The gaze of upward-facing dog

People bond when we look into each other's eyes. This also happens between us and our beloved dogs. (Alex Smit)

People bond when we look into each other's eyes. This also happens between us and our beloved dogs. (Alex Smit)

My mother’s compassion for all God’s creatures means our house has been shared with many a hopeless case.

Whether they are a former Buddhist with a cannabis problem, a once-happy masseuse, a flea-ridden mutt or an injured chick that tumbled inelegantly out of the nest, my mother is sure to scoop them up and fret unhelpfully over their health.

Making me hold a fledgling starling in my hands, shrunken, my mother would feed it bread and give it water through a syringe. And I’d get nauseous feeling the fluttering heartbeat and the invisible — but definitely present — bugs lurking on the skin under its wings.

This year my mother has already rescued and said “mi casa es su casa” to a litter of five feral kittens and their mother.

And just last month, on our way to a crack-of-dawn yoga class in her red Honda Jazz, I had to convince the woman that she simply could not stop the car and run after the peacock that had wandered too close to Louis Botha Avenue — no matter how distressed she imagined it looked.

This impulse in her — which, I must say, though it often means having to spend entire mornings dedicated to these rescue missions, I actually do admire — has inspired in me quite the opposite feelings towards these small, broken things. When I was about 11, I even told her, when presented with yet another shoebox with a creature recuperating in it: “Next time, just let nature take its course.”

That’s not to say that I don’t like animals. In fact, like many other overtired and anxiety-addled humans, I’d probably prefer to be one.

This is why, perhaps, when my yoga teacher recently made us sit in a circle and howl like wolves, I was totally up for it. It was a full moon, after all, and the experience, I imagine, was akin to the feeling of total animal surrender to the whims of the pack.

There’s a reason so many yoga poses are named after animals. BKS Iyengar, referred to by some as the father of modern yoga, wrote: “While performing asanas, the yogi’s body assumes many forms resembling a variety of creatures. His mind is trained not to despise any creature, for he knows that throughout the whole gamut of creation, from the lowliest insect to the most perfect sage, there breathes the same universal spirit, which assumes innumerable forms.”

This might all sound like cultural-appropriationy mumbo jumbo but when you move through the world like I do — too often worried about what to do with my arms when I walk — it’s not often that you find yourself revelling in such wholesome absurdity.

Another phenomenon I’ve experienced in the incense-scented, slightly damp domain of the yoga studio is this: towards the end of a strenuous Vinyasa class, and in that glorious moment when the room of once-fumbling bodies have been given permission to lie in the corpse-like stillness of savasana, the yoga teacher sometimes invites the class to visualise someone that they love.

“Take all the positivity that you’ve generated here today and send it to that person.”

Maybe it’s just the endorphins but, for the life of me, I cannot help but visualise my dog’s face, her ridiculously knowing eyes so close to my own they almost merge.

This feels so silly to me that I’ve even tried to turn her face into somebody else’s — my dad, my grandfather — but the image usually just gets all whirly for a split second and snaps right back to the face of my golden-haired mutt.

Now I must say — and this might sound terrible — that I have never known an animal that I probably couldn’t live without. But that all changed when I met this particular dog.

She was another seemingly ill-fated rescue, and we had to amputate her front left leg in the first month of caring for her. Despite only having three legs, she is the happiest thing in the world. In fact, when any of us in our family is feeling sorry for themselves, someone, usually my mother, will point to the dog to remind us that the poor thing lost a leg — and she still manages to get it together.

But what really makes her so completely charming is how she looks at you. Seriously, her gaze gives Bill Withers’ lyrics new meaning.

In a 2015 study, scientist Miho Nagasawa and others found that gaze-mediated bonding — which is facilitated through the release of the love hormone oxytocin — doesn’t just happen between people, but also between people and their dogs. This means that, just like you might feel warm inside when you look at your dog, your dog is probably feeling the same way. You’re not alone. It’s a fact of our evolutionary dependence on one another.

In his essay titled “Why Look at Animals?” art critic John Berger writes that, before the rupture brought on by 20th-century corporate capitalism, “animals constituted the first circle that surrounded man” — a statement, he admits, that probably still overestimates the distance between us.

Berger, a Marxist, revolutionised art criticism with his 1972 book Ways of Seeing, which is often read in feminist seminars for his analysis of the objectification of women: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself… Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.”

But when looking at my three-legged dog, and when she’s looking back at me, this regime of seeing — this exhausting self-scrutiny — ceases to exist.

To paraphrase Berger, she sees me over the narrow abyss of non-comprehension, liberating my own sense of self from what I think others might make of me. 

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit

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