I can’t help wondering what the dogs make of Crufts as they’re prepared with shampoos, potions and excessive grooming. Are they aware of just how much it means to their owners, and do they behave accordingly?
I say this because new research published in the journal Current Biology tells us that dogs have a remarkable ability to read our emotions, and are able to recognise the difference between a happy or angry face. Of course, these findings only confirm what dog owners among us already know. We all project our mood, and if we have got out of bed on the wrong side, it is not surprising that our dogs pick up on the simple signals that we send out with our body language, and the tension around us.
Admittedly the research in this case focused mainly on collies and German shepherds, both intelligent breeds, but speaking from my own experience, I am sure it applies equally across other breeds, including the lowliest of mutts.
One thing I have learnt over the years with my six guide dogs is that they do indeed pick up the body language of their owner. No doubt facial expression plays a part but I have also found that tension on the lead and the way I hold the harness can indicate to the dog whether I am feeling stressed, in a hurry or just in a bad mood. The strange thing is that with my current guide dog, Cosby, this can have a reverse reaction to the one intended. If I am trying to hurry him up and am irritable, he will slow down. If I speak to him nicely and tickle the bottom of his back, he will speed up.
I once had a German shepherd/golden retriever cross by the name of Offa, one of the strongest dogs I had ever known, who would try and anticipate my every move. If a door opened within ten yards of us, he would decide that what I wanted was to get through it as fast as possible. I would almost take off as we accel- erated down corridors and into rooms that I had no previous intention of entering. But what joy this brought to Offa as he turned his head to have his ears tickled for what he thought was exemplary service.
Over the eight years I was in Cabinet, I had two dogs – Lucy, and then, by the wonders of modern science, her half-sister Sadie – both excellent guide dogs, but much more than that. When things were tense, as they often were in the Secretary of State’s office, Lucy and Sadie could sense this and were able to bring a moment of sanity, as decisions were being thrashed out, by nuzzling those who were under pressure, or when meetings ran on, asking to be taken to St James’s Park.
Reflecting on the research, and on how dogs react to circumstances, brought to mind an unfortunate but amusing incident in the Commons Chamber with my guide dog, Teddy. It was the day of the Budget Speech in 1988 and the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, was in full flow when Teddy brought up his breakfast – clearly one of those occasions when the dog anticipated the economic outcome of political policy.
When the MP for Bolsover pronounced in a loud voice that someone would have to clear up the mess, those on our side weren’t entirely sure whether he was talking about Teddy or the Budget!
But now, after 28 years in Parliament, I will be standing down at the next election, and if the research is right and Cosby has picked up the vibes, he will be the happiest dog in Britain. After 30 March when Parliament is prorogued, he will never again have to suffer the indignity of Prime Minister’s Questions or any more debates in the Chamber.
It can be said that Cosby and I are bow-wowing out, and as we set out on new ventures, with both trepidation and anticipation in equal measure, I will no doubt be able to turn the research on its head and measure how things are going by the frequency and velocity of Cosby’s tail!
Crufts is on More4 tonight (Thursday 5th March) at 6.30pm, and on Channel 4 from Friday 6th March at 7.30pm