If All You’ve Got is a Hammer…

…everything looks like a nail.

I’ve appreciated that truism (source UNK) as it applies to certain myopic political and behavioral stances one encounters far too often these days. But I digress. In the current use, it is the dog to whom I refer.

And in this case, her hammer is the mouth. And everything in space is a nail. She chews, therefore she is. Masticatibus ergo sum.

I’m thinking of buying stock in Band-Aids, and wondering: Do they make Kevlar upholstery?

Human babies are mouth oriented, too, bringing most any little item off the floor instantly to their mouths to taste, feel, connect with. There’s a reason for this: the human brain–and maybe especially the infant brain–is disproportionately well devoted to the body parts with the highest density of receptors.

This distorted “map” of the body’s sensation-fields is captured by a grotesque depiction call the “sensory and motor humunculus” depicted in the image. The first time I ever saw this thing in a biology class, it gave me bad dreams for a week.

As you can see, the sensory homunculus has extremely large lips, tongue and hands. These body parts get more brain area than the proportionately much larger torso. In real life, imagine a grain of sand placed on your back (you would not know it) versus one placed on your tongue (there would be no missing it.) Our early feelings come from sucking, mouthing, tasting, chewing.

So much moreso must be the case for a baby dog, whose sensory homunculus I try to imagine (unable to find that anyone has studied this to give us a picture).  I imagine it to show an enormous mouth, especially the gums-with-teeth, to the exclusion of practically every other body part. The arms and legs appear as vestigial tiny twigs sticking off far below the gargantuan biting machinery.

I try to accept that, while those dagger-teeth are painful and inconvenient to us humans, they are not weapons from the puppy’s point of view. They just draw blood before the object of interest (an index finger, for instance) can be fully grokked.

On the other hand, I have to question evolutionary behavior that requires objects potentially harmful to be picked up, swished around the palette and swallowed. (Doggie Maxim: It was there, so I ate it.) True, you don’t find the woods littered with the carcasses of baby canids who have swallowed gravel, pocket change, twisties and dryer papers (yes, all extracted from Gandy’s mouth at great risk to digits.) Tsuga’s favorite to crunch into pieces and swallow was walnuts. Can you believe it!? He survived that, and died eating dog food too fast.

So I am trying to understand what motivates Miss JawsOnPaws to do what she does. I’m trying to not take it personally that my hands look like I’ve been wearing gloves knitted out of multiflora rose canes. And I have this growing concern that I will wake suddenly in a cold sweat, with night terrors of being pursued by an animated colossal canine homunculus. Thank goodness I can outrun it, because it’s legs are so ridiculously small!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I laughed at the image of you outrunning the dog homunculus, with its tiny legs. Lucky you! Also, “Miss JawsOnPaws” is a name to remember to share. I hope all the laughs we are getting isn’t too much at your expense!!

  2. We had a puppy who ate a pincushion. We found only a few remnants of the pincushion and a little pile of pins and needles. Unsure whether any pins or needles might have been swallowed, we rushed to the vet, who was not too concerned: as I recall, we had to feed the puppy some concoction in which asparagus (!) figured largely. No ill effects. But imagine: chewing and spitting out pins …
    Enjoying your puppy tales.

  3. I had a dog who would eat rocks. When she was bored she’d flip them in the air and chase them, but ultimately they’d get swallowed.
    I cured my animals from biting by shoving my finger(s)/hand further in, rather than trying to pull it out – she’d gag a bit and couldn’t get her mouth off my hand fast enough.

  4. The usual advice about puppies chewing on people is….. When the puppy nips your fingers, yank them away and yelp in pain. The puppy learns that, unlike her litter mates, the human is very sensitive and can’t take being chewed on. When you yelp, turn away from her and ignore her for a while, she learns that chewing on the human ends the game, fun over. This has worked for me, hope it works for you. I’m vicariously enjoying your takes of puppyhood, remembering my pups.

  5. Chris, this has been the usual practice. And until a few days ago, that, and having handy an acceptable chew object to immediately give her, has worked. Seems less successful the past day or two, and I’m losing patience and running out of ideas. She has impulses I don’t understand, and seems to want to be close, while at the same time, making that too often a painful experience for us, even if it is good for her need to bite and chew. She is not mean-spirited, just bull-headed and too mouth-oriented. Our technicians are working on the issue, and expect at return to Adventures of the Good Puppy momentarily.