainer to kiss the top of its head (as it stands erect, hood spread out) and indeed permitting lady trainers to dance for an audience with its head inside their mouth, both these being part of public performances in South East Asia. Once again, the innate ability to distinguish friend from foe and build a relationship with a “master” appear to be unique to this sub-species. Of course, stories abound among those interested in the animal kingdom about unique human-animal bonding: many dog breeds, elephants, the big cats, dolphins and killer whales, all being included.

So what is it about these sub-species that confers upon them such uniqueness? From my Bullmastiff, I have learnt the importance of mutual respect; of routines and predictability in interaction; of being assertive without being aggressive or offensive; of integrity and faithfulness; and of demonstrating love unabashedly when it is due. When Layla joins me on my favourite couch, sits on my head, all 50 kg of her, demanding to be petted at the end of a long working day, I am reminded that the best form of love is “tough love”. Indeed!

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Canine Neuropsychiatry Featured

Temperamental, Indeed

How the contrasting behaviour of two dogs can give one an insight into brain dominance and enhance understanding of human nature.

Life with my pet canines is not just joyful and entertaining; it reveals to me each day, profound neuro-scientific insights. Carlo, my German Shepherd, is a classic example of his breed; in looks and temperament. A “Master’s” dog, his life revolves around my routines. A glance in his direction, slight change in tone, low whistle, all will ensure his immediate compliance with “his Master’s” desires. Obedient and devoted to a fault, Carlo is also extremely high strung and anxious, alert to every change in his environment, and protective of it; so much so that I rarely catch him in fitful slumber. Blessed with an uncanny sixth sense for “his Master”, a trait that his breed is famous for, Carlo actually heads for the gate, minutes before my arrival at home from work. Not one to break rules, he will not enter a room or defile a piece of furniture, once forbidden. Natty and fastidious about his appearance, he remains shiny coated through the week, not an ounce of dirt on him, nor a doggy odour.

Unpredictable and wilful

Contrast this with my later acquisition Coco, a Basset Hound. A handsome specimen with the classic sad and droopy face, jowls et al, Coco suffers from both occasional seizures and frequent mood swings. An approach in his direction, with best intentions, can evoke dramatically different responses: from a friendly, excited, tail-wagging welcome, to total loss of control; sometimes a resentful, even angry growl, bark or snap in the general direction of approach. Unpredictable mood swings from hypomania and hyperactivity to depression and profound apathy characterise his eventful existence. Disobedient, wilful and obstinate, he can be depended on to do exactly the opposite of what is intended, oblivious to “his Master’s” pleas, commands and threats. Indeed so agnostic is Coco of his surroundings that he can collapse like a sac, his numerous folds spread around him, in fitful slumber, no matter what the circumstances are. House rules mean little to this brat! Stride he will into any room at will, climb on any piece of furniture that strikes his fancy; and somehow manage at least once in each week to manifest for our benefit the pinnacle of filth; no part of the garden, however muddy, having been spared during his meanderings.

Not surprisingly, he emits a profound doggy odour so striking that dog lovers claim it should be bottled and sold (Chanel by Coco is our private joke). Guests without a fondness for canines, beat a hasty retreat from our abode when he decides to bless our company with his presence.

The contrasts in doggy behaviour become most apparent in our morning walk together. Carlo, the German Shepherd, needs no leash, walking three to four kilometres on the footpath that runs alongside arterial roads near our home. Rarely straying more than 10 feet from “his Master”, purposeful in his stride, nary a glance asunder, whatever the provocation, Carlo is the epitome of walking propriety, even his ablutions being timed for completion at a certain discreet spot.

Coco, the Basset Hound, on the other hand, treats the walk as a grand exploration of sorts; an opportunity to experience for himself this beautiful world that the good God has created. Constantly tugging at his leash in an angle perpendicular to the general direction of travel; sparing no human, animal or plant form en route from his nasal excursions, Coco is anything but purposeful about his morning constitutional, his ablutions being intermittent and erratic, intruding into the well directed journey of his fellow canine and Master, much to their combined annoyance. No order is heard, let alone obeyed; no single purpose complied with, other than that, which his doggie mind is set on.

My clinical experience in brain and mind matters has led me to conclude that Carlo, my German Shepherd, is left-brained and Coco, my Basset Hound, right-brained. The concept of hemispheric dominance, i.e. which side of the brain has a more dominant effect in the concerned individual, is one example of how brain function may influence behaviour and temperament.

Left brain dominant individuals tend to be more ideological and philosophical in their approach; more motivated by social and pragmatic, rather than emotional concerns; more diligent, purposeful, capable of greater tenacity and driven more often by a sense of duty.

On the other hand, right brain dominant people have a better appreciation of the world around them, greater creative ability; a proclivity for the finer aspects of life; and tend to be more mood and emotion driven in making their choices; both day to day ones and those that are life-defining. Put simply, left brained individuals think with their heads, the right brained with their hearts; and can be quite a study in contrasts, experiencing great difficulty understanding one another. Little wonder then that many professional and personal relationships run into rough weather; the two parties failing to understand each other’s contrasting preferences and predilections.

Unique temperamental attributes

Carlo and Coco have taught me that brain dominance is not an exclusive prerogative of the human race. And love them as I do, equally, I have learnt through them to celebrate rather than despair in these unique temperamental attributes conferred on us by our brain, that marvellous wonder of creation. To understand my family and friends better by observing their brain dominance. To choose correctly my activity companions: left brained for the purposeful and right brained, the hedonistic; and to tailor my expectations of them, appropriately. Carlo and Coco have enhanced my understanding of human nature; and thanks in part to them, I find myself at peace with my fellow men; well most of the time. It is a dog’s life, indeed!