Monday, November 02, 2020

A Waste of Time


Our dog Stella is an urban animal. She's lived her whole life in a downtown apartment. Nearly every walk she's ever taken has been on pavement. Tree squirrels, crows, and rats are her idea of wildlife. Of course, she's been to the country, the forest, and the beach, but she still has a lot she doesn't know about the world outside the city.

Lately, she's spent time in a less urban environment, a place with lots of active ant hills. At first she ignored them, not "seeing" them amidst the onslaught of new sensations that comes from being in a new place, but one day she stopped to make a study. It was a cautious one, her nose up close, her body tense. I think it was the ants themselves that got her attention as they queued in and out of the little hole on top. She was on the leash. In the interest of going on a "walk," I don't always give her all the time she wants as she sniffs every square centimeter of the things that draw her attention, but I had time and could clearly see that this was something new for her, something that in her mind necessitated study. Was she learning something? Of course. What was she learning? Who knows. None of my business. Could I put the kibosh on this learning? Yes, with the tug of the leash like I've done thousands of times when she slows our walks in this way.


After several minutes, her attitude changed. She fell onto her her front paws in the classic "play bow" position. She waited. Nothing happened. She tried again, but this time she barked. I've seen her do this to squirrels and crows. It causes them to flee, but as far as I could tell, it made no impact on the ants. She then proceeded to sniff at the hill again before suddenly plunging her nose right into it, dusting her snout with sand and ants. She sneezed repeatedly, shaking her head, then rubbing her nose clean in a tuft of grass. This had been unpleasant and she was done for the day, leading me away with a decisive trot.

In the following days, however, despite the "bad" experience, she returned again and again to ant hills. She tried running through them, flattening the tidy piles. She ran around them. She rolled on them. And then, finally, she dug into one, getting down amidst the tiny tunnels. She was clearly teaching herself about ant hills, looking at them from all sides, experimenting, asking and answering her own questions. I'll never know what she learned, nor why this was a lesson that compelled her. From where I sit, it was an utterly useless intellectual exercise, one that she was unlikely to be able to apply to her life going forward, what some would label a waste of time, the way we tend to do with children's play. This time could be much more "productively" used by learning to sit and stay and heel. Now that's a course of study that would come in handy, rather than this random exploration of ant hills.

It's now been about a week since she last played with an ant hill other than to occasionally pounce on one. I think she's impressed by the cloud of dust she kicks up. But other than that, her studies appeared to be over . . . Until yesterday. We were walking past ground that was pocked with small holes, similar to ant hills but larger. These drew her attention. Just as she had done with the ant hills, she started her study cautiously, but then suddenly began to dig. Seconds later, ground squirrels emerged from other holes all around us, racing off at speed, leaving Stella seemingly stunned at the results of her inquiry. She had learned how to learn about holes in the ground and now she had discovered where the squirrels were hiding, not in the trees as they do back home. This is important stuff for her to know given that squirrels are second only to crows on her nemesis list.

Stella's not a particularly old dog and I'm not teaching her anything, but she is clearly learning new tricks. Maybe the ant hill wasn't such a waste of time after all. Maybe that is what lead to her discovery of the squirrels. And maybe it's opened up her horizons to an understanding that there is a whole underground world. 

Yesterday, she caught a lizard that she surprised as it stuck its head out from its hidey hole. 

It makes me wonder how much more, and more joyfully, our children would learn if we would stop yanking their leashes and leave them to waste a little more time.

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