Kids are cruel, as nerds of the world will confirm. I was one of those kids, but only where my mum’s dog, Gelus, was concerned. Sure, I liked the little guy enough. But whenever he would come back from the groomer, shaved to the skin, poofed at the knees, I’d laugh and laugh, point and tease him for his goofy poodle cut. Embarrassed, he’d slink into the bedroom and hide in the closet.
Now, experts will tell you pets don’t give a hoot about appearance. Why would they? They don’t know — or appear to have any interest in — what they look like (ever hold a cat up to a mirror?), and even if they did, what would be their gauge? Silky-haired setter? Fluffy-furred Himalayan? Big, brawny Pinscher?
No, dogs and cats are blissfully unconcerned if they’ve mussed their hair or grown a paunch. In fact, it makes them that much cuter to us. So what was Gelus responding to? According to the local vet, Dr. Janes, it was my energy, my tone. My laughter lacked any joy, and was obviously tinged with scorn. Gelus sensed that. He didn’t know why I was being mean to him; dogs and cats can’t figure us out at the best of times. But he didn’t like the vibe I was giving off, so he took to the closet to wait for it to pass. Just as pets, apparently, don’t recognize when you’re sad (they’re simply curious about the chemicals and hormones your body emits when it’s stressed), they don’t understand why a trip to the beauty parlour would turn me ugly.
Dogs might have had an inkling 50,000 years ago that their looks could come in handy. When nomads began settling in one place to raise crops, their trash attracted wolves and wild dogs. Soon the litterbugs began to appreciate the canine garbage collectors — and the added bonus of a security alarm when they barked and chased off predators —and differentiated the dogs by their looks (and, more likely, their levels of aggression and docility). So they might throw a rock at the mangy mastiff but throw a bone to the pretty pointer. Did this suddenly cause widespread conceit in the canine population? Nope. They didn’t know why one of them was accepted and another was spurned; to them it was just another example of nutty human behaviour.
None of this, of course, answers the question — scientifically, anyway — of whether or not pets know or respond to their own looks. But they do know and respond to the way we treat them, whether it’s mocking their mohawk or caressing their downy fur. If those are the benchmarks, then Sierra, the golden doodle we recently cared for, is fully aware she’s drop-dead gorgeous. Sometimes she’ll just sit — nay, pose —by the window, while the sun creates a glow — a halo, if you will — around her already angelic form. Other times she’ll nestle her face between her paws and look up at you beneath those long, sweeping eyelashes, as if to say, “Aren’t I adorable?” When you can’t help but wrap your arms around her, cover her in kisses and coo in her ear about how pretty she is, she lolls her tongue and laps it up. She knows. I mean, just look at her.