legend of Greyfriar's Bobby

From: Scott Chase (ecphoric@hotmail.com)
Date: Thu 26 Jan 2006 - 12:52:18 GMT

  • Next message: Price, Ilfryn: "RE: legend of Greyfriar's Bobby"


    I was watching a show called "A Dog's Life" on the cable channel Science Channel this morning and one segment introduced the Scottish legend of a Skye terrier named Bobby that was so devoted to its master that after he died of tuberculosis, the dog kept a graveside vigil for many years until its own death. The story was a basis for a 1961 film.

    The legend itself could be construed as memetic. But, beyond that, what is it about such stories that have an emotional impact upon people. I admit to geting choked up as I watched the depiction of the terrier's behavior on TV. There's gotta be something innate in this phenomonon, that such altruistic acts can result in a deeply felt emotional reaction. We are affected by stories of selfless bravery, such as that of former US Cavalry soldier Rick Rescorla who died saving the people working for his company in the World Trade Center on September 11th. Being emotionally impacted by accounts of human bravery shows some innate response to acts of altruism, but why are we so afftacted by selflessness in animals too. And what about the other side of the terrier's story. What is it in a dog that would cause it to be so devoted that it stays put long after its master has passed away? Is this due to the innate aspects of pack behavior, where a dog will look up to the alpha of the pack? Would a dog stay by the death spot of a fellow pack member for such a long time? I've heard something of how elephants return to bones of their deceased, but what about dogs? Surely the legend of Greyfriar's Bobby falls outside the norm for typical dog behavior.

    I do recall a comedian who said something to the effect that upon an owners death a dog would feel upset as the coroner takes the body away, but a cat would play with the toe tag.

    The bottom line is that despite an innate predilection for self-centered behavior, both humans and dogs seem to have a sense of devotion that crosses species boundaries. Stories about dogs are very popular and seem to hit us somewhere deep within our psyche, such as the tragedy of "Old Yeller". Does the supposedly neotenic cuteness of dogs impact us like that of babies? Does a relationship with a dog dupe us into entering some sort of pseudo-parental response, not too far removed from the explanation of why people care for adopted and foster children not related to them. Are we merely a pack leader in the dog's eyes, the latter possibly regressing to innate patterns if it becomes a stray and meets up with a pack of feral dogs, following the alpha of that pack and forgetting its owner?

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